Mingus Mapps, the former executive director of Historic Parkrose is challenging Chloe Eudaly for position 4 on Portland City Council in this month’s election. As a former board member of Historic Parkrose, I have a good friendship with Mingus and a lot of faith in his integrity and care for people. The Oregonian also endorsed him this week! Gateway Area Business Association also did a video interview with him! Check out the Local Politics section of this blog for more city council interviews.
Here’s our chat.
Bryan: Your platform includes geographic representation in city council. Right now, there are four commissioners and a mayor, so if we divided up Portland and had geographic representation, how would East Portland get clustered?
Mingus: This is a great question. Another option is that we would actually add four seats to city council. I think there’s a growing consensus on that in my time in Portland which stretches back almost forty years. We have doubled in size, but our city council has remained the same. I think we would wind up adding a couple seats to city council.
That fits with my proposal to change the way we elect members to city council and my big initiative to direct city council to hire a city manager to coordinate services, so this would be a public process. We would have big discussion about what’s the right way to divide up the city.
If your role was to represent Parkrose and East Portland in city council, what things would you fight for?
Basic public services: police protection, infrastructure, pave our safe routes to schools, quality of life. The quality of life in East Portland is very different than the quality of life in the West Hills, and I think a lot of our representatives on council really don’t understand what folks east of 82nd Ave have to deal with.
As you know, I used to work on 111th and Sandy Blvd, and it made sense to hop in your car and drive if you want to get to the grocery store across the street even though it’s an easy walk because there’s no crosswalks. We fought so hard to bring in Grocery Outlet. I know the original owners and their frustrations. They would call the cops for shoplifting, and the cops just didn’t come. I know the cops who work out there too, and it’s not that they’re indifferent. The problem is that on a weekday there could be literally one patrol car trying to keep Portland safe east of 82nd. That is just the reality of how Portland has chosen to allocate its resources, and East Portland consistently gets neglected.
I graduated in 1990 and immediately got involved in local government. I tried to reach out and incorporate the neighborhoods east of 82nd into the city. The integration [annexation of East Portland] was still fresh. What bothers me is almost a generation later, we haven’t completed that work. We still haven’t built those sidewalks and crosswalks. We haven’t supported the school district. What’s true in Portland is as you go further east, people get more dissatisfied with the quality of government they receive. That’s not some weird cultural distinction of the people who happen to live in that neighborhood. They’re frustrated because they’re not getting good services, and sometimes they’re not getting enough service. If you don’t feel safe in your home, that’s a real problem. I think we’re asking way too much of these neighborhoods. If we don’t provide services, people get disillusioned with government, and I think that makes it harder. To fix things, you have to bring the community together. If the community has given up and lost faith in the notion that participation matters, then you really have lost something special.
Why is the police bureau so understaffed, and why does it seem, even when they have the bandwidth, the police are lax on enforcement?
These are great questions. When I was the executive director of Historic Parkrose, I developed a lot of insights into what’s right and wrong with the police department. Our office served as a community contact station for the police department. The police would be in and out of our building every day. That gave me a lot of insights into how the police department works on a day-to-day basis. Some of the most impressive public servants I have met in my life work with the police department.
There are a couple things I learned. The police department is currently understaffed by about one-hundred officers. The reasons for that understaffing have evolved over time. Even 5 to 6 years ago, the police department was competing with the rest of the job market. There were other jobs that people who might be interested in going into law enforcement could get, and so we weren’t getting job applicants and competing with that. After another couple years, another thing has changed, and that’s our civic culture in relation to policing. The police have been demonized by certain segments of the Portland community, and frankly, I think they’ve sometimes been demonized by our elected leaders. As someone who has worked shoulder to shoulder with cops over many years, they feel it when you ask them to do difficult work and then don’t support them. That’s a recipe for disillusionment.
Another problem is we haven’t had effective solutions to homelessness. We have made our police officers the first at foremost outreach workers to people who live on the street, and that’s a bad policy too. The police department wasn’t built to solve homelessness. Literally half of their calls are to come out and chase a homeless person from one corner to another corner, and that’s bad service for the homeless person. It’s actually a bad use of the cop’s time too. That’s why when I’m on city council, I’ll propose things like the Street Response Team out in Lents, where instead of sending a cop car, we’ll send out two social workers who will ask the person, “what is it that you need?” and try to connect them with those resources.
Another dynamic with the police department is because they’re understaffed, you can’t do community policing. We’re in a position where we have to reserve our energy to respond to those 911 calls. Anything relating to crime prevention falls off the agenda. We need to create space and capacity to do community policing where cops sit down with community members, business association types, residents, and faith leaders to make our community safer. That’s what we did when I worked at Historic Parkrose, and we got amazing results. It was small-scale stuff, but I think it shows what the potential is. I think the police department wants to go in this direction, but we need leadership that insists on it and understands what the community needs. I think I’m that guy, and I think it’d make us a better and safer city.
