Fireman Randy Leonard, another eastside guy

The Eastside Guy
Fireman Randy, another eastside guy

By Dave Lister, BrainstormNW

When Portland Mayor Tom Potter proposed to reform the city’s commission form of government by giving the mayor’s office administrative control of all city bureaus, one of his peers emerged as the leader of the opposition. This media savvy champion of commission government coupled his own “aw shucks” style of public speaking with Potter’s seeming indifference over his proposal to soundly trounce the mayor in a series of public debates. When the voters overwhelmingly rejected the “strong mayor” reform, this commissioner went on to challenge Potter at every turn, possibly contributing to the mayor’s decision not to seek a second term.

This commissioner, of course, is ex-fireman Randy Leonard.

Leonard, whose resumé boasts not only service as a firefighter, but also as a union boss and state legislator, is a survivor. Four years ago, he faced a coalition of five neighborhood activists who were intent on putting him into a runoff. The scheme failed and Leonard retained his seat. But he took a lesson from the experience and, contemplating having five opponents each armed with $150,000 of city money, was the only commissioner to vote no on the public campaign financing system.

Outspoken and reactionary, Leonard is never one to mince words. When a local home remodeler reported to the Portland Tribune that he had done an immense amount of work without obtaining city permits, Leonard threatened to take a sledgehammer and knock the walls out of the affected properties. When the OHSU tram project encountered yet another cost overrun, Leonard quipped in council that he would take a truck and pull down the structure’s main support tower. Not long after the public vote on the “strong mayor” proposal, Leonard grabbed, and has held onto, media attention by creating a bruhaha over the practice of people staking out their Rose Festival parade viewing spots with duct tape.

Leonard is savvy when it comes to cultivating Portland’s so-called “progressives” and is not afraid to get on the wrong side of the business community while doing so. Some months ago, over the objection of the petroleum dealers, he was able to ramrod through an ordinance requiring that biodiesel and ethanol fuel blends be dispensed by dealers within the city limits. More recently, in an effort aimed at graffiti abatement, Leonard successfully championed an ordinance that all spray paint for sale in the city be kept in locked storage and purchasers be required to present I.D. to buy the stuff. He likens that prohibition to the state’s legislation requiring a prescription to purchase pseudoephedrine, the key ingredient in making methamphetamine, which has nearly eradicated home meth labs in Oregon.

But with both the biofuels and the spray paint regulations Leonard fails to see the obvious flaw: Without the cooperation of neighboring jurisdictions, people can simply drive 10 minutes and buy their gasoline or spray paint in Beaverton, Clackamas or Vancouver. Portland, after all, is not an island.

I had an opportunity to talk with Leonard recently on a number of subjects. We started out talking about the Interstate Avenue debacle.

“City code has a process for renaming streets,” he told me, “which was completely circumvented in this case. The way Tom (Potter) framed the debate was that the Hispanic community decided which street to rename, and if any of us questioned it, there was some degree of racism involved. I became very irritated at some of the outrageous comments from those on both sides of the debate.”

Leonard, along with the other commissioners, ultimately went against Potter and the Chavez rename committee, but there could be repercussions.

“Both Serena Cruz and the NAACP said they would be watching Sam (Adams) and me and how we voted.”

Another timely topic we discussed was security on the MAX light rail.

“I am really impressed with (Gresham) Mayor Bemis’ pledge to put police officers on the MAX,” Leonard said. “I think we should be doing the same thing.” Leonard also stated that he thought fare enforcement would increase security on the transit system.

Maybe because of his firefighting background, Leonard feels a kinship with police officers and is very interested in police matters. He goes on frequent ride-alongs and often shows up unannounced when he hears about shootings, chases or high profile crime events.

“I like partnering with the police and coming up with solutions,” he said. “I’ve been working with the police on cleaning up some of the hotels downtown that you wouldn’t keep a dog in. We’ve focused on them and somehow gotten them up to code. We’ve come up with different ways of going after drug dealers. I enjoy that work. I think it’s had an impact on crime, and I don’t have to be the police commissioner to do it.”

By tradition, but not by charter, Portland’s mayor is usually the police commissioner. I asked Leonard if he would like to see the next mayor break with that tradition.

“I would be interested in being the police commissioner,” he affirmed.

Finally, we chatted about OHSU and the recent revelation that their efforts in biotechnology and general research had resulted in a massive financial loss.

“They burned me pretty bad on their last increase on the tram,” Leonard replied, “so I am not inclined to help them out.”

During and since my time on Portland’s Small Business Advisory Council, I’ve both done battle with and been on the same side as Leonard quite a few times. We worked together to stop Potter’s “strong mayor” power grab, and we got into heated debate over the spray paint ban, which I think is ridiculous. Leonard and I are about the same age, are both eastsiders, and both share the same memories of growing up in Portland. And when the debate is over, I can tell you this: He’s a heck of a fun guy to have a beer with.

Love him or hate him, get used to him. Leonard faces no credible opposition in the 2008 election and is a shoe-in for another term.

I just hope he gets re-elected before he can find too many more products to ban.

But what the heck do I know? I’m just an Eastside Guy.

Be a subscriber.