Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler did a lot of talking on Monday, but didn’t end up saying very much in his first press conference following an overseas vacation. He said the dueling protests between far-left and far-right demonstrators, which frequently devolve in to violent street brawls, are a black mark against Portland’s reputation, yet offered no ideas on how to repair it. He said he plans to discuss ways to better control future protests, yet offered no ideas of his own. He offered no timetable for any solutions or ideas he might have alluded to, yet the city’s next outdoor MMA fight is scheduled for next Saturday. While Wheeler has withstood a barrage of criticism, much of it from the out-of-state right, his battle for re-election was joined this week from the left.
Last week, Chief Danielle Outlaw, frustrated by the inability of her own police force to control protests, or keep belligerents apart, called for new laws and ordinances to help. One such proposal would ban the wearing of masks or face coverings during the commission of a crime, the other would allow police to fully videotape protests. Wheeler took no position on either idea, preferring to keep his options open. “I think everything should be on the table,” he told reporters in City Hall. He also alluded to future discussions he would have with police, business, community and civil rights leaders on ways to better control future protests. Whether those plans would be ready by Saturday is somewhat doubtful.
To be sure, many on the left and right are skeptical of new laws, particularly targeting only one set of demonstrators, when police and city officials aren’t enforcing the laws already on the books. That was certainly the point of view of James Buchal, Chair of the Multnomah County Republican Party. “Maybe some extra ones about masks would be great,” he said, “but law enforcement already has the tools they need to solve the problem. They just don’t have the will.” Amy Herzfeld-Copple, deputy director of the Western States Center, says the anti-mask law would embolden right-wing groups, who have encouraged vigilantes to rip masks off Antifa protesters. “When you see a policy solution obviously targeting antifascists,” she told Willamette Week, “it gives Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys a win.”
Meanwhile, one of the Mayor’s 2016 opponents is gearing up for a rematch next year. Former city planner and current community organizer— and “everyday antifascist”— Sara Iannarone submitted an open letter, and video, attacking Wheeler and his record. Then-State Treasurer Wheeler did the same when he ran against incumbent Mayor Charlie Hales, who later opted to retire. Iannarone criticized Wheeler’s record as not matching “the rhetoric of progressivism,” particularly on housing and policing. “Amidst the rise of right-wing populism, you ceded our Sanctuary City to armed gangs powered by hate and bigotry,” she argues. “In the middle of a housing state of emergency, Portland Police continue to sweep the homeless from our streets.”
Perhaps more than any mayor in recent history, Ted Wheeler illustrates the no-win scenario under which he— as merely first among equals on the city council— operates, and the thanklessness that comes with that position. Back in November, Wheeler was heard muttering into an open mike that he “cannot wait for the next 24 months to be over,” and a year ago, he told The Oregonian that being mayor is “not a fun job.” Whether one agrees with Iannarone— or the out-of-town, out-of-state right, for that matter— it’s difficult to argue that on the issues Wheeler ran on in 2016, police reform and housing, he hasn’t delivered. His approach, which looks a lot like doing nothing, hasn’t seemed to help. Perhaps Wheeler should start trying something different. He’ll get his first chance next week.