Tom Hughes, Metro Council president.
Hughes discusses vision for Metro Council’s future
In November, former Hillsboro Mayor Tom Hughes squeeked out about 1,000 votes more than opponent and former 1000 Friends of Oregon Executive Director Bob Stacey, becoming Metro Council president, a job that wields tremendous influence over the tri-county area’s growth and economy.
With the region facing a chronically soggy economy, Hughes has put his sights squarely on job creation and reviving the economy. To get a sense of what Hughes wants to do with the position as top elected official for the region, the Portland Observer sat down with him to discuss the challenges of minority populations, the potential impact of the Columbia River Crossing on North and Northeast Portland, and other topics. His remarks have been edited for clarity.
Portland Observer: In the past few years, there have been some unsettling reports that have come out on the state of minorities in the area: the State of Black Oregon and the Coalition of the Communities of Color report. As Metro Council president, how do you make sure that everyone can enjoy the region’s livability?
Tom Hughes: We need to get jobs in places where they are not as accessible to minority populations. The other thing that’s important for us to do as a region is to come to a better appreciation about the status of minority populations. Historically, Portland was the place you were looking for. Communities of color would come to Portland.
Today, because of a lot of the gentrification that’s gone on, the communities of color have dispersed around the region, so there’s a lot in Gresham; there’s a lot of communities of color out in places like Beaverton and Hillsboro. I think that that creates a series of issues. It’s hard to target economic recovery to a certain geographic location as a way of improving the economic lot of communities of color because they are dispersed around the region.
So you basically have to do a couple of things. As a region, we need to have a more robust job growth than we do now. We need to identify ways through, on the one hand, affirmative action programs for government jobs, and, on the other hand, training grants and other kinds of efforts to make sure the workforce has a substantial element that is part of the minority communities. So we need to to a better job to make sure that there is training available for all segments of the population.
Part of the reality isn’t just because it’s the right thing to do, but it’s also the sensible thing to do because in an economy that’s growing rapidly, and unfortunately ours isn’t right now, one of the things that you begin to experience are restraints on the workforce; you don’t have enough members of the workforce. The reality is we can’t really afford to lose any major elements of our population from the workforce. So to the degree that any group of people — minorities, women, people who are not well trained because of their economic status — all those people need to have training available for them so that they are qualified for the jobs of the future, or else we won’t have a workforce sufficient to accommodate that growth.
PO: Metro has some contracts set aside for minority business enterprises. I was hoping you could talk a little bit about that.
TH: As a large government entity, with a number of grant programs and other things that are aimed at stimulating economic growth, Metro has the opportunity to work with minority contractors and small contractors. As Metro funds projects in the area like transportation projects, or transportation-oriented development, and if we scale those right, a lot of minority contractors — which tend to be small business people — can benefit.
One of the difficulties we have is that these big projects tend to be scaled at a level that only big companies can bid on. If you scale the job differently you can attract small businesses and it’s easier to put in a requirement, an enforceable requirement, that we give minority contractors an opportunity to do that.
PO: What are the jobs of the future?
TH: I think in this region we’re going to have a tremendous opportunity in health care, all the way from biotech development up through, and including, all of the medical delivery professions — from alternatives like nurse practitioners to physician’s assistant, all the way up to doctors. We actually had over the last few years in this state a tremendous disinvestment in higher ed. That, I think, has been tragic, and puts us at a disadvantage in terms of lots of opportunities that might be available. But health care is actually one we’ve seen an increase in programs.
So we really are at the center of where we can train more health care workers. We’re chronically short of health care workers in this area, so we need to step that up.
I still think we continue to have capacity in the alternative energy area with SolarWorld and Vestas here. I think we have the opportunity to attract additional companies. Each of those companies brings with them a set of suppliers that will also beef up the economy.
I think that there’s a tremendous opportunity in some of the older industries, the metal cluster for example. We’re beginning to look at alternative vehicles and alternative transportation models. Oregon Ironworks is a major streetcar manufacturer that could be an anchor to a cluster of companies around metals and manufacturing that rely on Oregon Steel to build the streetcars.
