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Can Francesconi be the comeback kid?

Decision 2014: After failed mayoral bid, politico seeks county chair post


by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JIM CLARK - Former city commissioner Jim Francisconi is tackling social issues head-on in his campaign to be the next Multnomah County chair.When Jim Francesconi first ran for Portland City Council in 1996, he was the social justice-minded community organizer, the friend to the injured worker and disadvantaged, the outsider pounding on the doors of City Hall. 

But after eight years on the City Council, Francesconi’s political career fizzled after he cozied-up to downtown business leaders, raising an unprecedented $1 million in an unsuccessful bid for mayor.

A decade after that embarrassing defeat, Francesconi is back seeking the Multnomah County chair post, one of two main contenders along with former county commissioner and state lawmaker Deborah Kafoury.

Multnomah County voters might well wonder which Francesconi will show up to run the county if he wins.

Will it be the activist Catholic committed to workers, the poor and dispossessed? Or will it be the friend of Portland’s business elite known to some as the “$1 million man?”

Right out the gate in this race, Francesconi adopted a message sounding like his old self, saying the rising gap between rich and poor is the key issue of our time.

“We’re leaving a lot of people behind,” Francesconi told community leaders in Gresham’s Rockwood neighborhood at a recent roundtable discussion. “We need to talk about the fact that poverty’s almost doubled in the last 11 years in the county.”

Francesconi’s failed bid for mayor led to some deep soul-searching, he says. “It made me wiser and stronger and clearer about what I care about.”

As his decades-long record of community activism attests, Francesconi has never been content to just practice law and retreat to private life. His wife, who initially didn’t want him to run for office again, finally relaxed that stance, Francesconi says. “I think she realizes that public service is who I am.”

Francesconi, 61, likes to describe himself as “100 percent Catholic, 100 percent Italian.” He grew up in Eureka, Calif., a modest lumber and fishing town not far from the Oregon border, close to his extended family. His dad tended bar and his mom was a bank teller, and his grandparents lived next door. A star student at St. Bernard’s High School, Francesconi was the first from the Catholic school to attend Stanford University.

Francesconi identified with the ascendant liberal wing of the 1960s-era Catholic Church, inspired by Robert Kennedy, Dorothy Day and the anti-war Berrigan brothers. After Stanford, he moved to Portland to join the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. His assignment: recreation work with inner-city black youth and others, working out of St. Andrew Catholic Church on Northeast Alberta Street and Eighth Avenue. Francesconi met his wife and lifelong partner in the Jesuit program, and joined the St. Andrew congregation, where he remains an active member.

Years later, Francesconi’s Catholicism factored into the 2004 mayor’s race, when he came out in favor of civil unions for same-sex couples, but not gay marriage. That same year, Democratic standard-bearer John Kerry, a Catholic running for president, staked out the same position.

But that was a year when some local governments, including Multnomah and Benton counties, started blessing same-sex marriage. Francesconi soon reversed himself and endorsed gay marriage. He says he “realized the Catholic Church was wrong,” and now says he’s “ashamed” of his initial stance.

Rather than being praised for going against his church, Francesconi was criticized locally for being indecisive or politically opportunistic.

Friend to the worker and the poor

After his stint with the Jesuits, Francesconi enrolled in the University of Oregon law school. He started representing injured workers while still in law school, and that became the hallmark of his legal practice.

Francesconi had no desire to be a corporate lawyer, preferring to represent people. He says he was no John Edwards, the Democratic politician and trial lawyer who grew rich winning massive settlements. “I represented a lot of workers,” he says. “Most trial lawyers don’t represent them because it’s not lucrative.”

But that earned him enough to buy a house in Northeast Portland’s affluent Alameda neighborhood.

In 1988, Francesconi marched with progressive religious and labor leaders in a downtown protest on behalf of janitors seeking to boost their $4 hourly wage for cleaning office towers. He later became a leader in the Portland Organizing Project, a church-led coalition that included several Catholic congregations. The coalition deployed aggressive community organization tactics to win gains on behalf of poor, working class and minority communities.

In 1992, Francesconi co-founded the Youth Employment and Empowerment Project, enlisting many employers to hire several hundred gang-affected youths from inner-city neighborhoods.

Francesconi had a vision for using the parks system to give more opportunities to youths in all parts of the city.

In that first City Council race, Francesconi also demonstrated a prolific ability to raise campaign funds, including from the business community.

The parks guy

Francesconi made his mark on the City Council overseeing Portland Parks & Recreation for eight years.

“Jim has been one of the strongest (parks) supporters that I’ve known,” says Mike Houck, director of the Urban Greenspaces Institute, and a leading Portland environmentalist. Parks employees often relayed “he was an excellent commissioner to work for,” says Houck, who is officially neutral in the race.

Francesconi reinstituted the city Parks Board, which had been moribund since 1913, Houck says. He created the Portland Parks Foundation to help raise money for the chronically underfunded bureau.

As parks commissioner, Francesconi led a successful ballot measure campaign for a five-year parks levy in 2002, raising $48 million.

Francesconi says his proudest achievement was working with then-County Chairwoman Bev Stein to create the SUN School program, which stands for Schools Uniting Neighborhoods, in 1999. The collaboration between the parks bureau, county and public schools offers school-based recreation, enrichment courses and community services, typically when the school day is over.

The business guy

Kevin Jeans Gail, Francesconi’s former chief of staff who has known him 30 years, says his ex-boss has never wavered in his passion for attacking poverty. On the council, Francesconi pushed his colleagues to support creation of a new urban renewal district in Lents, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. He also was known as a friend of labor, pushing in 2000 for a city Fair Wage ordinance, which required city contractors to pay at least $9.50 an hour to custodians, security staff and parking attendants working under city contracts.

