City News

Race and political ideology could end a Salem council race before it starts

Jose Gonzalez is running for Salem City Council to represent northeast neighborhoods in Ward 5. (Courtesy/Jose Gonzalez)

Over cups of coffee in recent months, Matt Ausec and Jose Gonzalez have discussed an idea that may be a little bit of a curveball for Salem voters.

Ausec is a first-term Salem city councilor whose progressive status and opposition to a third bridge across the Willamette River are credited with winning him his seat. Gonzalez, on the other hand, is nonpartisan but is considered tied with conservatives.

Yet Ausec, a policy analyst with the state Department of Administrative Services, is undecided if he will seek re-election. Instead he may support Gonzalez.

“My official answer as of right now is I have not decided,” Ausec told Salem Reporter. “I had assumed I would run again until I spoke with Jose.”

The deadline to file is March 10.

Ausec said a combination of factors played into his consideration. Northeast Salem has a higher concentration of Latino residents who may be better represented by Gonzalez, Ausec said.

“I feel it’s an important message of inclusion that if you have a leader in the community like the Latino community, who is willing to step up and commit their time and energy, I don’t want to stand in the way of that,” Ausec said.

Gonzalez is an Oregon native and son of Mexican parents. For the past two decades he’s been a real estate broker with Tu Casa Real Estate. He’s a father of four.

Politically, Gonzalez eschews labels. He said his politics mostly revolve around self-employment because he’s worked for himself “basically my whole working life.”

“Salem is political. Unless you’re under the wing of something, people don’t trust you,” Gonzalez said. “To me, I’m always going to be myself. … I’m not changing for anybody. I’m not running to please people.”

He’s campaigned in the past for liberal elected officials like City Councilor Tom Andersen, he said. He said he dislikes development when it leads to poorly planned housing and transportation.

Lately his campaign has become closer to those with a conservative track record.

In the last two months, Gonzalez’s campaign committee has spent more than $2,200 with New Media Northwest, a Salem political consulting firm that has been part of some bruising campaigns.

The firm was in the trenches of the House District 20 campaign in 2018, representing Selma Pierce when she challenged eventual winning State Rep. Paul Evans, involving accusatory billboards and attack ads running on television.

Gonzalez’s ties to the firm raised concerns for progressive Democrats, according to Evan Sorce, chair of the Marion County Democrats.

Sorce, who is also a staffer with Evans, said he doesn’t work directly with finding candidates for Salem City Council but he’s aware of the present concerns.

“Who he has chosen to affiliate himself with in the campaign has been one of the concerns that I know a lot of the progressive community organizations have,” Sorce said. “Hiring the consultants that work exclusively with right-wing campaigns has made us kind of take a pause on supporting his candidacy.”

Chuck Adams, CEO of New Media Northwest, said that although he’s played “hardball at the legislative level,” he believes Gonzalez will be an independent voice.

“We need to find more people like Jose, who are going to be more independent and not be sucked into an ideological framework,” Adams said.

Adams supported the Salem River Crossing, a proposed third bridge across the Willamette River. The project divided Salem politics for many years and the council struck it down last year. He said the current slate of councilors tend to “ignore reality.”

Adams said he doesn’t expect Gonzalez to vote in ways he’d agree with all the time.

“I’ve been more disappointed at times by my friends than I have been by my enemies. That just happens, right? This is democracy,” Adams said. “I just have confidence, really, in his common sense. I’m more concerned about someone who is so ideological.”

Gonzalez, meanwhile, said he hasn’t had the luxury of turning away help.

“I don’t have the privilege of picking a side,” he said. But he also defended Adams. “How many people know him personally? That’s what I invite them to do.”

Gonzalez’s affiliation with New Media Northwest is a red flag for Ausec, he said, but he expects Gonzalez to keep an open mind. He said he’s comfortable they may not agree on everything.

“The only factor that would keep me in the race is if I felt like he wasn’t a candidate that wouldn’t look at issues fairly,” Ausec said.

Ausec hasn’t closed the door on running again and said he would do so if he felt Gonzalez’s campaign, for some reason, took on a nastier tone. But he is fine stepping away to focus on planning his wedding and staying focused on his job.

More than that, Ausec said, he’s hopeful the Latino community gets a councilor who reflects their experience.

“I think he would be an excellent role model to say, we are taking your voices into consideration,” he said.

Have a tip? Contact reporter Troy Brynelson at 503-575-9930, [email protected] or @TroyWB.