While Gordon Smith and Jeff Merkley are busy robo-calling voters like a couple of drunk-dialers on Saturday night, there’s a low-key election that could have more of a day-to-day effect on Portland than the U.S. Senate race.
And you don’t get to vote in that election, unless you’re one of the 900 members of the Portland Police Association. The city’s powerful police union is choosing a new president after Sgt. Robert King announced in July he would not seek re-election after eight years as boss.
Ballots are due this Friday, Oct. 24, in the primary race, with five candidates vying for a three-year term. Observers say there’s no clear front-runner. If none receives a majority—a likely scenario—the top two advance to a runoff, probably on Nov. 14.
The union presidency is a powerful job.
The PPA lobbies City Hall and top brass for better salaries and work conditions at the Portland Police Bureau, a behemoth agency that receives about half the city’s $500 million general fund budget. New contract negotiations are set to begin in 2010, and pressure will be on the new boss to bring home a sweet deal after Seattle cops won a 26 percent raise over four years in April.
The election also comes at a crucial time for a police force already strained by staffing and recruitment shortages.
For months, cops have been telling anyone who will listen that morale is at its lowest point in decades, with officers exhausted by long hours, angered by repeated accusations of racial profiling, and subjected to what they see as unfair scrutiny for using force.
Employee bitching in any agency is nothing new when a contract is about to come up. But anger has now risen to the point that King—who says he’s not endorsing any of his wannabe successors—believes attitude has become the central issue in the election.
“It’s about the tone that the PPA needs to take in the next three years with the city,” says King, known for savvy and level-headed leadership. “It’s being engaged in respectful diplomacy, or the more contentious approach.”
The sense that officers are embattled on all sides has yielded two candidates known for fierce public criticism of Chief Rosie Sizer and the current police commissioner, Mayor Tom Potter. (The future police commissioner after Potter’s term ends in January is uncertain. Mayor-elect Sam Adams has not announced whether he’ll give the bureau to Commissioner Randy Leonard or keep it.)
One critic mounting a protest campaign is Central Precinct Officer John Grable, known for suggesting cops disobey orders over contentious requirements. Grable did not return phone calls and emails seeking comment.
Grable has suggested insubordination in two ways. First, by refusing to fill out data collection forms during traffic stops—the source of some racial-profiling accusations. Second, by refusing to show up for Rose Festival duty, which some see as an uneven burden.
In a campaign letter in the union newsletter, The Rap Sheet, Grable says some officers are worried by his “ideas of disobedience.” But he concludes that “talk nice, shake hands, give and take” fails to achieve results.
A second candidate, Central Precinct Officer Tom Brennan, has written lengthy letters in The Rap Sheet mocking Potter and Sizer (“going on patrol without the support of current management is like going to war without an accordion”), and railing against performance review boards and some discipline decisions.
The seven-year Bureau veteran from Queens, N.Y., stands by what he’s written and doesn’t think it will hurt him when it’s time to negotiate.
“Whether management and the city want to admit it, we’re stuck in a ditch,” Brennan says. “I’m gonna be much, much more firm about holding them accountable.”
Besides contract negotiations, Brennan says his top priorities will be making sure officers have time to sleep, improving court notification, getting parking for officers on duty, and meeting with minority leaders.
Meanwhile, King’s “respectful diplomacy” is represented by Detective Jim McCausland and East Precinct Officer Pete Taylor. Both candidates are on the union’s executive board. Neither was available for comment.
Southeast Precinct Sgt. Scott Westerman says he straddles the two approaches. The 17-year Bureau veteran showed plenty of outrage and intensity in a WW interview. But he’s also met with all five City Council members, and Brennan agrees that Westerman represents the middle of the road in the race.
“I have in the past had vehement disagreements with management and members of City Council on specific issues,” Westerman wrote in The Rap Sheet. “ But they remain respectful disagreements, not antagonistic ones.”
FACT: Robert King was elected union president in 2000 against Tom Mack, an officer running a protest campaign. Mack now serves as chief of staff to Multnomah County Commissioner Lonnie Roberts.