The race for a Portland City Council seat among a trio of Democrats has split the city’s progressive activists, spawned a charge of collusion and led to an effort to oust the leader of the Democratic City Committee.

Sixteen active members of the committee petitioned last week to remove Chairwoman Emily Figdor for taking sides in the race and for allegedly using the committee to pursue a “pet political project.”

The mutiny against Figdor comes less than two weeks after her husband and fellow activist Steven Biel stepped down from the steering committee of Progressive Portland, a group he co-founded, after it became public that he was actively taking sides in the council race.

The infighting has divided Democrats in a city that has long been the party’s biggest stronghold statewide. It also has exposed internal pushback against a pair of progressive activists who brought a new intensity to city politics over the past few years by building and leveraging email lists to pressure elected officials to support their causes and by raising large sums of money for candidates who align with their interests.

Jill Duson

At the center of the tensions is the race for an at-large seat on the City Council. Joey Brunelle, 32, and Bree LaCasse, 41, are looking to unseat Jill Duson, the 63-year-old incumbent who is finishing her 16th year on the council.

Duson is being targeted by progressives over her support for a bond to renovate only two elementary schools while seeking state funding for two others. Progressive activists, including Figdor and Biel, want the city to move forward with fixes to all four schools using city funds. Duson also has been criticized for not doing enough to protect renters and combat the affordable housing shortage, and she has clashed with Mayor Ethan Strimling, who has the support of the activists.

Biel and Figdor have become increasingly involved in local politics since the couple moved to Portland from Washington, D.C., in 2010. They have experience in the U.S. capital and have both run national campaigns at Moveon.org, a progressive public policy group and political action committee.

Figdor chairs the Portland Democratic City Committee and is the leader of Protect Our Neighborhood Schools, which is pushing to pass the $64 million bond to fix all four elementary schools.

Bree LaCasse

Biel co-founded Progressive Portland, a political advocacy group that donated $20,000 to the four-school renovation campaign and has weighed in on issues ranging from President Trump’s immigration policies to whether the City Council should continue to pay for a full-time assistant for Strimling.

Over the past two weeks, a dispute over the sharing of email addresses with one of the council candidates has shaken up those groups, as well as the council election and school bond campaign.

EMAIL LISTS, CLAIM OF COLLUSION

Biel stepped down from Progressive Portland on Oct. 4 “at least until Election Day” and cited “mental fatigue” as the reason for the break. But the announcement came after he and Progressive Portland were being questioned by a Portland Press Herald reporter about sharing email address lists with LaCasse to help her reach voters.

Brunelle said Biel and Figdor have been trying to undermine his campaign to help elect LaCasse, an effort he said began after he refused to accept Biel’s fundraising support.

“For months I have watched as certain individuals have colluded and conspired to undermine my campaign and my personal reputation with underhanded, dishonest and unethical tactics,” Brunelle said in written statement.

After Brunelle’s supporters alerted him to unsolicited emails coming from LaCasse, he first accused Protect Our Neighborhood Schools of sharing its email list with his opponent. But Figdor said the email addresses may have instead come from Progressive Portland, which was led by Biel but had said it would not get involved in the race because its steering committee was split on whom to support.

Joey Brunelle

Brunelle then recorded a phone conversation he had with Progressive Portland steering committee member Eva Humeniuk, during which she said that Biel shared the group’s list without permission and was asked to quit as a result. The conversation was recorded without Humeniuk’s knowledge – the law did not require Brunelle to tell her – and then released to the media.

Humeniuk later said in an interview that she misunderstood the origin of the emails and “misspoke” about Biel being asked to leave. “Joey used me as a political pawn by trapping me into a story I had absolutely nothing to do with without my permission,” said Humeniuk, who quit Progressive Portland as a result of the conflict.

Biel denies offering to help Brunelle raise money for his campaign. He also, at first, denied having shared Progressive Portland’s email list. LaCasse’s campaign manager, John Eder, also denied she had received the group’s email list from Biel.

Later, Biel said he did share email addresses with LaCasse, but they were from his personal list rather than from Progressive Portland’s. About 200 of the 1,800 email addresses were also found on Progressive Portland’s list, he said.

“Nothing here as far as I’m aware contradicts anything that Bree LaCasse, John Eder or I have previously said, and I stand by everything I’ve written in previous communications on this matter,” Biel said in an email.

Sharing email lists is not illegal, unless it is not reported as an in-kind donation on campaign finance reports, which are due Oct. 27. LaCasse said it would be reported as an in-kind contribution from Biel.

When asked to describe Biel’s role in her campaign, LaCasse said, “Steven is one of many volunteers on my campaign” and was not helping to raise money.

After the email list dispute was made public by The Forecaster weekly newspaper, Figdor asked both Brunelle and LaCasse to step down from Protect Our Neighborhood Schools.

DISSENSION, FIGDOR UNDER FIRE

The fallout continued Oct. 12, when members of the Portland Democratic City Committee supported a petition to remove Fidgor as chairwoman of the group.

The petition to remove Figdor was submitted by Gwynne Williams, a Brunelle ally, and received the support of 16 of the 20 members attending the meeting, setting up a vote at a future committee meeting where two-thirds of the members will need to vote to formally remove Figdor.

“It was a surprise to me and I was not aware of anything before the meeting,” said interim committee chairwoman Sarah Alexander, who joined the group in the spring. “This is not a situation the Democratic City Committee has been in in any recent memory.”

Among the reasons the group is citing in the removal petition is Figdor’s support for one Democrat over another, and her use of the committee to raise money for “a pet political project” without its approval.

That project was not described in the petition. But last year, Fidgor commissioned a poll about city politics, at the request of Mayor Strimling and using city committee funds without approval. That poll, as well as other polls commissioned by Progressive Portland, in part tested Strimling’s favorability ratings and policy positions.

“This action was the beginning of the pattern of bypassing democratic governance and elevating her personal political agenda over the interests of the membership and the party as a whole that is demonstrated in this petition,” the petition states.

Williams, who presented the petition, said most of the people who signed it regularly attend meetings. “It was a grassroots groundswell a long time building,” Williams said in an email.

Figdor, who took leave as chairwoman of the city committee in August to run the school bond campaign, declined to comment on the petition.

“I’m staying focused on finally fixing Portland’s four rundown schools this November,” she said.

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

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Twitter: randybillings


This story was revised on 9:24 a.m., Oct. 23, 2017, to clarify that Steven Biel has not worked on Capitol Hill.