Everything you’re describing sounds appealing. What obstacles are there to hiring more police and implementing the social work response teams?
On the left you have people who are concerned about police brutality, and it is totally true that anytime a police officer who shoots someone, that’s a tragedy and is indigestible. On the right you have people who are frustrated that when you call the police, the police don’t show up or they show up four hours late, or they tell you to go online and fill out a form instead of coming out to try to help you. I think we need to reconcile both of these.
We need to change the culture around our policing conversation. I’m in a unique position to make the argument that we need to ensure our police department treats everyone with respect and dignity regardless of the color of their skin or how rich they are. At the same time, I know that there is no Portland without the police department. We need to change the conversation so you can be a cop and not feel like people are constantly demonizing you.
We need to put in place accountability measures so that when police make mistakes, they’re held accountable. The city is renegotiating our police contract, and the contract needs to hold police accountable for the upmost level of professionalism.
At the same time, the contract has to recognize that policing is a very difficult job. It contains risk and ambiguity, and there are obligations to keep people safe and make decisions. Sometimes the options before you—there are no good options.
For everyone who believes the police department is not providing adequate services, for every business owner who says, “I don’t even bother to call 911 when there’s shoplifters in my store because I know the cops won’t come”—and that’s actually true, the cops don’t come—we need to address that. That is a slippery slope. I have talked to dozens of business owners who have told me, “I don’t have enough protection to do my business in Portland.” That’s everything from the shop owner downtown who has a boutique and there’s a person waving machetes in front of their door for half the day every day and the contractor in East Portland who owns a fleet of vehicles, and someone comes through at night and drains twenty bucks worth of gas and causes seven-hundred dollars in damages. That person deserves to have protection. Even though it looks like a minor crime, I get the fact that it can be the difference between staying open and going out of business or the difference between doing business in Portland and moving across the border. I want to keep these small businesses in Portland.
The conversation around police accountability has been toxic and dysfunctional for years. That’s something I want to bring to the table as someone who can appreciate both sides of the argument and be constructive. We have to get this right.
You summarized concerns about police from the right and left. Do you think the rest of your platform appeals to both liberal and conservative folks?
I hope so, and I sense so. That’s one of the reasons I’m running for local government—that it’s non-partisan. There are no Democrats and Republicans. I have no purpose for partisan debates that seem to be about having debating societies as opposed to getting some basic stuff done. I love local government because it’s very concrete stuff that touches your life very tangibly.
I think Portland is still a connected enough place that there are things we can come together around and agree on. Everything doesn’t have to be an ideological battle. That’s one of the reasons I’m in this race. I appreciate the incumbent and her passion, but I think she has looked at the job of being a city councilor as signaling her progressive credentials. That’s great, but it’s gotten in the way of actually helping neighborhood associations do their work or transportation policies that actually work for the neighborhoods you’re in as opposed to being broadly right. If we become too polarized, that’s what drives people out of the debate and away from the table. I want to change that.
Too many people don’t feel welcome at the table. I’ve heard too many business people tell me, “I don’t even bother reaching out to city hall anymore” (or the incumbent I’m running against) “because I know she won’t take my call, and if she did take my call, she would not move one inch even if I could explain why the current policies and practices are not working.” That’s just a bad way to run a railroad, and it’s a worse way to run a city.
Mingus has clear goals for housing and houselessness issues on his website and went into more detail in this video chat.
What specific policies or decisions would you make to enable the private sector to provide lower-cost housing in Portland?
I totally recognize the dynamic you are talking about where people who work in the real estate business [like Bryan] are incredibly frustrated with the state of policy here in Portland. I’ve been hearing that every day for the past six months. I’ve also looked at one of our most challenging problems, a lack of affordable housing, and I think it is true that Portland is different. If you want to build affordable housing in Portland, getting through the permitting process could literally take years, and as that process drags out, that increases the expense associated with the project so that it’s no longer affordable. Something similar is true with the inspection process when you’re trying to get a project built and ready for the public and it’s taking far too long. This is a well-known problem with the city of Portland.
I want to reduce the amount of time and costs it takes to get through the permit process. Anytime you build something, there’s fees due to the city, the minimum charge for that in Portland is something like $23,000 per apartment, which is one of the reasons we don’t have affordable housing in Portland. If we want affordable housing, we’ve got to look at the obstacles we put up. Given the rules that are in place now, you can’t build affordable housing in Portland. That’s not really a thing given the costs the city imposes on it, the cost of land, cost of materials, cost of labor. By the time you pay all those bills, the thing that you have built is no longer affordable. If you want more affordable housing, one way to do it is to bring down the cost associated with bringing that online. That’s really one of the most important problems we can fix.
