The next Portland City Council election isn’t until November 2024, but candidates are already announcing their intent to run.
Since the beginning of August, five people have filed paperwork with the city’s Small Donor Elections Program, signaling forthcoming bids for City Council.
Another five people filed campaign finance forms with the state, making 10 City Council candidates as of August 29. The bulk of those candidates are running in District 3, the most populous district, which includes portions of Northeast Portland and most of inner and central Southeast Portland, extending east to 92nd Avenue.
The campaign filings started pouring in quickly after Portland's Independent District Commission officially established boundaries for the four new council districts that will form Portland’s government come 2025. Each district will elect three councilors to constitute Portland’s new 12-person City Council.
Much of the early campaign scramble is being fueled by Portland's Small Donor program. The program matches campaign contributions nine-to-one with public funds up to the first $20 of a donation, for candidates running for a city office who meet the program’s qualifications. Candidates running for a council seat can receive up to $300,000 in matching campaign funds from the city. Those running for mayor can earn up to $750,000. The program’s intent is to give candidates who don’t have networks of wealthy donors a fair shot at local elections.
To qualify, candidates must take a training, and amass donations of no more than $350 each from at least 250 Portland donors. Mayoral candidates need to have at least 750 donors. Out-of-state donations aren’t matched.
Commissioner Mingus Mapps put his hat in the ring for mayor earlier this summer, and is so far the only person to announce a 2024 mayoral run.
The Mercury spoke with the first four candidates to file for public matching funds—Steph Routh, Sandeep Bali, Jesse Cornett, and Chris Flanary—to find out about their histories, goals, and why they’ve announced their run so early in the election season.
Steph Routh is running in the 1st City Council District, which encompasses East Portland. Routh has lived in East Portland for most of her life: while she now lives in Lents, she grew up in the Parkrose neighborhood.
Routh is a longtime community organizer and advocate for transportation and education reform. Her past roles include leading nonprofit Oregon Walks as its first executive director, co-directing the Portland Underground Grad School, and heading the campaign for the Fixing Our Streets gas tax measure, which voters re-approved in 2020. Routh is currently an adjunct instructor at Portland State University’s School of Urban Studies and Planning, and she started her own consulting firm, Steph Routh and Team, to advise on community involvement, organizational development, and communications strategy. Routh is also a member of the Portland Planning and Sustainability Commission.
Routh told the Mercury she hadn’t always planned on running for City Council and has enjoyed taking on more low-profile leadership roles in the community. But she said she thinks there is “greater urgency and greater need” for strong leadership in the city right now.
One of the events prompting Routh to seriously consider a City Council run happened earlier this year, when Commissioner Rene Gonzalez directed the Portland Street Response to stop handing out tarps and tents to people living on the streets—right before the city was forecast for a big snowstorm. Routh said her approach to homelessness would come from her work as an advocate for abundant housing and a shelter-to-housing continuum, and she supports the Portland Street Response as a way to increase community safety.
Routh also said if not for the new charter system, she probably wouldn’t be running for office. She specifically wants to represent East Portland, an area that has been historically underrepresented in City Hall, and work to get all Portlanders engaged in the community and process of how the city is run.
“I love all of Portland. But East Portland is the home of my birth, it's the home of my heart… I have to do all the work that I do with a full heart,” she told the Mercury. “The idea of being part of a process that will allow more representation for East Portland than has ever occurred… is so deeply meaningful to me.”
Routh said she wanted to begin her campaign early in the process in order to maximize the time she can spend building coalitions and collaborating with the community and other City Council candidates.
“The challenges we are facing right now did not come to us overnight, and we’re not going to solve them in a day. It’s going to take all of us working in a coordinated fashion,” Routh said. “That starts on the campaign trail. I want to be part of that collaboration, and I want to start as soon as possible.”
David Linn has also filed for a District 1 seat. Linn currently works as an executive assistant with the Oregon Board of Examiners for Speech-Language Pathology & Audiology, state records show.
Sandeep Bali is a pharmacist who said he specializes in HIV, Hepatitis C, drug addiction and mental health treatment. Bali is one of three people to announce their run for a seat in the 3rd Portland City Council District, which mostly encompasses the southeast part of the city. Bali lives in the Laurelhurst neighborhood.
This isn’t Sandeep Bali’s first time running for Portland City Council: he vied for Commissioner Dan Ryan’s seat in the 2022 primary and received 7.9 percent of the vote, coming in third place behind Ryan and A.J. McCreary. Bali is running for office in 2024 for many of the same reasons he ran in the last election cycle: In an email to the Mercury, he cited “ubiquitous homelessness, record-breaking violence and crime, shuttered businesses, and piles of trash and garbage” as embodiments of what “Portland has become.”
“The city has been negatively impacted by the policies of City Council. I’d like to try to turn things around,” Bali wrote in an email statement, adding that he believes city officials have “put out a message that people can come to Portland and freely camp, use and sell drugs, and commit crimes without being held accountable.” (It should be noted that in recent months, Portland City Council has passed several anti-camping policies and many current members of the City Council have come out against public drug use.)
Bali is the founder of a nonprofit organization called Next Level, which provides $4,000 scholarships to three students pursuing careers as front-line health care workers at Bali’s alma mater, Pacific University.
