radical adjective
1 : of, or relating to, or proceeding from a root:

Portland is having a radical moment. On Tuesday, voters elected nine fellow citizens who promised to dig deep in the city’s charter to root out discrimination and exclusion.

The new member who attracted the most attention was Nasreen Sheikh-Yousef, an activist with Black POWER (Portland Organizers Working to End Racism), a group that led the biggest Black Lives Matter protests in the city last year. Sheikh-Yousef celebrated her victory on Twitter by denouncing City Manager Jon Jennings as a “white supremacist” and pledged he would lose his job. “We are coming!” she promised.

Other new commissioners were not as direct, but to a degree, almost all the winners campaigned on the need for fundamental change in the city’s system of government, identifying the “strong” city manager and the “weak” elected mayor as a power imbalance that needs to be fixed.

For the record: The Charter Commission will not and cannot fire Jennings. He works for the City Council, and announced before the election that he would be leaving city government next year, before any charter amendment would go into effect.

And Jennings is not a white supremacist in any way that I understand the term. He can be overbearing, maybe. But white supremacy?  No.


His crime, as Sheikh-Yousef explained in an op-ed published in the Press Herald in March, is built into the position he holds. It was created by the 1923 charter revision that was backed by the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan, then a potent force in city politics.

That charter revision was also backed by the Portland Chamber of Commerce, and Sheikh-Yousef demanded an apology from current Chamber Director Quincy Hentzel for that group’s historic association with the Klan.

Sheikh-Yousef didn’t mention the Portland Press Herald in her piece, but our Editorial Board also supported the new charter in the 1920s, which means that the person who had my job then must have sided with the Klan. I don’t feel like a white supremacist, but, as Lincoln said, you can’t  escape history. Dig into almost any American institution and you will find some rot in the roots.

I wasn’t around in 1923, but I was here in 2009 when the last Charter Commission was elected, and I know something about their work.

It was no radical movement. It was led by moderately liberal reformers who felt that the public voice had been left out of obscure city government processes in which it was hard to see who really made the decisions that affected everyone’s lives.

How could the city build consensus on widely shared values? The idea was to put 12 smart people in a room for a year, and have them design a form of government. Portland’s problems seemed small back then and easy to fix if we all could just work together.


Looking back at it now, I see that this was the kind of fantasy that was common in the early Obama years, before the tea party and others showed us that the divisions went a lot deeper than we’d thought. This was about the time when they were writing the Affordable Care Act in Washington – a once-in-a generation overhaul of the health care system designed to appeal to Republicans as well as Democrats – but before the complicated compromise failed to get a single Republican vote.

The 2009 Charter Commission came up with a full-time elected mayor who would direct the City Council’s policy agenda and work alongside a strong city manager, who would still be chief executive. It worked fine on paper, before actual human beings filled the jobs. Portland’s second mayor, Ethan Strimling, instantly proved that he could not work with Jennings or the council, and we started hearing that the new charter needed to be radically reformed.

Can you draw up a city charter that’s racism-proof? I would like to see that, but I have my doubts.

Like, why would a mayor elected in a city that’s 80 percent white be more dedicated to racial equity than a city manager hired by a City Council with members elected in districts where racial minorities might have more influence?

Or, if a professional manager is inherently biased in City Hall, wouldn’t that also be true in the school department? But Portland progressives are very supportive of Superintendent Xavier Botana, even as they demand the elimination of both Jennings and his job. That makes it sound like the history that is driving at least some of the reformers is not from 1923 but 2016, when Strimling and Jennings started fighting.

The Charter Commission deserves a chance to do its work, and it shouldn’t be judged by one member’s tweets.

Any changes it proposes will have to go back to the voters, and they are the ones who will decide if this really is a radical moment.

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