Francesconi pushed to create a Small Business Council to advise city leaders. He led a successful effort to lower city business taxes paid by small-business owners.

Northwest Portland residents charged Francesconi sold out their neighborhood in late 2003 when he supported parking garages proposed by Richard Singer and then accepted a $500 campaign contribution from Singer.

Business owners rewarded Francesconi handsomely as he racked up a record $1 million war chest for the mayor’s race. Elsewhere, that would have scared off all comers.

But former Police Chief Tom Potter, capitalizing on many Portlanders’ distrust of business, ran a low-budget campaign touting strict limits on campaign donations. Francesconi lost badly after he was portrayed as pandering to business.

Jeans Gail says Francesconi’s new reputation was undeserved. “People running against him created that perception because it was to their advantage to get elected,” he says.

It wasn’t just the money issue and Francesconi’s tilt toward business, though. His personal style sometimes caused friction with fellow city commissioners and others. Even supporters complained about his tortuous decision-making on matters before the City Council. In his early years on the council, Zari Santner, the former parks bureau director, recalls how supporters feared Francesconi would be swayed by the last person to lobby him on an issue and change his position.

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JIM CLARK - Jim Francisconi, a candidate for Multnomah County chair, talked with supporters at a late March gathering at a private home in Gresham.

Out of the limelight

Francesconi went back to practicing law after the mayor’s race, but remained active in public life. Gov. Ted Kulongoski named him to the Oregon State Board of Higher Education in 2006, where he’s helped chart new higher-ed policies for the state. Portland Community College hired him as a consultant in 2005, and he helped President Preston Pulliams raise money for scholarships and pass a massive $375 million bond measure in 2008.

On the campaign trail, Francesconi likes to haul out a map showing poverty growing in the county and moving eastward. “There needs to be a revitalized economic development department” at the county, with a focus on “the least,” he told those Rockwood leaders.

Francesconi is advocating to raise the minimum wage, and to leverage county contracts to raise the pay of people paid through those contracts.

Interestingly, he opposes any move to reduce the small-business owner’s tax paid to Multnomah County — the same one he reduced for city taxpayers. Francesconi argues that the county has fewer sources of income than the city and has dire needs now. At a house party in Gresham attended by many small-business people, including some Republicans, Francesconi said bluntly that he won’t support lowering their county tax burden as small-business owners.

Former Oregon House Speaker Lynn Snodgrass, a conservative Republican at that house party whose family owns a nursery business, disagrees with his support for a higher minimum wage, and says she only agrees with him about half the time. But Snodgrass, like Francesconi a devout Christian, calls him a “lone soldier” who understands the needs of business. “What we agree on is very powerful.”

To beat Kafoury, Francesconi is going to have to convince voters he’s a candidate of reform who will bring new ideas to the county, says Jim Moore, political science professor at Pacific University. “People are not going to remember him as a Catholic community activist. If anybody remembers anything,” he says, it’s the ill-fated mayor’s race when “he spent $1 million and got creamed.”

Mount Tabor Neighborhood Association leader Paul Leistner still nurses bad feelings about Francesconi’s handling of a disputed deal with Warner Pacific College involving Mount Tabor Park land.

“It seems like he’s trying to package himself and market himself,” Leistner says. “My tendency is to think he’s still the same person he was back then.”

Santner agrees that Francesconi hasn’t really changed. But she sees him as an inspiring champion for youth, people of color and others who need services from the county. Francesconi’s motivation is not to seek power, she says. “It’s for helping, and he believes in public service.”


College land deal still rankles Tabor neighbors

Shortly after he left office, Jim Francesconi’s involvement in an ill-fated deal involving land at Mount Tabor Park still angers neighbors.

Warner Pacific College, next to the park, wanted land for ballfields, and hoped to buy some of the park land used for a nursery and maintenance yard. The college hired Francesconi, the recently departed parks commissioner then in private practice, to represent it in the potential real estate deal.

When leaders of the Mount Tabor Neighborhood Association got wind of the deal, they accused the parks bureau of trying to do a secret sale of park land without notifying the neighbors. The deal fell apart.

Francesconi says he was trying to do the right thing, which might have resulted in a “triple win.” Warner Pacific could get the ballfields it wanted for its students. Neighbors could get access to those ballfields, which Warner agreed to make available for public use. And the parks bureau could get money to relocate its decrepit central maintenance facility on Southeast Division Street.

“The objective was right,” Francesconi says in retrospect. “Maybe the fact that I got involved so soon afterwards was probably a mistake.”

Santner says the bureau needs to be creative since it’s underfunded by the city. She says the city would have taken the deal to the public once it was viable, but word leaked out before that point.

“The community very rightfully felt that it was a done deal without their discussion,” Santner says. She doubts the city ever would have sold off its park land, after an earlier bid by Fred Meyer to buy park land next to its headquarters on Southeast Powell Boulevard proved unpopular with the public. More likely, she says, the bureau would have agreed to share its land with the college, enabling the public also to use the ballfields.

Francesconi, to his credit, was concerned that Warner Pacific might relocate to Vancouver because it was so tight on space near the park, Santner says.

Though she acknowledges the bureau made mistakes, she says it was communicating about the deal with the Mount Tabor Neighborhood Association chair, but didn’t realize that person wasn’t really representative of the neighbors’ concerns.

Paul Leistner, a longtime leader of the Mount Tabor Neighborhood Association, remembers it differently. He says the parks bureau was communicating with the association chair about the Warner deal, but told him not to talk about it to others.

“People just felt that was very unethical and inappropriate,” he says. “It still seems like a back-room, closed-door deal.

“People are still angry about how that happened.”