OPB asked the two candidates for Portland City Council to answer questions about their campaigns and the biggest challenges facing Portland. Here are the unedited answers from Rene Gonzalez.
Please provide a brief biography with your relevant experience
Rene is working to bring Portland back together after the divisiveness that has plagued our city in recent years. As a father of three, he worked with families to find a solution to get our children safely back to school. Now, Rene wants to put his experience to work bringing people together to find practical, data-driven solutions to the problems of crime and homelessness. He has spent his entire professional career in Portland, starting as a business lawyer at Stoel Rives, then in legal and corporate strategy leadership roles at KinderCare (f/k/a Knowledge Universe), and over the last decade owning his own law and technology firms. Throughout his professional career, he has served a number of civic organizations including the Portland Children’s Museum, the Library Foundation, and building Oregon’s largest youth soccer club, UPDX. Learn more at reneforportland.com.
Why are you running for City Council?
I’m a 5th generation Portlander on my mother’s side and the son of a Mexican migrant worker. I see the city through these lenses – both in terms of valuing what we’ve inherited, as well as how we welcome those looking to start new lives here. As a small business owner and father of three, I am deeply tied to this city and invested in its future. We are at an inflection point in the history of Portland, and I couldn’t watch the city I love struggle without working to help solve its problems. That’s why I stepped in.
What bureaus do you want to oversee? What experience do you have that makes you believe these departments would be a good fit?
My experiences in real estate development and finance projects in the private sector make me a good fit for (the Bureau of Development Services) I understand how transparency, predictability, and the right mix of ‘carrots and sticks’ attracts investment, which generates much-needed housing supply. Second, my experience in non-profit stewardship – president of Portland’s largest youth soccer club, UPDX (which was preceded by serving as president of local elite adult league) and previously serving on boards of the Library Foundation and Children’s Museum, make me suited to parks. I’ve seen firsthand how public, private, and non-profits can work together can create spaces We have such a tremendous inheritance in Portland, in terms of natural resources, local geography, and commitment to the local environment in the form of our parks and multi-use pathways. This is a real passion of mine and I’d really lean into making the best of this role if given the opportunity.
What is one policy item you hope to pass if you are in City Hall in 2023?
I think one of the things we can do in the immediate term is consider a pilot program for a municipal court. We used to have one some time ago, and there are still some questions as to how exactly it would or should work, but the message on it is clear: we need to take control of our own destiny at the local level, break the cycle of criminality associated with drug use and addiction – which involved vehicle and catalytic converter thefts, vandalism and other petty crime. This would allow us to compel critical services to those suffering from substance abuse disorder on our streets, as well as give small businesses and frontline public safety workers a critical break. There are many ways to do this, and it’s an idea worth considering.
What do you see as the number one issue facing Portland right now?
If you asked me this in the Spring, I would have said homelessness. Right now, after a summer filled with tragic gun violence, constant public vandalism, and unnecessary traffic fatalities I have to say crime and public safety. We have a system that is broken – right now call times are too long for emergency services, our police, fire, and emergency call takers are understaffed – and underpaid. They’re doing their best, and they need help, support and investment that is currently being blocked by my opponent.
How would you contrast how you will govern as a city commissioner with the style of your opponent?
I am focused on data-driven, pragmatic, and inclusive decision-making. The time for divisiveness is over, people are tired of it, and everyone can see what it’s gotten us. Unfortunately, my opponent chooses to frame local issues that ought to bring people together in polarizing terms that drive them apart. I will remain committed to really listening to a diverse range of voices, of finding common ground and collaborating with others to move Portland forward no excuses, no scapegoats. This is not happening right now with my opponent, who is content to feud with specific bureaus and attack her colleagues in the public square.
Who do you see yourself most closely aligned with politically on council?
I have had recent conversations with (Commissioner Mingus) Mapps, (Commissioner Dan) Ryan, and the mayor and have found alignment with all 3 on a number of issues. I am working to schedule time with Commissioner (Carmen) Rubio as well. Should I prevail in November, I am hopeful we will find very strong alignment in city council in more directly addressing public safety and cleaning up the city.
The city has been ramping up sweeps of homeless encampments recently and making more public property off-limits for camping. Do you think this is good policy?
Yes, absolutely. We have to work to offer alternative shelter and, crucially, services. This is a humanitarian responsibility – the conditions on our streets are currently inhumane. Taking a hands-off approach to crime and homelessness is NOT compassionate or progressive, it is dangerous and harmful. My opponent thinks we can build our way out of the current crisis with permanent housing, she has said as much in the course of our campaign. But asking Portland to hold on until we ‘solve homelessness’ isn’t fair to our residents or the unsheltered themselves. We need practical solutions to move the city forward NOW, not more ideological rhetoric that passes blame and kicks the can down the road.
The region’s elected leaders are constantly debating about the right amount of money and attention to direct to homeless shelters versus housing. Do you believe the region has found the right balance? If not, which side of the equation do you think needs more emphasis?
