Workforce housing, homelessness and economic diversity will be dominant issues in the Astoria mayor’s race in November, as voters get a chance to set the direction at City Hall.
Three contenders emerged after Mayor Arline LaMear chose not to run for re-election and City Councilor Cindy Price withdrew her campaign.
City Councilor Bruce Jones, Dulcye Taylor, the president of the Astoria Downtown Historic District Association, and Michael Miller, an activist, want to replace LaMear, and leadership ability will likely be a subtext of the election.
While the city manager runs day-to-day operations, the mayor has an important role in setting the policy agenda for the City Council, making appointments to boards and commissions and often serving as the voice of the city.
Jones, a retired Coast Guard commander, was elected to represent the east side on the City Council in 2016 and works as deputy director of the Columbia River Maritime Museum. He believes in the goals city councilors adopted earlier this year, which focus on projects ranging from economic development and housing to disaster preparedness and the public library renovation.
“I really feel that the goals the council established collaboratively are the right goals for the community,” Jones said.
Still, Jones would like a greater emphasis on an overall vision for the city so that Astoria retains its “authentic feel” and economy amid many changes. He would also like to see public safety and other important city facilities placed outside the tsunami inundation zone, echoing a request by former Fire Chief Ted Ames.
Taylor supports a number of ongoing city initiatives, including an effort to finalize the Urban Core, the downtown portion of the city’s Riverfront Vision Plan that guides future development along the Columbia River. But she believes the city could do more to create housing.
She would like zoning loosened in certain areas to free up vacant buildings that could be modified for housing. She points to the dilapidated Waldorf Hotel next to City Hall, which the Portland-based nonprofit Innovative Housing purchased and plans to turn into affordable apartments.
The site of a caved-in lot at Heritage Square is a talking point for both Jones and Taylor, though neither have an immediate solution.
“We’ve got this hole in the ground that everybody’s asking, ‘What are we going to do with it?’” Jones said. One of the City Council’s goals is to pursue a public-private partnership to redevelop the block.
Miller, who acknowledged he had little chance of winning when he announced his campaign, differs the most in his views of what he believes the city can accomplish. He would like to see the creation of city boards to address disaster preparedness and mental health. Many of the city’s homeless suffer from the lack of local mental health services, he said, adding that the city’s efforts to address homelessness are slow and weighed down by bureaucracy.
“We have a mental health problem in our community without the proper oversight,” he said. “The city of Astoria turns to the county to solve (its) problems when we’re the densest population in our county and we should be taking on some of our own responsibility.”
Both Taylor and Jones emphasize their experiences working with a variety of different people and agencies.
While in the Coast Guard, Jones led regional response teams and dealt regularly with local, state and private-sector groups. He has years of experience in disaster management and crisis response, handling the aftermath of oil spills and Hurricane Katrina.
“My job was to learn how to listen to people and hear their concerns and then find whatever common ground we could find, then prioritize our efforts to move forward with limited resources,” Jones said.
His background in dealing with disasters is especially relevant to Astoria and the North Coast, he said. In the case of a tsunami and earthquake, “I think it would be useful to have a mayor with the personal experience of working through major disasters, and who understands the federal response system.”
Taylor points to her experience running a small business — Old Town Framing Co. downtown — and her work as an advocate as president of the downtown association.
“I know that just through my experience with the downtown association, I’ve been able to partner with a bunch of different entities in and around Astoria to get some things done,” she said.
“I understand the plight of small businesses and the challenges that go along with that, and I’m pretty sure no other candidate can bring that to the table.”
One question Taylor has been asked in her bid for mayor is how well she knows Astoria outside of downtown. But she said through her business, she has met people from all across the city.
“I think people respect what I’ve done downtown and maybe hope I can bring some of that to all of Astoria,” she added. “I don’t mean that to be, ‘Only downtown matters and the outside edges are failing.’ I don’t think that’s true. I think you need a prosperous downtown core in order for everybody to flourish. I feel like my job is not complete.”
Miller said his outsider’s perspective is one of the things that makes him different from the other candidates. Over the Memorial Day weekend, he protested how the community treats people with mental illness by standing naked on the side of Marine Drive wearing a sign that read: “How we care for the least of us defines us as a community. Who are we?”
“I don’t look at things through the same normalized lens,” Miller said. “I never take that we can’t do something about something because the problem is too big. There is always — if not a solution — there’s always something different that you can try. … And I will not stand for anybody being marginalized.”
Taylor and Miller decided early that they wanted to run for mayor. Jones, who declared his candidacy the day after Price withdrew earlier this month, has only just begun to campaign. He plans to develop a website, pull a campaign team together and begin going door-to-door throughout the city.
“I would like to learn more about the parts of Astoria which don’t typically get as much attention as, say, the downtown, the urban core and maybe Uppertown and the east side,” he said.
For the past 28 years, Astoria has had only two mayors: Willis Van Dusen, the city’s longest-serving mayor, first elected in 1990; and LaMear, elected in 2014.
When Van Dusen announced his retirement, Taylor said people asked her if she would run for mayor, but she didn’t feel ready. Her decision to enter the race this year, her first time running for public office, caused some anxiety in the social groups that count both her and Price as friends. The two women had been allies on a number of community projects, such as the Garden of Surging Waves and the restoration of the Tourist No. 2 ferry.
Signs advocating for Taylor — “I’m With Dulcye for Mayor” — have popped up along streets and in neighborhoods.
Though he is canvassing neighborhoods and ordered a run of campaign buttons and T-shirts, Miller sees the mayor’s race primarily as a way to speak for people and issues he believes are under-represented or not represented at all.
The people city government most often hears from “are the squeaky wheels or the business owners,” he said. “But a lot of people, you have to hunt them down, you have to make them feel comfortable because they’re not used to being heard.”