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Fifty Shades of Betty

City Council race pits Taylor against Valle

When southeast Eugene voters mark their ballots in this election, they will make a familiar choice: four-term City Councilor Betty Taylor or an opponent? Taylor, a veteran progressive, is seeking her fifth term on the council, while Social Security Administration counselor Juan Carlos Valle is running in his first public election.

Taylor’s supporters, such as Mayor Kitty Piercy, cite her devotion to Ward 2 and progressive causes as reasons to keep her on the council, and they point to the development interests donating record contributions to Valle’s campaign as a sign of how much pro-sprawl, anti-conservation forces detest Taylor.

Valle’s camp says that he’s also progressive and would have a similar voting record to Taylor, and he’s running because a “fresh approach” is needed on the council. They say Taylor doesn’t compromise; Taylor says she doesn’t compromise the values she was elected to represent. 

Taylor’s hair might be gray, but as her fellow Betty, Betty White, has shown, older age doesn’t need to slow you down. (Betty White is three years older than Taylor.) Taylor’s smart, sassy and votes for the kind of progressive values her south Eugene ward holds dear. Valle says it’s all about compromise and collaboration. But when money coming into this campaign comes from conservatives, developers and timber interests, what do compromise and collaboration mean?


Funding from the Dark Side

Ward 2 is having a rare November election because of a three-way split. Taylor got the most votes, but not more than 50 percent in the May primary between Taylor, Valle and Jim Ray. Council positions are nonpartisan and the top two from a May primary face off in November.

Lane County voters who followed the May primary County Board of Commissioners race might think this November race sounds familiar: A long-serving progressive facing a self-proclaimed progressive challenger who describes himself as more collaborative is exactly what happened when Commissioner Pete Sorenson fended off Andy Stahl.

No, Sorenson says — there’s a big difference in the funding. “Betty’s opponent has gotten a substantial amount of money from what I would call the dark side,” he says, invoking Star Wars. “We’re talking major Republican money.” He says his May opponent was mostly funded by two donors, one of them Stahl’s father.

Valle’s campaign manager is former progressive councilor David Kelly, and his largest contributor ($4,238) is Kelly’s wife, Jane Kelly, but other donors contributing to his campaign are far less progressive.

Development and real estate-related interests that have donated to Valle include the Eugene Association of Realtors, developer Dan Neal, Anslow & DeGeneault, Inc., Bennett Management Company (commercial and large-scale apartment management), Jean Tate of Windermere Real Estate and real estate consultant Hubert J. Prichard.

Timber executives Dan Giustina and Joe Gonyea III also contributed to Valle’s campaign, as did the Community Action Network (CAN), a political action committee that supports conservative groups. CAN’s funding sources include a long list of timber interests like the Giustinas, Delta Sand and Gravel, Seneca Jones, Oregon Family Farm Association PAC and Healthy Communities Initiative (which donated $22,643 to help defeat 2010’s proposed local tax for Eugene 4J schools). The Oregon Family Farm Association PAC, in turn, has received $107,500 from conservative mega-donor Loren Parks in 2012 alone.

At press time, Valle’s campaign had broken Eugene’s record for campaign spending in a City Council race by spending $27,940.23.

“These are people substantially outside of Ward 2 who are trying to influence the election in Ward 2,” Sorenson says.

Sorenson says it’s not hard to see why conservatives and timber and development interests are donating to Valle. “They’re upset with Betty Taylor for her advocacy for the environment, for her advocacy for the Amazon headwaters, for her advocacy for the protection of the urban growth boundary. They’re upset with her on that basis, and Betty’s opponent is taking money from them knowing full well what their agenda is. That’s what I find distressing,” he says.

But Taylor has been outspent by opponents each time she’s run opposed: In 2004, Maurie Denner spent $21,699.79 trying to defeat her; in 2000 Mike Sherlock spent $21,860; in 1996 Anne Marie Levis spent a total of $15,263 in the May and November elections. Taylor spent $6,689, $10,940.77 and $6,615 in those races, respectively.

