Portland Plays the Bogeyman in Neighboring DA Race

Faced with a progressive challenger in the May election, the DA of Oregon’s suburban Washington County has taken to demonizing the state's largest city.

Alex Zielinski   |    April 20, 2022

People marched in Portland on June 4, 2020 to protest the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and many others at the hands of police. (Matthew Roth/Flickr creative commons)

This article was produced as a collaboration between Bolts and Portland Mercury.

In a new campaign video for Washington County District Attorney Kevin Barton, a narrator asks: “Why does safety matter?” Several people then give vague answers about family and community until a woman with a worried expression delivers perhaps the most direct response: “Because I don’t want our county turning into Portland.”  

Although more than a thousand Portlanders live within Washington County, Oregon’s second most populous county, Barton has made the city a bogeyman in his race for a second term in the nonpartisan prosecutor’s office. Ahead of the May 17 election, Barton has accused his opponent of wanting to defund law enforcement and framed himself as the only barrier keeping suburban Washington County from descending into Portland-level lawlessness. 

“We have the advantage, I think, of watching Portland’s mistakes and not repeating them,” Barton said in an interview with the Beaverton Valley Times last October. “One of those mistakes is the defunding of the police and public safety systems within Portland. We know that simply taking money away and taking resources away from public safety is a dangerous road to go down.” 

Like many U.S. cities, Portland has seen an increase in violent crime since 2020—a year that brought a global pandemic, racial justice protests, investment in police alternatives at Portland City Hall, an increase in visible homelessness, and turnover at the district attorney’s office in Multnomah County, which encompasses most of Portland city limits. Barton’s ads allude to the fact that in 2020, Portland officials also shifted $15 million from policing toward community programs and a pilot project to send mental health clinicians to some 911 calls instead of armed officers, reducing the city’s annual police budget by about 3 percent compared to the previous year; Barton’s ads do not, however, mention that the police budget headed to Portland City Council for approval next month is about $15 million more than what the city approved in 2019, the largest in the city’s history.

In a recent community forum hosted by Washington County, Barton rejected the idea that his campaign was trying to divide voters in the Portland region. “I’m not creating any type of division between Multnomah County and Washington County, the leaders in Multnomah County are crazy,” said Barton.  “They have ruined the public safety system.”

Fears about Portland “defunding” police have been central to Barton’s campaign against his opponent Brian Decker, a former public defender who also has experience working as a federal prosecutor. In campaign ads, Barton accuses Decker of being “an extremist who wants to defund police and abolish prisons.” Barton, who declined to be interviewed for this story, as justification points out that Decker helped establish the Washington County Justice Initiative, a nonprofit whose website calls for “defunding police, prosecutors, and prisons.” 

Decker says Barton’s ads are an inaccurate portrayal of the kind reforms he actually supports. “I have said we need to fund essential police services and we need to reallocate funds to fund addiction treatment, homeless services, mental health care, and other social services,” Decker said. “Most people in Washington County agree with that, but Barton conflates that with zeroing out the budget of the police, because he knows that rhetoric will rally his right wing base.”

Previously a Republican bastion, Washington County has veered to the left since the 1990s, with a steady succession of Democrats representing the county at the state legislature. While the district attorney’s office is nonpartisan, Barton’s politics skew conservative—especially compared to Decker. 

This is Barton’s second contested district attorney’s race, which itself is a rarity in Oregon. In 2018, Barton beat out Max Wall, a well-financed progressive candidate who joined the race at the last minute. Thanks to Wall’s support by billionaire George Soros, the campaign became the most expensive district attorney race in Oregon’s history. Decker, who currently has $238,000 in his campaign coffers, has raised much less than Barton’s previous challenger, while the incumbent has just over $277,000 in cash on hand, including hefty donations from Nike founder Phil Knight, Columbia Sportswear CEO Tim Boyle, and local conservative political action committee ActionPAC. Decker’s biggest donations have come from Aaron Boonshoft, a local philanthropist funding an Oregon campaign to decriminalize sex work, Oregon Department of Justice attorney Nicholas Greenfield, and former Oregon Democratic Senator Chip Shields 

The outcome of the May 17 election could influence criminal justice policy in Oregon’s second-largest county. Decker criticizes the incumbent for favoring long sentences, charging an inordinate amount of youth as adults, and offering little in terms of actual rehabilitation to incarcerated people. Decker says these factors contribute to Washington County having the highest recidivism rate in Portland’s tri-county metro area. Decker is also interested in bringing restorative justice programs to Washington County, which can allow crime victims to choose a mediation process with a defendant over a trial, allowing both parties to resolve their issues and reach an agreement outside of the carceral system.

