Protesters watch a structure fire, set following the police shooting of a homeless man on April 17, 2021 in Portland, Oregon. (Photo by Nathan Howard/Getty Images)

Portland: Future Home of Law and Order?

An independent challenger is gaining in the polls on the city’s progressive DA who was elected in the racial reckoning of 2020.

Since launching his campaign to replace Portland’s progressive district attorney last year, Nathan Vasquez says he’s knocked on nearly 20,000 doors to make his pitch. “Hi, I’m running for District Attorney for Multnomah County,” he usually begins his spiel. “The last four years haven’t gone well, but I have a vision to get us back on track.”

What he’s talking about are the four rocky years that have gripped Portland since the summer of racial reckoning in 2020. After video footage of George Floyd’s death spread like wildfire, Portland—one of the whitest cities in America—was roiled by protests for more than a hundred days. In June of that year, only a month after Floyd’s death, the city council voted to strip the city’s police department of $15 million in funding and cut 84 positions, representing 8 percent of its officers

In the subsequent years, the homicide rate tripled, car theft soared, and much of downtown was overtaken by open-air drug use. The murder rate has since dropped but violent crime overall remains up 17 percent from 2019 levels. That is why Vasquez, a senior prosecutor for Multnomah County, is challenging his own boss—Mike Schmidt, a registered Democrat who ran on a “bold, progressive vision” to confront “historical and systemic racism.” To Vasquez, a registered independent, Schmidt’s tenure has been a flop—and he says the people of Portland agree.

“A line I hear in Portland on an everyday basis is that people tell me, ‘I’m very progressive, or I’m very liberal, but things have gone too far.’ ”

On Tuesday, voters will decide if they agree with that statement. In 2020, voters elected Schmidt with a nearly 77 percent landslide win. Now, polls show Vasquez leading Schmidt by 19 points when voters were “presented with basic information about the two candidates.” When they face off in Portland’s nonpartisan primary, any candidate that garners more than fifty percent of the vote will win the office. 

“What I believe is that it will be decided next Tuesday,” says Vasquez, who was previously registered as a Republican until he found himself “disgusted” with former president Donald Trump. 

Other progressive district attorneys have already gotten the axe. In 2022, halfway through his term, San Franciscans overwhelmingly voted to recall Chesa Boudin, the former district attorney, who campaigned on a promise to “dismantle our racist system of mass incarceration.” Now, Pamela Price, the district attorney in nearby Alameda County, is facing a recall election this November. The move to recall Price, who campaigned with the slogan “justice with compassion,” comes as violent crime is on the rise in Oakland, where roughly one out of every thirty residents has been the victim of car theft. 

Nathan Vasquez: “A lot of people still want social justice. . . But what they also want is a safe community.” (Courtesy Nathan Vasquez)

Some of their peers have survived the heat, including José Garza, the district attorney in Travis County, who won his March primary even though the homicide rate is still above pre-pandemic levels. Meanwhile, Larry Krasner, a George Soros–backed progressive, is still in office in Philadelphia despite having been impeached by Republicans in the state house (he’s now awaiting his trial in the Senate).

Still, the tides seem to be turning. 

A growing share of Americans say crime is one of their top issues heading into this year’s presidential election. In 2021, when President Joe Biden took office, 47 percent of Americans said crime “should be a top priority” for his administration. Now, 58 percent of voters say that crime “should be a top priority for the president.” And the voters seeking stronger law and order are not necessarily the people you’d expect, says Vasquez. 

When I asked him if any of his supporters are the same Portlanders who marched in the streets in 2020, demanding $50 million in cuts to the city’s police department, he said “certainly.”

“A lot of people still want social justice, and that’s a wonderful part of what we’re trying to do,” he added. “But what they also want is a safe community.” 

Olivia Reingold is a writer for The Free Press. Read her piece “Addiction Activists Say They’re ‘Reducing Harm’ in Philly. Locals Say They’re Causing It” and follow her on X @Olivia_Reingold.

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