Bali said he supports the new charter reform system, but wants to see new people take on leadership roles.
“As long as the cast of characters remains the same, I feel it’s akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic,” he wrote.
Bali said he decided to announce his run early in the election season because he “wants Portlanders to know [he] is serious about moving our city forward.”
“It's time to get Portland back to being a city that every member is proud to live in. Portland is in crisis now,” Bali said. “I am passionate about meeting the needs of every portlander, including the ones that reside in district three.”
Fellow 3rd District candidate Jesse Cornett has also run for office in the past: He put in a bid for Oregon senate in 2006 and ran for a seat on Portland City Council in 2010. Despite coming up short in both cases, Cornett has remained politically active, working on Senator Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaigns in 2016 and 2020 and lobbying for the successful 2021 Oregon House Bill 3352, which expanded Oregon Health Plan benefits to people of all ages and immigration status.
State records show Cornett currently works for ADP, a payroll software company.
Cornett has also served as an adjunct instructor at Portland State University, teaching political science courses, and is on the board of addiction recovery nonprofit Oregon Recovers.
A resident of Sunnyside, Cornett said he wants to run for City Council again now because “what’s happening in City Hall and within our community leadership is just not okay.”
“We don’t lack ideas. We don’t lack the dollars. We lack the leadership to do what Portlanders need,” Cornett told the Mercury. He pointed to the disjointed relationship between the city of Portland and Multnomah County regarding homelessness services as an example of flailing leadership hindering Portlanders right now.
“There's a lack of collective community leadership in ensuring those dollars are programmed in a way that prevents one additional person from using the curb as a pillow,” Cornett said.
As someone with first-hand experience with substance addiction and an advocate for recovery across the state, Cornett thinks Portland’s addiction crisis should be addressed by ensuring people have a social safety net to fall back on in times of crisis.
“I'm happy to reject the notion that addiction causes homelessness. Homelessness causes addiction,” Cornett said. “We're seeing that in full daylight because of the lack of affordable housing.”
Cornett said he was eager to get his campaign off the ground as soon as he could because “Portlanders want to be heard.”
“When I decided I was going to do it, I decided that I'm going to start now,” Cornett said. “The earlier I can start talking about what I would like to see in our city, [the sooner] I can learn what other people in our community want to see in our city.”
Chris Flanary, also planning to run in District 3, lives in Southeast Portland’s Montavilla neighborhood. Flanary has been a longtime staffer at the Portland Housing Bureau and is the elected organizer for AFSCME Local 189, the union representing Portland’s municipal employees. Flanary told the Mercury they became interested in civic engagement and nonprofit work after a stint with Americorps in Salem shortly after graduating from college.
“It was an amazing experience. I feel like I got a lot out of it,” Flanary said. “And, in my participation, I recognized all the ways that the privileges I hold… the advantages that made it possible for me to participate in that program which may not be available to everybody.”
Flanary said they want to run for City Council to ensure that Portlanders have a strong social safety net, living wages, and to encourage small business entrepreneurship.
“If people can't afford to live and work here, it's only contributing to the houseless crisis and to people having to move elsewhere,” they said. “For me, the baseline is people first.”
Flanary said they are well-equipped from union organizing work to compromise with other members of the expanded City Council to “remove barriers and provide incentives” to increase community collaboration.
“With 12 people, there are going to be elements of compromise… we’re sure to have a slew of different opinions and priorities,” Flanary said. “When you come down to it, you have to be able to work with each other. We need to figure out the way that we can work together to achieve our goals.”
They added that they see the decision to run as a continuation of their career in public service.
“I feel there’s an obligation and duty we have to each other,” Flanary said. "I think as we head into this opportunity to reshape City Council…that it’s important to put people first and to concentrate on what our community cares about.”
Others running in District 3 include: Robin Ye, Daniel DeMelo, and Angelita Morillo. Ye currently serves as chief of staff to Oregon Rep. Khanh Pham and previously served on the city's Charter Reform Commission. Morillo currently serves on Portland's Rental Services Commission and previously worked for former Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty. Morillo has also applied for Portland's Small Donor Election Program.
Current councilors undecided
Aside from Mapps, none of the other current city commissioners have signaled whether they’ll run for reelection under Portland’s new 12-person council. Mayor Ted Wheeler, Council President Carmen Rubio and Commissioner Dan Ryan all say they’re focused on the task at hand, for now.
“Mayor Wheeler is focused on the top priorities facing the City of Portland today and will make an announcement closer to the election,” Wheeler’s communications director told the Mercury.
Commissioner Rubio’s staff provided a strikingly similar statement, noting she won’t make an announcement until later this year.
“Commissioner Rubio is focused on the urgent issues facing our city – such as the need for more affordable housing options, community safety, and making progress on climate actions to meet our carbon reduction goals,” Jimmy Radosta, Rubio’s communications director, said. “The decision the Commissioner needs to make about her political future is second to the time and energy that needs to be spent on those urgent issues.”
Ryan’s staff said the commissioner is “focused on the job at hand, and has not made any decisions.”
Commissioner Rene Gonzalez's staff didn't respond to questions from the Mercury.