My Portland Tribune Op-ed: Let’s elect city leaders by district

A districted system would democratize City Hall. It also would create a strong case for dismantling the ineffective commission system. Portland is only one of two major cities in the United States that still operates under a commission system. 

Click here to read the op-ed on the Tribune website, or scroll down. 


We live in a country with President Donald Trump at the helm. We know the federal government will not help us address the biggest problems facing our community.

In Portland, thousands are living on the streets, unregulated rents are driving families farther from schools and jobs, and thousands of children go to bed hungry every night. If we learned any lesson from the 2016 election, it’s that we must fight together for real change at the local level.

How did we get here? For starters, our city government is built on a flawed system. Our at-large elections with no term limits are rooted in the Jim Crow era and ideology. By design, at-large elections require a candidate to win a citywide election. This obstacle tends to disenfranchise women, people of color, and anyone who makes less than a six-figure salary from running for office. Candidates should not need independent wealth to win office. This is why we have a city government run predominantly by white men from affluent neighborhoods, where all but one city commissioner lives in Southwest Portland.

That doesn’t seem very representative, does it? Maybe this is why Southeast Portland, where a majority of the city’s population resides, lacks adequate services, has fewer parks, inadequate transit, a dearth of sidewalks, green spaces and parks, and has a shockingly high number of unpaved and potholed streets. With freeways like I-205 and I-84 cutting through the east side — and an environmental policy dictated by lobbyists — we also have some of the worst air quality in the country.

We desperately need a districted system, with elected representatives from every area of Portland. These elected officials would be accountable to the communities that voted them into office — not corporate lobbyists spending big money in citywide races. Paired with strong campaign finance rules, like those adopted by Multnomah County, districting would increase the ability of grassroots candidates — especially women and people of color — to run for public office.

A districted system would democratize City Hall. It also would create a strong case for dismantling the ineffective commission system. Portland is only one of two major cities in the United States that still operates under a commission system. Rather than being beholden to their mayor-assigned bureaus and commission-focused corporate backers, city leaders should represent their communities’ interests.

I’m not going to prescribe the “perfect” districted system. If elected, I intend to work with community groups, local small business owners, organized labor and local experts to decide what we need from a districted form of government. Then we can decide what structure will best enable us to achieve our goals. We may need some at-large positions to ensure there are people in elected office who are looking at the city as a whole. We may need multi-member districts to ensure people of color truly have a chance of representation.

What I know is this: If we work together, we will find a system that actually works for the people of this city, and not just for developers and other corporate interests. We can dismantle this shameful vestige of Jim Crow law and start the long road toward building a Portland that uses the painful truths of the past to build a promising future for all.

By Julia DeGraw, Published in the Portland Tribune