Salem council results indicate voters prefer a progressive agenda

Campaign signs in the Marion County Democrats office in downtown Salem on Friday, May 22, indicate support for progressive candidates for Salem City Council. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Salem continues to head down a progressive path if Tuesday’s election results say anything about the makeup of the city.

Salem city politics have gradually become more progressive in recent years. For the latest election, two councilors chose not to run for re-election and one resigned, but most of the seats they leave will be filled with candidates who follow in their ideology.

Councilor Chris Hoy said Tuesday was affirmed where the council has been headed in recent years, with his special election to council in 2017 tipping the political balance to progressive majority.

“This just reinforced that it wasn’t an anomaly. This is the direction Salem wants to go,” Hoy said.

He said urban areas tend to trend more progressive.

“In Salem, we like to have that small-town feel, but yet we’re the second largest city in Oregon. We’re kind of moving past that a little bit. Our voting record is pretty clear despite the obscene amount of money thrown at these city council races,” he said.

Hoy is referring to more than $200,000 that was contributed to city council campaigns this year, blowing past any previous year’s spending record. City council positions are unpaid and nonpartisan.

Brad Nanke, a longtime conservative on the council, lost his bid for a sixth term Tuesday night. The results, with emergency room doctor Trevor Phillips getting 56% of the vote, was one of the biggest upsets of the night and could prove a bellwether for Salem’s changing ideology.

The Ward 5 race to represent north Salem was the closest of the city council races.

According to the most recent election results posted Thursday, May 21, Jose Gonzalez was leading by 117 votes, 52%.

For Hollie Oakes-Miller, a self-described leftist who ran against Gonzalez, her campaign is a sign that candidates even further to the left can run and be successful. She said she had several roadblocks to campaigning aside from the difficulties brought on by COVID-19, including more work brought on by switching to distance learning and an inability to get out into the community because she’s at a higher-risk should she catch the coronavirus.

Oakes-Miller, part-time faculty at Portland Community College, said she had about 20 members of the Salem Democratic Socialists of America help her campaign on what she called a shoestring budget.

She received $1,506 in campaign contributions while Gonzalez had about eight times that amount.

“It says that Salem voters are getting educated about their candidates and it doesn’t matter how much funding a candidate can get, it matters who is funding them and what their message is,” Oakes-Miller said.

She said the council has had three years of progressive leadership and the election shows the momentum is still moving in that direction.

“I’m actually super proud of how far we came given the challenges. Most everybody was more inspired than surprised,” she said. “I think if we could’ve done a regular campaign, I personally think we could have won.”

Jan Kailuweit, a manager in the Oregon Employment Department, lost his second bid to represent downtown Salem’s Ward 1, getting 42% of the vote. His opponent, stay-at-home mom Virginia Stapleton, won with 57%.

“Ideology and partisanship won over pragmaticism,” Kailuweit said Friday.

He said partisanship has crept into city council races since a contingent of liberal residents known as Progressive Salem started helping elect candidates in 2014.

The candidates Progressive Salem supported – Stapleton, Phillips and Vanessa Nordyke, – won.

Kailuweit was one of a handful of candidates that got financial backing from local business interest groups and local nonprofit Citizens for Livable Communities, which lists its mission as “improving the local economy, creating jobs, and enhancing the livability of the Mid-Willamette Valley.” Chuck Adams of political consulting firm New Media Northwest is the nonprofit’s agent.

Kailuweit said he got support from the Salem Area Chamber of Commerce because he was willing to listen.

He received $5,000 from the Build Jobs PAC, which lists chamber CEO Tom Hoffert as treasurer.

Kailuweit said his campaign contributions reflect the frustration the business community has with the current council.

He said the race was “pitted as business against everybody else and that dichotomy is artificial and is upheld by people who benefit from it.”

Dru Draper with New Media Northwest said there seems to be a disconnect between what Salem residents told researchers they want and how they’re voting.

 “This wasn’t just in our research, but also in the Community Satisfaction Survey where the majority of residents thought we were headed in the wrong direction,” said Draper. “Voters overwhelmingly told researchers that they wanted common sense policies like the third bridge, they opposed a new payroll tax, and they did not like the inaction by the council when encampments formed downtown. But we had candidates who ran on these issues, and they were rejected – which doesn’t make much sense,” Draper said in an email.

Nordyke, a lawyer with the state Department of Justice, won her bid to represent south Salem after she was appointed to the seat last fall.

Her race against Reid Sund, finance director at Salem Health, saw tens of thousands of dollars poured into Sund’s campaign from groups like the Oregon Realtors Political Action Committee and the Mid-Valley Affordable Housing Coalition.

Some of that money was used to send out mailers that Nordyke said misrepresented her vote on the payroll tax, which was scuttled during the pandemic.

Nordyke said she heard constituents say they liked clean campaigning and positivity.

“What they didn’t like were conversations about ‘tough love’ for the homeless,” she said.

Sund told the Statesman Journal he wanted to see a tough love approach to homelessness. He didn’t respond to calls from Salem Reporter seeking comment. 

Correction: Chris Hoy was elected to council during a 2017 special election. An earlier version misstated the year.

Have a tip or story idea? Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected] or @daisysaphara.

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