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Our Opinion: Kafoury understands county chair role

It’s passion vs. placidity in the race for Multnomah County chair, and voters should opt for the calming presence of Deborah Kafoury over the bold promises made by Jim Francesconi.

The county chair’s position is an important job, but one that’s rarely prominent in the public’s eye unless the occupant happens to be embroiled in scandal or controversy. It was just such a scandal that expelled the philandering former Chairman Jeff Cogen from office last year. An interim chairperson has been running the county for months, and now two well-known political names — Kafoury and Francesconi — are on the May ballot to fill the remainder of Cogen’s term.

Five other candidates also filed for the position, but Francesconi and Kafoury are the only two with the name recognition and funding to allow a reasonable shot at winning. If no one candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two will advance to a November runoff, extending the Francesconi-Kafoury contest into the fall.

Kafoury already represented the western portion of the county in her recent role as a Multnomah County commissioner. (She had to resign that seat to run for the chair’s office.) Francesconi is a former Portland city commissioner and unsuccessful mayoral candidate who this time around is waging a vigorous campaign — his last, he says.

Francesconi’s intensity in this race has been impressive, but Kafoury has a greater grasp of the nuts-and-bolts work of the county. She understands county government’s primary purpose is to deliver social services. She is well versed in the most pertinent subjects: health care, mental health, homelessness, jails, libraries and courthouses.

If you exclude libraries, none of these topics is particularly exciting, which may explain why Francesconi has made economic development the centerpiece of his campaign. Francesconi argues that more jobs — particularly in East Multnomah County — will reduce poverty and the need for social services.

We don’t disagree, but we also don’t think the county chair’s position can have the outsized economic impact that Francesconi wants to assign to it. The county can assist in economic development by making smart decisions with its transportation dollars and by helping displaced people get back on their feet. It is not, however, the lead agency for industrial recruitment or preparing land for the next wave of growth.

Plus, it’s not as if Kafoury doesn’t have a few big plans of her own. She sees the opportunity in health-care reform to save county dollars and free up resources for other programs. She expects to form partnerships with the city of Portland and other agencies around the issues of homelessness and housing, with the goal of getting families off the streets.

In her five years as a county commissioner, Kafoury can point to solid accomplishments, including securing matching funds to move a new Sellwood Bridge forward. As a former state legislator, she has the knowledge and relationships necessary to press the county’s case in Salem.

There is one area of this campaign where we wish Kafoury had done more to emulate Francesconi — and that’s in the amount of attention paid to the eastern portion of the county. Francesconi is correct in asserting that more county resources should be directed to the historically neglected territory east of Interstate 205.

Kafoury agrees the needs of East County are many, but she doesn’t display the same fervor in discussing them. Francesconi has secured the endorsements of three East County mayors, based on commitments he’s made. Kafoury has gotten a few eastside endorsements of her own, and she vows to be a chairperson for all of Multnomah County. If she wins this race, we plan to help hold her to her word.

The two candidates’ approach to East County illustrates the defining distinction between them: Francesconi is better at telling people what they want to hear, while Kafoury is content to concentrate on the unglamorous work of county government.

The county chair is chief executive officer of one of the largest governments in Oregon. Voters should opt for the candidate who understands the role — both its limitations and its power to improve people’s lives. They should support Deborah Kafoury in the May 20 election.