Creating an environment that generates affordable housing for working families is a critical priority for the region. We have failed in recent years to do so and we will need to continuously evaluate both market solutions as well as policy adjustments to address. However, in terms of short-term priority for public dollar investment, we need to shift to the immediate requirements of emergency shelter. We can pursue both goals, but we have to be realistic: we aren’t going to build our way out of the current crisis with permanent housing. We need a continuum of housing and services to meet the needs of a diverse and complex population that often gets painted with the same brush. I look forward to being honest about the reality our residents and our most vulnerable unsheltered face when discussing practical solutions that move the city forward while keeping our long-term goals, and compassionate ethos as a city, squarely in focus.
L.A. voters will decide this November whether hotels should be required to rent vacant rooms to homeless individuals. Would you be supportive of referring a similar measure to voters here?
I support using every resource at our disposal to meet the current crisis. I also support incentivizing the private section to consider excess property for shelter/housing. I do not, however, support compelling them to do so. We have seen a number of local hotels on the brink of bankruptcy and compelling them to rent to individuals with incredibly high rates of both mental illness and substance abuse disorder (nearly 80% of the unsheltered in Multnomah County’s 2019 count) could be devastating to their recovery.
The charter commission has referred a sweeping measure aimed at reforming Portland’s government structure to the November ballot. Will you be voting yes or no? Why?
Portland needs change, both at City Hall and in our current form of government. I urge them to vote for one of the measures. Personally, I will be voting for the measure put forward by Commissioner Mapps. First, I agree with professional management of bureaus. Both proposals include this. I also agree we need geographic districts for commissioners but prefer Mapps’ plan, in which we will be able to see and offer public comment on, the layout of districts. Under the current plan as I understand it, the lines of the four districts (we need more like 8 btw) are not yet drawn and would be referred to an appointed committee to be decided on behind closed doors. This is not as democratic as I’d like such an important process as charter reform to be on such an important point. Finally, multi-member districts combined with rank choice voting is both unnecessarily experimental at a time of crisis in our city, adding an element of uncertainty in both its rollout and implementation, as well as unnecessarily costly – forming as I understand the bulk of the $43 million price tag. That money should go to building shelter, delivering services, and investing in cleaning up our city and keeping our residents safe.
Do you believe city employees should return to in-person work five days a week? If not, how many days do you think employees should be working on-site?
Let’s start at the top – I will be in city hall or meeting with constituents in their neighborhoods, 5 days a week. This will also be a requirement of my staff. Yes, while we should work to accommodate those with legitimate needs to continue working form home, the bulk of our city government should return to in-person work. As a start, for those constituent facing, I’d like to see three or more days per week back to being in-person. It isn’t like other sectors, where new norms are being discussed in an ongoing conversation. This is our local government. We are in crisis. And the citizens of our city need their government in person. It also impacts our ability to connect and collaborate between bureaus. We need to spend time in rooms, in hallways, in buildings at the local government level again, together.
What do you believe should be done with downtown’s vacant office space?
In the short-term, we absolutely have to prioritize making downtown more welcoming to workers, residents, and visitors – that starts by restoring its public safety and cleanliness and on public transit to downtown. Every broken window hurts the city’s core; we need to rigorously intervene in the cycle of criminality downtown. I also believe that there is no going back to 2019. We have compressed 10 years of remote work learning and cultural evolution into two years during the pandemic. Some of these changes will be permanent. This is both a profound risk and an opportunity for our urban core. We need to make space for visioning a post-pandemic Portland should look like, including our downtown, which was for so long a key source of civic pride; an economic engine; and a center for culture, arts, and social effervescence. I don’t think we are abandoning its key role as an employment hub but suspect the mix of office to residential will change over the next 10 years. Some specifics that need to be on the table in carrying out longer-term plan for downtown: removing governmental barriers (i.e. zoning, parking requirements) to converting office space to residential and incentivizing to stimulate the very large conversion costs; protecting and investing in downtown’s structural advantages for music, arts and large venue sports; and an explicit plan for protecting restaurants.
If Mayor Wheeler handed you the police bureau tomorrow, what are the changes you would implement immediately?
All hands on deck to address staffing gaps: we don’t have anywhere near enough police officers, to address, we need to protect budget, continuously improvement recruiting and retention systems, and change the rhetoric coming out of city hall that has alienated some many public safety officers. We also need to work more directly with our county partners to recenter our criminal justice system on victims and invest more broadly in its infrastructure and core pillars. I would protect funding for specialists, change the rhetoric coming out of city hall by my opponent on public safety, and give our overworked and understaffed frontline public safety workers the resources they need to recruit and retain quality staff to meet their significant challenges.
Are there steps you would like the city to take to curb the rise in gun violence that are not already underway? What are they?
I think the above is directly aimed at this question. To add an element, I would add that partnering with community organizations from around the city to address gun violence, but also to create other positive outlets for our young people as we get back to recovering economically and socially as a city. Our public schools, spiritual organizations, and economic opportunity are important factors besides law enforcement that meaningfully affect and impact this issue.
Excruciatingly hot days in the summer are becoming the norm for Portland. What is one thing you believe the city could do to better prepare for the next inevitable heat wave?
Cooling centers need better investment and support from the city, especially as conditions continue to get hotter and hotter with extreme weather. We should review data from this last summer and use it to make more informed policy decisions about what we got right, and what we need to improve on. We can only expect this trend to continue. Also, a more equitable distribution of our tree canopy throughout the city is key. These are two immediate, practical steps we can take to better prepare for the next inevitable heat ware.