We tend to be in the cross hairs where most of the manufacturers want to try out their electric cars. I think there’s an opportunity for us to look at the whole battery and storage technology. So a lot of those opportunities exist.
PO: Are there a couple things you’re going to do within the next few months to indicate to businesses that this is a good place to do business?
TH: Well, I think that one of the things I did as mayor of Hillsboro is that I went out on recruitment trips. I went out on what was called Team Oregon, and went to various trade shows to try and sell that my community is a good place to do business. I want to do the same thing as Metro president. I know that Team Oregon is looking at a couple trade shows coming up in the solar area that I have some knowledge of. So I want to begin to participate in Team Oregon so that the region gets promoted, and I think the best way to do that is for the chief elected official to come forward and do that.
PO: To what extent do you think the election for Metro Council president was a referendum on the Columbia River Crossing?
TH: When you win an election by a thousand votes, you can point to almost anything as the reason why you got elected. I quite frankly think that at the end of the day that wasn’t as significant as we all thought it was going into the election. I think that in the end, we cameto an understanding that we need to move forward on the project. I think my opponent and I were, to some extent, in agreement on that.
We had some difference of opinion on the size and the scope of the project, but I think at the end of the day it was harder for the voters to discern the difference between the two of us than would have been necessary for them to use that as a major factor for making a decision. I certainly don’t move forward with the idea that the voters have spoken, and we need to move forward on CRC. I think we need to move forward on CRC for a variety or reasons, but I don’t see the election as a mandate.
PO: Where do you see it moving forward?
TH: I think the one thing we’ve got to do in working with the two DOTS [Washington and Oregon Departments of Transportation], is to make sure we have an understanding of what the governance structure of the project is going to be. I think we need to develop a structure that removes the direct control of the departments of transportation and gives more authority, or more opportunity perhaps, to local issues to be addressed, as well as simply the needs of the state transportation departments.
PO: Do you see a consensus forming around the project?
TH: I think that in the process of developing a consensus, there will always be issues that will be raised, but I think that the nature of these projects is that you go forward and you make the adjustments in terms of what the funding is going to look like. Governor-elect Kitzhaber has already started that process. We need to be back in Washington making sure we can secure the federal funding we need to move forward. We move forward as decisively as we can, and work out our differences as we go.
PO: In the governor’s Independent Review Panel report, one thing that stuck out for me was it said that the issue of environmental justice has been rolled into other issues — like neighborhood and community issues — and hasn’t been seriously assessed.
TH: I guess that as we discussed the issue during the last year-and-a-half, those issues have come up, and, in some respects, neighborhoods are the issue. I mean if you’re talking about environmental justice, it’s a question of which neighborhoods are going to be impacted and how they are going to be impacted.
And one of the things that is intriguing to me is that the people who have represented that North Portland community most directly — which I think is the area where people would argue that the environmental justice issue should be argued — have been pretty decisively in favor of moving forward with [recently reelected North Portland Democratic State Rep.] Tina Kotek and now [County Commissioner for North and Northeast Portland] Loretta Smith being elected. I know that Loretta was a big supporter of the bridge.
I think the question is whether you believe the bridge will solve the congestion problem or not. If you believe the bridge will solve the congestion problem, I think, quite frankly, it will help resolve some problems, so it’s a move forward for environmental justice.
PO: What do you base that on?
TH: I think that if we move traffic better through the area it will actually reduce congestion, which will reduce pollution.
PO: What is the biggest challenge you see? What keeps you up at night?
TH: I think we’re at a critical point in this region where economic development is tied to the success of our economic development program, which is tied to all other delivery of public services. So the quality of our schools, the quality of our human services, and the quality of our transportation services in some respects, depends on our ability to create rapid job growth.
Our ability to create rapid job growth depends on our quality of schools, our quality of human resources, the quality of our transportation system. So the cyclical nature of that allows, in times like we’re experiencing now, a phenomenon where you begin to develop a whirlpool effect. It winds down to where you get fewer jobs and worse schools, which creates fewer jobs, which creates worse schools.
That’s a dangerous dynamic for us to get into. I think we are in danger of doing that if we don’t put in a Herculean effort to try and promote the area as a good place to do job creation.