Who is Sarah Iannarone, the progressive challenger to Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler in the 2020 election?

Who is Sarah Iannarone, the progressive challenger to Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler in the 2020 election?
Sarah Iannarone (YouTube)

The Democratic Party currently witnesses two forces trying to outdo each other. On the one hand, there are the moderate voices but on the other, there are the progressives who many find to be radicals. In the run for the presidential nomination, it took some effort for the moderate camp to unite behind former vice president Joe Biden to stop progressives like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. At other levels, progressives like Ed Markey, the incumbent senator from Massachusetts made history by defeating Joe Kennedy in a primary recently, seeing the defeat of a member of the famous family in a primary in Massachusetts for the first time. The progressive ‘Squad’ members have also done well in their primaries. 

A similar battle is brewing in Portland as well. While the Oregon City has made the headlines for all the wrong reasons, thanks to the endless violence which has seen Mayor Ted Wheeler coming under pressure from various quarters, he has now also faced a challenge from Sarah Iannarone, considered to be yet another progressive, in the upcoming mayoral election in November. Sarah, a restaurant owner and assistant director of First Stop Portland, was also a mayoral candidate in the 2016 election but finished third in the race with around 12 percent vote after Wheeler and Julius Bailey. She is back again this time because she thinks Wheeler, who is seeking his second term, could not keep the promise and the city needs a betterment on various counts, like getting big money out of politics, shortage of housings, climate emergency, etc.

Federal officers walk past a veterans memorial during the dispersal of a protest against racial injustice and police brutality in front of the Mark O Hatfield US Courthouse on July 29, 2020, in Portland, Oregon (Getty Images)


Iannarone accused Wheeler of forgetting 'progressive' values

In July, speaking to Willamette Week, Iannarone, 46, said: “The issues you highlighted in your 2016 mayoral bid still plague this city today—only now with increased urgency. When you ran, you cloaked your campaign in the rhetoric of progressivism but when the time came to lead, those values were nowhere to be seen.”

One can clearly sense Iannarone’s tilt there. According to a report that came out on Oregon Public Broadcasting in May, Wheeler is facing an electoral challenge from the Left. “She wants to stop the city's use of armed police at schools and abolish the police bureau's Gun Violence Reduction Team, which she called "simply racist." (The unit, rebranded from the Gang Enforcement Team, has been found to disproportionately make contact with black Portlanders.) She's campaigned for an end to sweeps of homeless camps and expressed interest in requiring all the city's new police officers live within city limits. She wants to decriminalize sex work. And that's just her public safety plan,” the report said. 


It also cited Iannarone saying in interviews with OPB that the coronavirus pandemic has presented the city a chance to re-envision itself rather than reverting to the status quo. “We know that a return to normalcy is not going to be desirable for so many Portlanders, because the normal wasn't working for them. So this is a point where we can say, ‘Look at the air quality outside. Look at the fact that we haven't had traffic fatalities. Look at the fact that we're not having school shootings,’” she said, adding: “Why would we go back?”


Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler reacts after being exposed to tear gas fired by federal officers while attending a protest against police brutality and racial injustice in front of the Mark O Hatfield US Courthouse on July 22, 2020, in Portland, Oregon (Getty Images)

Iannarone, who earned a bachelor’s degree in urban planning and sustainability from the Portland State University in 2005, has worked as an educator in urban policy and practices. She had no political experience at the time of joining the mayoral race of 2016 but yet the decision was notable because she was not only the sole woman in a field of 10 but also hoped to capitalize on business and political connections. The owner of the now-closed Arleta Library Bakery Cafe has also worked with Nancy, wife of former Portland mayor Charlie Hales, at First Stop Portland. She also helped Nancy in a celebrity baking contest in 2015 which was later called “Cakegate”. At First Stop Portland, which is a tour-coordinating group run by Portland State University, she is believed to have nurtured connections with key business groups and donors. 
The first bid, though, was unsuccessful for Iannarone, yet she succeeded in earning a presence in the media. Her tenure as an assistant director at First Stop Portland and interest in urban planning (she also travels to work in a folding electric bike), which she developed during her PhD program at Portland State University’s urban studies and planning have contributed in herself earning an identity. But Iannarone’s biggest identity is that of an able community organizer. She is well-known in her neighborhood of Mt Scott-Arleta in Portland for bringing together neighbors for a common cause. She has made some positive changes in the local civic life and despite having no experience of holding an elected office, many are convinced that she would make a good mayor with her leaning towards solving problems and building coalitions. 


President Donald Trump has signed a memo to defund a number of cities that he considers are being taken over by the 'anarchists' and one of them is Portland (Getty Images)

Iannarone’s progressive agenda has subsequently got her the endorsement of the Portland chapter of the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led platform that promotes action on climate change and The Street Trust Action Fund, a non-profit organization working to promote and improve public transit, walking, and bicycling conditions in Oregon that also engages in political endorsements, OPB reported. Street Trust, on the other hand, is not too happy with the way the incumbent mayor has responded to some big council hearings on transit-related city projects. 


Iannarone gaining traction due to 'Bernie-crats': Wheeler

Wheeler, 58, also has an observation on Iannarone’s growing popularity. In an interview with Portland Mercury in February (which got published in May because of the pandemic), the mayor said he thought Iannarone was gaining momentum probably because of the “Bernie-crats”. “People who are frustrated with the status quo, who think that the government moves too slowly. If Sarah is elected mayor, she’s going to find out that her constituency is much broader. You have a huge array of issues that are important. In the role of mayor, compromise is one of the most important skill sets you have. You often have to lead by compromising. As mayor here I have no veto power, and so, leading by compromise is tremendously important in this form of government,” Wheeler, who recently had an ugly spat with President Donald Trump over Portland violence, said. 


Iannarone perhaps has an advantage over Wheeler in the run-up to the mayoral election after the violence broke out. It is true that she would have a task in hand to bring the focus back on Portland’s local politics at a time when the nation is gearing up for the presidential election but she has not left the task unattended. 

Iannarone backed protests against police brutality

The violence, in a way, gave her an opportunity to link the local with the national. In early August, Iannarone appeared for a wide-ranging interview with KGW 8 where he declined to condemn the unrest which has been going on for months now. Iannarone targeted police brutality on the episode of ‘Straight Talk’ and said: “Their outrage at the police is valid. And the problem of police brutality and executing Black lives in the streets is more important than petty vandalism. We can't forget that in this historic moment.” She also said that the protests were part of a healthy democracy and that peaceful protests “might not necessarily be moving the conversation forward”. 

Also, in a letter that she wrote to Wheeler including her critique of his policy issues, Iannarone said: “Amidst the rise of right-wing populism, you ceded our Sanctuary City to armed gangs powered by hate and bigotry.” Iannarone also has her share of controversies in this election season. On Tuesday, September 1, she was warned over alleged campaign finance violations. Portland’s auditor has said Iannarone failed to disclose her campaign funding’s top sources, according to KATU, and that could see it facing a $6,000 fine. In its defense, Iannarone’s campaign said the funds originated from a donation and since it refunded the money, it didn’t know it had to be revealed as well and pledged to comply with the rules in the future. 

The battle between Wheeler and Iannarone promises to be a captivating one. While Wheeler has the experience of holding a mayor’s office for some years and Iannarone has no experience of an administrator, it is also true that the former will face a lot of anti-incumbency challenges, especially in these trying times. Portland, after all, hasn't seen a mayor serving more than one term since the late Vera Katz (1993-2005). 


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