This time around, Taylor’s funders include long-time Democratic politico Scott Bartlett (donating the most at $2,150), attorney and EW part-owner Art Johnson, and timber company owner Deborah Noble, known for her support of pro-environmental causes and saving the Amazon headwaters.

In addition to Sorenson and Bartlett, Taylor boasts the endorsements of Mayor Kitty Piercy, Councilors George Brown and Alan Zelenka, The Oregon League of Conservation Voters, Sierra Club, AFSCME, former county commissioner Jerry Rust, Greater Eugene Area Riders and former congressman Jim Weaver, a rural Eugene resident who called her “the most valuable member of the City Council.”

Valle’s endorsers include former 4J Superintendent George Russell, State Rep. Terry Beyer, former Greenhill Humane Society President Mary Walston, NAACP Eugene-Springfield Southern Oregon Chapter President Henry Luvert and four of 11 other police commissioners.


Quit or Collaborate?

Valle’s citizen record includes serving on the Eugene Police Commission since November 2007 and 14 months as its chair. But he stepped down as chair in July amidst rumors that members planned a motion to vote him out of the chairmanship; Valle says he left the chairmanship to spend more time on his campaign. While some fellow commissioners have criticized his leadership, others have endorsed him or written letters of support.

In April 2011, Valle resigned from the Lane Regional Air Protection Agency (LRAPA) Budget Committee midway through his three-year term, after LRAPA board member Dave Ralston made xenophobic and offensive comments about Centro LatinoAmericano, where Valle was then board president. “I cannot see myself collaborating or even being at the same table as your colleague knowing that human dignity and respect for fellow immigrants and all people of Latino descent is under attack,” Valle wrote to the LRAPA board chair.

Asked if he would resign should a Eugene City Councilor make similarly abusive and insulting remarks, Valle says he would not. He was not representing a lot of people on the LRAPA budget committee, he says, and he would be as a city councilor. 

But Centro LatinoAmericano is arguably Eugene’s most important advocacy organization for the rights and well-being of Latinos, and Centro and Beyond Toxics report that schoolchildren in west Eugene, which is 13 percent Latino, breathe in about 72 pounds of air toxics a year.

Critics argue that Valle stepped away from a specific opportunity to influence how the money that affects the air those children breath is spent. The Budget Committee includes the LRAPA Board of Directors plus nine board-appointed citizens, including members representing large industry and agriculture.

In months since the May primary election, the council has voted to approve the West 11th EmX extension, and some have criticized Taylor for not endorsing the extension until after Valle did. Taylor says that the vote was one of the most difficult of her four terms on the council, and she needed the time to consider all of the data and constituent viewpoints.

“I’ve listened to everybody for a nauseatingly long time,” Taylor says. She says she met with Eugeneans in favor of and opposed to the EmX extension, and she toured areas slated for denser housing with the director of LTD to better understand why the route would become vital in the future.

Taylor cites the repair, connectivity and classification of Crest Drive (a major part of Ward 2) and other area streets as another tough vote. “I lost sleep over Crest Drive,” she says.

Sorenson says that as a Ward 2 resident, Taylor’s vote against designating the streets as higher-traffic “collectors” is part of the reason he’s a Taylor supporter and endorser. “It’s a great example of where she took a very difficult issue of how we’re going to fix these roads, and how we’re going to do it fairly and how we’re going to do it with community sensitivities in mind, and she actually brought this project to completion,” he says. “That’s just a local example, in my opinion, of her leadership.”

Taylor’s record also paints a resolute but open-minded picture. She’s spoken for and against the EmX in different situations. While she says she doesn’t approve of urban renewal “in a lot of ways,” she was instrumental in using urban renewal funds for the construction of the downtown branch of the Eugene Public Library. She voted for an early property tax exemption to bring dense housing downtown but drew the line at doing so repeatedly.

