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Will family ties hinder or help Kafoury?

County chair candidate has name recognition, resources, experience


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Multnomah County Chair candidate Deborah Kafoury chats with Guillaume Debergh while canvassing in Northeast Portland Saturday morning.Al Gore did the Macarena. Mitt Romney did Gangnam Style.

Both Clintons and Obamas have danced in public on numerous occasions.

But none of them as enthusiastically as Deborah Kafoury.

Two years ago, the Multnomah County commissioner took the stage in a red fringed cocktail dress and heels — shaking and shimmying across the stage to the Black Eyed Peas’ “Pump It” — to a rowdy crowd of friends and colleagues.

“It was so much fun; I would do it again in a heartbeat,” says Kafoury, 46, the former state legislator, House minority leader, county commissioner, mother of three young children, and now candidate for the county’s top job.

“What I lacked in dance skills I made up for in enthusiasm,” she adds.

While some politicians obsess about their public image and change their messages to reflect the latest public opinion poll, Kafoury doesn’t care what people think.

Her supporters say her fearless enthusiasm — coupled with her commitment to address poverty and residents traditionally left behind — makes her the best candidate for the job of Multnomah County chair.

“She is one of those people truly committed to those values, and she continues to look for ways to influence and move things in the right direction,” says Metro Councilor Sam Chase. “She figures out what the right thing to do is, and then she works the political system to be able to get that achieved.”

The dancing (which involved three months of training with a professional dance partner) was the headliner for the nonprofit Portland Community Reinvestment Initiatives’ annual “Dancing with the Stars”-themed benefit.

PCRI helps low-income families live in stable housing in North and Northeast Portland rather than being forced to move by gentrification.

Incidentally, Kafoury’s mother, Gretchen Kafoury — former legislator, county commissioner and city commissioner — was instrumental in the formation of PRCI 22 years ago, along with her chief of staff, Erik Sten. In 1996, Sten was part of X-PAC, the group of ambitious 30-somethings Deborah Kafoury founded. Sten was elected city commissioner the same year. Deborah Kafoury helped work on Sten’s campaign, mobilizing voters and fundraising.

Sten became the city’s champion on homelessness, no doubt influenced by both Kafourys.

That happens. A lot. There are several Kafourys in town, which will either help or hinder Kafoury in her tight race against former city Commissioner Jim Francesconi in the May 20 primary election.

(A spokesman for Francesconi’s campaign says if invited to participate in the “Dancing with the Stars” event, he’d ask to partner with his daughter, a former Jefferson Dancer.)

Four other candidates who have not held public office also are vying to fill the seat vacated by Chairman Jeff Cogen, who resigned after admitting to an affair with a county employee.

Pollster Tim Hibbitts says at this point, he doesn’t have any data to call either Kafoury or Francesconi the front-runner. “She probably is, but that’s an educated guess,” Hibbitts says. “Obviously she’s got a fair amount of name recognition ... but what I’m more interested in is who has more resources to deliver their messaging.”

Francesconi debuted his first TV ad on Friday and had $122,000 cash on hand as of this week, according to a spokesman, while Kafoury has $252,000 cash on hand, including ads on TV and direct mail.

In addition to Gretchen Kafoury’s work on affordable housing, Deborah’s father, Stephen Kafoury, served in the Legislature and as a lobbyist in Salem. Her stepmother Marge Kafoury is a former lobbyist for the city of Portland and Metro councilor.

For some, the web of family connections is too insider-ish.

“When you run against a Kafoury, you run against all Kafourys,” says Mike Verbout, a North Portland activist who is supporting Francesconi in the race.

“This is still a relatively small city, politically, in many ways,” adds Verbout, who has known Francesconi from his time in City Hall. “I just don’t like the idea of having to have to get the blessing of power brokers to be able to get elected to public office.”

Others say the vast network of relationships Kafoury has cultivated over the years shows that she has the people skills to get the job done.

“Politically, philosophically, we may be on separate ends of the spectrum,” says state Rep. Bruce Starr, R-Hillsboro, with whom she worked in the Legislature to secure $35 million for the Sellwood Bridge replacement project. “We found where we could work together. She’s responsible for getting the Sellwood Bridge funded and moving forward. It was pretty much dead. She found a way to get ‘er done.”

Starr isn’t endorsing either candidate in the race, but unofficially, “she’s great,” he says. “I have a lot of respect for her.”

by: COURTESY OF XILIA FAYE PHOTOGRAPHY - At a 2012 fundraising event, Deborah Kafoury partnered with professional dancer Malik Delgado and wowed the crowd with an enthusiastic swing dance. Supporters say she brings the right mix of experience, leadership and character.

Homelessness, poverty are focus

With the exception of “Dancing with the Stars,” Kafoury says most of what she does is decidedly unsexy, and she’s fine with that.

Case in point: Last Thursday, Multnomah County and Portland City Council leaders voted to consolidate homeless and social services to better serve the needs of the 1,700 people who sleep on the streets each night.