“We need more options,” said Decker. “When you act like locking people up is the only strategy, and then you come across a case where that’s not the right solution, you end up doing nothing to create a safer community. I want to use every appropriate resource.” 

He says his past work prosecuting criminal cases qualifies him for the DA job, while his work as a public defender in Washington County would help him reform what’s not working in the county’s criminal justice system. 

“Washington County is the most extreme county I’ve ever worked in, and that’s because of the tough on crime, war on drugs, lock ’em up and throw away the key fanaticism coming from the DA’s office,” Decker said.

Barton’s lobbying work indeed illustrates a certain resistance to reforms. He has discouraged lawmakers from scaling back Oregon’s mandatory minimum sentencing policy for violent crimes, called Measure 11, which charges adolescents as adults, and pushed back against a bill that would require judges take domestic abuse into consideration during sentencing if it was a contributing factor to a defendant’s criminal behavior. Barton also opposed Measure 110, a law that decriminalized small amounts of illegal drugs and funded substance abuse recovery programs. Barton has instead promoted what he calls “responsible reforms,” including the creation of a pilot diversion program for criminal defendants with mental health issues and a new resource center for children impacted by domestic abuse. 

Barton’s demonizing of Portland and weaponizing of the debate around police funding worries Bobbin Singh, director of the Oregon Justice Resource Center (OJRC). 

“Barton says he doesn’t want to turn into Portland, which is saying he doesn’t want to talk about racial justice issues or talk about accountability within law enforcement,” said Singh. “As a Washington County resident and person of color, when I hear rhetoric like that, it’s alarming.”

Washington County has grown to be Oregon’s most racially and ethnically diverse county, according to the 2020 Census. Singh sees Barton’s approach is in line with a national conservative backlash to the racial justice protests of 2020, which sends a clear message to the county’s residents of color. 

“Either Barton is doing it intentionally to create this wedge between voters, or he doesn’t know what he’s doing and he’s ignorant to it. Either way, it’s reckless and dangerous and sends a strong signal that we’re not welcome here.” 

For Singh, Barton’s campaign draws historic parallels to the political environment following the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

“The response to the civil rights movement of the ‘60s was tough on crime policing,” said Singh. “Any time we see success on civil rights, like the response to George Floyd’s murder, we see a national pushback that’s tough on crime. I think that’s what we’re seeing here.”

Shannon Wight, deputy director of Safety and Justice Oregon, an organization that lobbies for criminal justice reform bills, says Barton’s campaign has painted him as a progressive reformer by evoking the idea of “responsible reform” and acknowledging past harms the criminal justice system has inflicted on marginalized communities, showing he’s at least paying attention to larger calls to change the system. By invoking Portland as an allusion to violent crime and homelessness, however, Wight argues that Barton is pointing to problems he helped engineer by “prioritizing locking people up, tough sentencing policies, and ignoring people’s real needs.”  

Blaming Portland’s rise in crime on marginal changes in police funding and wrongly claiming that his opponent wants to zero out law enforcement budgets seems to be working for Barton. 

Tigard Mayor Jason Snider, one of seven Washington County mayors who have endorsed Barton, said he spoke with Decker and agreed with him on many fronts—for instance, “I agree that we don’t need to be throwing the book at people for minor crimes.” But what made Snider uncomfortable about Decker, he said, “was hearing that he had a ‘defund the police’ agenda. There are a lot of things that need more investment in the community, like mental health and recovery, but that doesn’t mean we need less police.”