One of the things that’s true of Portland and this Commissioner is that she’s deeply skeptical of real estate interests. That’s a skepticism of wealth. I don’t think it’s a particularly sophisticated analysis. I actually think that people who provide housing are providing an important service. I don’t think landlords or developers are the enemy. I think that we all need a place to live.
What has been true, and this is really clear the past four years, is that the people who provide housing have been locked out of the discussion. That’s one of the reasons our public policies on housing have gone so far off the rails. Everyday mom-and-pop landlords are telling me that it’s way too expensive or way too complicated to rent out that house they inherited. They’re selling those houses, and sometimes an out of state developer will come along, knock down the house, and put up two expensive condos. We’re losing one unit of affordable housing and replace it with two units of unaffordable housing. That is literally how Portland’s housing market works right now. It doesn’t work for anyone who actually lives here.
How would your education background make you a better city council member?
I’m a political scientist by training. I have a BA in Political Science from Reed and a PhD in Government from Cornell University. I think what the PhD signals is that I’m intellectually curious and that I have some high-level political skills, so when I’m in city council, I can do a better job of reading data and information. One thing that pushed me into this race is I looked at the research that was being put out by the city, and a lot of it’s really bad. It was unacceptably shoddy analytical work. We’re making million-dollar decisions based on bad work. That won’t happen when I’m there.
I also come from and have been formed by the culture of education. Academic environments are about bringing people together and exploring ideas. What defines the culture of city hall right now is to be shy of and hostile to new and different ideas, to be hostile to information that is inconsistent with your current policies. That needs to change. Being an academic, I think it’s important we learn from each other. What academia taught me is I don’t know everything, and it taught me to learn.
What struck me about you during our time at Historic Parkrose is that you seem comfortable talking to people in power who are wealthy and influential and also people who are homeless, addicts, or lower income. Do you think that’s a valuable skill in city council?
Oooh absolutely! Having spent a lot of time at fancy universities does make me fairly comfortable in my own skin. I’ve met Presidents and Vice Presidents and heads of state. I spent a lot of time at Harvard where you literally see everybody. I learned what makes really effective people really effective. I also learned that all people, even the most talented ones, are just people.
Some of our houseless friends in Parkrose—the thing about being houseless is you have to be tough and creative. Some of those folks are clearly brilliant in their ability to survive. Another thing is I really like people. There’s a reason I’m not a business guy. Some of the highest and most important work I can do is help make the community I’m part of healthier and stronger, and all of that strength is in the people who are there. Everyone has something to offer. I try to honor that, learn from that, and make that part of my work and how I approach life. I’m glad that you feel like I’m open to everybody. That’s something that’s important to me, and I know that everyone can make a contribution.
Back when we were working together at Historic Parkrose, I spent a lot of time with the houseless community, and one thing I’m really proud of is we made the effort to invite houseless folks to the table and ask how we can be better neighbors to each other. It wasn’t just a neighborhood association meeting where we’re venting about the homeless camp. We brought everyone together to ask how do we make the garbage situation at the homeless camp work better, and we developed great solutions because we had all our stakeholders at the table. It’s something you hear in government a lot, but I don’t think it’s something people actually believe or understand why it’s true: that diversity is our strength. That actually is true because you get these different perspectives. The most important things I learned about houselessness I learned by talking with and being friends with people who don’t have homes. If I didn’t have those relationships, I wouldn’t even understand the problem.
How does being a Dad inform your policy ideas and your passion for city leadership?
Oh my gosh, this is easy. Frankly, they are the entire reason why I’m doing this. I’m at this age where my kids are 9 and 10 years old, so that will make you think about the future. In a decade they’ll exit my house and enter the world. I worry about the world they will inherit and if in ten years my kids will be able to afford to live in Portland. That’s a serious question, and the answer to that might not be good. In ten years, will kids even want to live in Portland given the direction we’ve been going with livability issues and homelessness? I’m running because our elected leaders don’t have good enough answers to questions like those.
I want to show them that politics is something that real people do. It’s not different. It can just be a regular part of your life. I want to show them it’s not war. It’s something that can make your community better. I want them to know how to actually do it. I don’t expect them to become politicians, but I hope that there’s nothing about American democracy that they find mystifying or that’s alienating.
I will consider it a success if the end of my tenure at city council, I can retire and hand off to my kids a city that they will love as much as I loved the Portland that I grew up in. I want my kids to stay here and form a life here and start businesses here. This is an incredible town and community. Dedicating to this community is among the highest work you can possibly do, and I try to instill that in them.
[Photo by Tojo Andrianarivo for Reed Magazine]