Kafoury spearheaded that effort while on the county commission, in partnership with city Commissioner Nick Fish. But last week she didn’t stop campaigning to make speeches about the initiative, which she had to hand over to her successor, Liesl Wendt, when she stepped down to run for the county chair seat.

“My mother taught me, you’d be surprised how much gets done if you don’t worry about who takes the credit,” Kafoury says.

Another issue Kafoury has worked on that is crucial, but not glamorous, she says, is adding food pantries to 10 SUN schools in East Portland for children, families and neighbors to access.

Since 2011 about 5,000 families have used the pantries, with the average family picking up enough for 48 meals.

“Where the need is, is where I focus my attention,” Kafoury says.

Kafoury’s campaign won its biggest surprise endorsement last week when the Portland Business Alliance announced their support. The PBA endorsed Francesconi’s bid for mayor in 2004.

This time around, Francesconi had said he supported a minimum wage increase — and then tempered that for a PBA endorsement interview. The PBA opposes the increase.

PBA President Sandra McDonough cited Kafoury’s “experience and character,” and her “leadership on the issues most directly related to the county mission, including service to the less fortunate in our community, as well as her commitment to small business, workforce training and job development.”

Some in the community, however, want a fresh perspective to the problems the county faces.

“I think the county is ready for something different; we’re ready for new eyes,” says Gwen Sullivan, president of the Portland Association of Teachers, which has endorsed Francesconi.

The union had endorsed Kafoury in her bid for county commissioner, but this time around, Sullivan says, her members felt like Francesconi had deeper knowledge of the issues teachers and schools were facing.

Some leaders in East Portland also say they feel Kafoury is part of the political machine that gives their part of the city short shrift.

The election “is the first time in a while it really means something to people out here,” says Troutdale Mayor Mike Weatherby. “So much of what happens is Portland-centric. It should be — they’re the big dogs — but it overlooks the people out here, the needs out here.”

Weatherby says he’s endorsed Francesconi because he spends time in East Portland, listens to people, and “has a real awareness of what happens beyond 82nd (Avenue).”

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Deborah Kafoury and supporters will continue knocking on doors through the May 20 election. Ballots will be mailed April 30.

Politics wasn’t first choice

Despite her political upbringing, Kafoury didn’t want to go into politics.

She wanted to be a journalist, working on her school newspaper and yearbook staffs. After graduating from Grant High School, she attended Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash. — her birthplace, and the alma mater of her mother and a handful of other family members. (Brian Wilson, candidate for county commissioner, also was in the class of ‘89, but Kafoury says they didn’t run in the same circles.)

After college, Kafoury moved to Washington, D.C., to help U.S. House Rep. Les AuCoin, D-Ore., in his bid for the Senate. His opponent was incumbent U.S. Sen. Bob Packwood, whose infamous sex scandal was a rude wake-up call to politics for any newcomer. “It was crushing,” Kafoury recalls. “I tried to get as far away from politics as possible.”

She moved to San Francisco and worked for the Far West Laboratory for Educational Research and Development, using her English degree to help study the effects of poverty on at-risk youth in schools.

She returned to Portland a year later. “I remember saying I want to work in these programs,” Kafoury says. “I don’t just want to study them, I want to be the change.”

She spent a yearlong stint as a lobbyist in the Oregon Legislature, but she wanted to be making the decisions instead of trying to persuade people.

In Portland in 1996, there was a “can-do” feeling among Gen-Xers that was similar to her mother’s generation in the ‘70s, Kafoury says.

To help get them engaged, Kafoury formed X-PAC, the nonpartisan political network of young people who’ve gone on to hold office or work in other top jobs in the city and county.

“It was a big part of what motivated us to stay engaged in community service,” says Metro Councilor Sam Chase, who served as vice chairman of the group when Kafoury was chair. “We all knew we wanted to be engaged. It gave us a lot more knowledge about how we can effect positive change.”

Chase says part of Kafoury’s legacy is nurturing that generation of leaders. X-PAC lasted until 2001, when the Bus Project stepped in to fill a similar role.

In 1999 at age 31, Kafoury was elected to the Legislature, where she served for five years and served as minority leader.

She married Nik Blosser, and in 2003 took five years off to raise their children, who are now 13, 10 and 8. Her son will be a freshman at Grant High next year.

In 2008, Kafoury decided to run for Multnomah County Commission when Commissioner Maria Rojo de Steffey announced she wouldn’t run again.

Kafoury is invigorated by the county’s work, she says, but she feels the immediacy every day.

As a first-year commissioner, “It was stressful; we had to cut $42 million from the budget,” she says. That year she took up running on a treadmill during her lunch hour, then extended that to longer distances and began running races.

She’s run at least five half-marathons, and sticks to a regimen of running and twice-weekly boot camp classes.

The campaign, she says, has been a marathon, but with just over two weeks to go till ballots drop, more of a sprint. “This is the most competititive race I’ve ever had,” she says.