Former councilor and Valle supporter David Kelly, who served on City Council with Taylor for eight years, has helped keep “collaboration” a key part of Valle’s campaign, writing in a letter to the R-G that Taylor is “unable to work collaboratively.” But others disagree. In an endorsement, National League of Cities (NLC) Center on Federal Relations Program Director Neil Bomberg writes, “She guided the members through difficult policy discussions on controversial issues like Social Security and Medicare by creating an atmosphere that welcomed disagreement and discussion, but ultimately resulted in consensus. Her knowledge of the subject matter, coupled with her strong commitment to the issues, helped make her year as chair of the committee one of the most productive in the history of NLC.”


Taking Positions

The downtown exclusion zone, which allows people to be banned from the downtown core prior to conviction of a crime, is due for yet another vote in 2013. Taylor has consistently voted against the zone. Valle says that without the October compromise cutting the number of exclusion-eligible offenses, he “might have voted no.” But he says that he would have voted for the modified extension.

Bartlett, Taylor’s biggest donor, says he thinks a “whole cadre of special interests,” like real estate and timber, are backing Valle because they want to get rid of the 4-4 progressive-conservative balance on the council (the same voting lines as seen in this October’s exclusion zone vote). “My basic position,” he says, “is that we can’t afford to lose her.”

Taylor and Valle indicated they might vote differently on the future of Eugene’s City Hall. Taylor says she thinks the skeleton of the existing structure should be saved and rebuilt (see wkly.ws/1a9), while Valle says he’s undecided and still open to the possibility of using the EWEB building.

Valle also says that while he doesn’t want high-rise buildings on the riverfront, he sees the riverfront as a place for small enterprise and public access. He calls it an “opportunity to have careful development.” 

“I think that all that riverfront should be saved as green space,” Taylor says. 

The candidates both support Opportunity Village Eugene, the proposed village for homeless people. Valle suggests that the Lane County Fairgrounds might be a good site. Taylor was part of City Council’s 7-1 vote Oct. 17 asking city staff to create a list of all possible sites by Oct. 31. With the fairgrounds located in the heart of several neighborhoods, that site is sure to be contentious. 

Taylor says her other priorities for a fifth term include saving the Amazon headwaters from development, seeking funding for a youth center, not expanding the urban growth boundary and exerting pressure on the 4J School Board to keep neighborhood schools open. She supports free parking downtown and more bike paths.

Taylor says she’s very comfortable in losing votes when she’s spoken for her constituents and she doesn’t agree with the majority position. She says liberals need to be more comfortable with disagreement. “The conservatives are determined; the semi-liberals are nice,” she says. 


Fifty Shades of Voting

Valle says that on civil rights and the environment, he sees his positions as “parallel” to Taylor’s. Taylor laughs and says that her opponents usually end up with positions similar to hers by the end of the elections.

The opponents each have fascinating life stories. Valle, once homeless, now has a college degree, and the former undocumented worker is a U.S. citizen active in Centro LatinoAmericano (and is a former president) and still a member of the Eugene Police Commission, despite resigning as its chair.

Taylor organized civil liberties forums during the McCarthy era and began her environmental activism in the 1960s. After years of teaching high school English, she returned to the UO to earn an English Ph.D., graduating in 1986. She went on to chair the NLC Human Development Steering Committee after cities throughout Oregon campaigned for her election to the NLC board.

Either way, the demographics on the council are going to be ugly. If Valle wins, 51.1 percent-female Eugene will be represented by a council that’s one-eighth female. (Claire Syrett is all but certain to win the Ward 7 seat.) If Taylor wins, the council will be entirely white and non-Hispanic, though Eugene is 7.8 percent Hispanic or Latino and 90.2 percent white. (Greg Evans, an LCC instructor and LTD Board chairman who is African American, is rumored to be under consideration for the Ward 6 position when Pat Farr is seated on the County Commission.)

Sorenson says that the big-money advantage is bigger in November elections. “This what happens to a progressive leader when the special interests believe she’s vulnerable, and they’ve got a candidate who’s willing to take that kind of big money and go into the heart of south Eugene and try to take out a strong, progressive leader,” he says. “Yes, it does worry me.”