Portland police, firefighters unions mostly sitting out politics this year

The groups say they’re frustrated with a general lack of respect from City Hall
From The Oregonian, April 9, 2008

Most election years, Portland’s police and firefighters help play kingmaker, giving thousands of dollars and priceless get-out-the-vote help to a slate of carefully chosen candidates. This year, however, they’re largely sitting it out.

They’re fed up with the guys who currently occupy City Hall and frustrated by what they say is a general sense of disrespect.

For certain candidates, it’s a real blow. Symbolically, what’s better than appearing in a campaign ad or flier next to a firetruck? Practically, what candidate can’t use the telephone banks and lawn sign parties both unions are well-known for?

“Not getting involved represents a dramatic response for both of our unions,” said Robert King, a Portland detective and president of the Portland Police Association. “Part of what it indicates is that we would both like to see more support out of the people in leadership positions than what we’ve gotten. The people who work in public safety in this city do not feel respected or heard.”

King’s more than 1,000 members decided to endorse Nick Fish, Amanda Fritz and Commissioner Randy Leonard in the three city commissioner campaigns. They’re staying mum in the race to replace Mayor Tom Potter, the first time in years they’ve chosen neutrality.

The cops say they’ve spent the past four years feeling scrutinized and painted as thugs by city leaders.

They point to the outraged responses among elected officials to the death of a mentally ill man named James Chasse Jr. in police custody in 2006, to the City Council’s decision to end Portland’s drug- and prostitution-free zones, to Potter’s decision to fire a respected lieutenant in an on-duty shooting last year even though Chief Rosie Sizer recommended a lesser punishment.

“In this election, we really are hoping for a change,” King said. “We hope for a group of people who are more understanding of what we’re doing, who are more likely to look at the good work that so many of us do every day.

“In the mayor’s race at least, it just seems like the best way to ensure that is to stay neutral.”

Both major candidates for mayor, City Commissioner Sam Adams and travel business owner Sho Dozono, sat through endorsement interviews with the police, and King said there were things that union leaders liked about both of them. There are also things they worry about.

Adams has suggested that if elected, he might give control of the Police Bureau to someone else — perhaps Leonard, a retired firefighter, something that intrigues union leaders. Adams has worked hard to be a friend to labor during his first term on the City Council, including working to stop Wal-Mart, famously anti-union, from building in Portland and devoting one part-time staff position to a labor relations expert.

But Adams can be abrasive and stubborn, as the union leaders know from watching him operate for more than a dozen years, during his time as a city commissioner and the decade he spent as Mayor Vera Katz’s chief of staff.

Dozono has generally been on the pro-cop side of downtown safety issues as a leader in the Portland Business Alliance and its predecessors. But he’s also new to government — something of an unknown quantity, in other words — and won the endorsement of Potter, the union’s public enemy No. 1.

There’s a certain irony there: Potter, after all, was a career police officer and retired as Portland police chief in 1992. Yet he was never beloved during his days in uniform and has made even fewer friends as mayor.

Four years ago, the police union endorsed Potter’s opponent, Jim Francesconi, although the union rescinded that after Francesconi ran a radio spot criticizing Potter — and, union members thought, the police as well — for his handling of a disciplinary case.

Officers feel as if they’ve spent four years paying for the original Francesconi nod, King said.

Portland firefighters have a more specific grievance: They want a healthy raise.

Last year, the union’s 680 members elected a slate of new leaders who ran on a promise to get them more money. The problem: City leaders have changed their approach to bargaining and say they’ve already conceded a lot in trying to get all the city’s unions on the same contract schedule.

The new leaders among Portland’s firefighters weren’t part of those meetings and say their members have been underpaid for years compared with other departments in Oregon and elsewhere. At various points over months of negotiations, they’ve argued for a 3.5 percent, across-the-board pay increase — on top of an annual cost of living increase — a shorter workweek and higher overtime pay. The city has offered smaller raises and bonus pay for officers during shifts spent operating heavy machinery.

But the two sides haven’t been able to craft a contract, and things have grown tense. The city and the union seem headed toward arbitration this summer.

So, the union’s leaders opted not to endorse anyone this year. What, they decided, is the point? “There’s really no reason we’re going to arbitration except for poor communication,” said Ken Burns, the union president. “We think, quite frankly, that’s a commissioner’s job.”

Burns and his colleagues are even on the outs with Leonard, a former firefighter who ran the union before entering politics. Leonard said his endorsement interview with union leaders focused solely on the details of the contract and ended with both the candidate and his questioners feeling angry and insulted.

How will it end? Both unions still have plenty of time to change their collective minds.

In the meantime, the two mayoral candidates bear the stamp of approval from other labor unions: Adams got the nod from the Northwest Council of Laborers, and Dozono has the endorsement from the Carpenters Union Local 247.

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