PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Incumbent Jo Ann Hardesty and challenger Rene Gonzalez faced off on Oct. 27. in a live debate hosted by KOIN News ahead of the November general election. Following a close race in the May primaries, the candidates are now in a run-off for a seat on the Portland city council.

Hardesty, 65, is seeking her second term as commissioner after years of community and state activism. Gonzalez, a 48-year-old lawyer and small business owner, is vying for Hardesty’s job. Gonzalez entered local politics by founding a political action committee that re-opened public schools during the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the debate, moderated by KOIN 6 Anchor Ken Boddie,  the candidates fielded questions related to Portland’s most pressing issues, including the city’s homeless crisis, crime, and the charter reform measure that voters will also decide on this November. Here are the highlights.

Both candidates say they want to solve the homeless crisis

Both candidates expressed support for Mayor Ted Wheeler’s recent proposal to ban unsanctioned camping in Portland. Hardesty, however, said that the mayor is not moving swiftly enough to create the homeless housing needed to carry out his plan.

“Until we have places for people to go, we can not ban camping,” Hardesty said. “What that means is: We have to expedite finding places that the city currently owns to house people who are houseless. We have to invest with our county partners and use space that they own.”

Hardesty also expressed interest in using eminent domain to build more homeless housing, a law that enables governments to seize private property and zone it for public use, permitting that the owners are compensated.

“We have one superpower, and it’s called eminent domain,” Hardesty said. “We could repurpose land now and make it accessible and available to people who are houseless.”

Gonzalez, meanwhile, said that the city needs to address homeless residents who are committing “the worst types of crime,” and are unwilling to accept public shelter.

“There are criminal elements that have entered our unsanctioned camps,” he said. Everything from drug trafficking to human trafficking to high-level and low-level theft … we need to disrupt the cycle of criminality.”

Things got personal

The debate heated up following the viewer-submitted question: “What is something you admire about the other candidate and why?” Instead of offering positive views of her competitor, Hardesty called out Gonzalez for the controversial pricing he received from Portland developer Jordan Schnitzer on a 3,000-square-foot office space.

The city fined Gonzalez $77,000 in September for not reporting the pricing, which it said violated Small Donor Elections program rules. The $250-a-month rental agreement, plus utilities, the city said, was a 96% discount on the space. However, on the same day as the debate, a judge ruled in Gonzalez’ favor and revoked the penalty on the grounds that the City of Portland Elections Division was unable to carry the burden of proof of its claims.

“I admire the fact that he’s been able to break the rules and not be held accountable for it,” Hardesty said. “As someone who gets scrutinized quite a bit, to see someone who doesn’t care about campaign finance limits, doesn’t care about taking freebies from developers — I don’t know that I would say I admire that. I’m in awe that someone could go through a whole campaign and not play by the rules and then not be held accountable.”

Gonzales responded by saying that he admired Haredsty’s bravery to speak her mind, while briefly acknowledging the revoked fine.

“My lease which she seems to be alluding to has been heavily scrutinized by an administrative law judge and determined that we are paying fair-market value for that lease,” he said. “Nonetheless, let’s talk about Jo Ann. I think she’s brave, I think she’s direct, and I think she does resonate with a segment, albeit, a shrinking segment of our city.”

The two candidates also quarreled over what areas of Portland they represent, with Gonzalez saying that he is Portlander and Hardesty disagreeing.

“East Moreland is not East Portland,” she said. “It’s not living on the Eastside. I live on the Eastside.”

Gonzalez responded by saying that he drew more support from East Portland voters in the primary election, but that he doesn’t want to divide the city.

“I outdrew Jo Ann east of 60th, east of 82nd, east of 205,” Gonzalez said. “I’m here to protect the city, including east Portland. I look to unify us, not to divide us between east and west, not between wealthy and the working class, and Portlanders are responding to it.”

Hardesty addressed Gonzalez’s response with her own sentiments about class structures within the city, adding that her opponent’s lifestyle prevents him from being in touch with Portland’s working-class citizens.

“There’s a difference between being a millionaire and being a working person in the city of Portland,” she said. “My opponent is a millionaire. I’ve worked my whole life. My rent goes up. I’m the only renter on the city council, so we are not having the same lived experience, and pointing out the difference is not divisive. We’re never going to fix the problem if people don’t know what the problem is.”

They don’t agree on charter reform

During the lightning round portion of the debate, Gonzalez and Hardesty expressed different opinions on the proposed ballot measure that, if passed, would drastically reshape Portland’s city government. 

Gonzales said that he is not in favor of Measure 26-228, adding that he would support Commissioner Mingus Mapp’s alternate charter reformation plan. Introduced earlier this month, supporters of Portland charter reform say the plan is a means of undermining the ballot measure. If Mesure 26-228 fails, Mapps said that he believes he can get his variation of charter reform on the ballot by May of 2023.

“It has some good pieces: It calls for professional management of bureaus, I think that’s a positive step,” Gonzales said. “It has geographical representation, which I think is also positive. However, I think it’s too complicated. It’s too experimental. I think multi-member districts undermine the accountability we’re seeking. I think the combination of the ranked-choice voting is simply too experimental. I think it’s too complicated to implement. I prefer Mapps’ plan that we hope to see in May.”

Hardesty, meanwhile, showed support for the charter reform plan that is on the November ballot.

“I’m really excited about the charter commission’s proposal to pass,” she said. “When it’s passed, you will need an experienced leader to help with the implementation.”

Both candidates were asked that if they lost the election and charter reform passed, would run for one of the new positions created by the measure. Neither candidate gave a direct answer.

“I have no intention of not winning,” Hardesty said.

“I don’t know,” Gonzalez followed. “I would have to get the wife’s approval and after 15 months of campaigning, that’s a tall order.”