Oregon’s renters won big last night.
For over a year Portland Tenants United has been raising the alarms on anti-renter Senator Rod Monroe. We held rallies at his church, protested outside his mansion-style home during his fundraiser-birthday party attended by landlord lobby royalty, and serenaded him at his Oregon Senate office in Salem with songs written specifically about his betrayal to his working class constituents. In the holiday season, we successfully raised enough money for Jobs With Justice to have Monroe declared “Scrooge of the Year”. On multiple occasions, we dropped banners over freeway overpasses and pedestrian bridges in his district. We went door-to-door to warn voters of his conflict of interest. We tipped off local media to the dirty money in his campaign coffers, and used social media to spread the word. At all of his town hall meetings during the campaign season (many of which Monroe himself declined to attend), PTU came also, to raise the issue of renters’ rights and highlight Senator Monroe’s inexcusable inaction to attendees.
Monroe’s treachery on critically needed tenant protections during the last legislative session earned him a serious primary challenge. The landlord and real estate lobby doubled down, assuming that money could buy this election just like it bought Monroe’s loyalty during the session.
They were wrong.
Last night, renters in East Portland, Gresham, and Clackamas County delivered a well-deserved, decisive knockout blow to the political career of State Senator Rod Monroe of District 24. Shemia Fagan defeated Monroe in a landslide, despite the landlord lobby’s deep pockets and desperate, blatant attempts to deceive the people of his district into voting against their own interests. Together, Fagan and Kayse Jama, a veteran community organizer and tenants’ rights champion, outnumbered Monroe by four votes to one.
Monroe, a Democrat, had been an obstacle to the cause of tenant rights in Portland and in the state of Oregon for years. On the issue of housing, Monroe has hewn far to the right of his own party, siding with Republican legislators to kill a critical renter protection bill in the 2017 session. In typical two-faced fashion, while poor families continued to suffer from displacement all over the state (and especially in his own district, which is majority renter) that his own actions as a legislator have exacerbated, he propagated the bald-faced lie that he had in fact voted to “ban unfair rent increases” in his campaign statement in the Oregon voters’ pamphlet.
Closer to home, Monroe made an enemy of Portland Tenants United, first by ignoring our requests that he do the right thing and support House Bill 2004, and then by issuing a subpoena to our organization in a failed attempt to intimidate us into silence.
Throughout the campaign season leading up to May 15th, the usual opponents of housing rights lined up behind Monroe’s bid for re-election: realtors and landlord lobby groups, including Multifamily NW, the biggest political spender in Portland, and others operating under the deceptively-named “More Housing Now!”, “Equitable Housing”, and “Protect Sensible Leadership” PACs, raked in a staggering quarter of a million dollars, an unheard-of sum for a state senate primary race. Many of the biggest donations came from big-time California landlords, who hope to continue to cash in on Oregon’s landlord-friendly housing market by displacing entire complexes of poor and vulnerable tenants. We’ve seen this story play out again and again in Portland, the immigrant and refugee community in Holgate Manor being only one of the most recent examples. Last month, out of fear that their season of unregulated profiteering might be finally coming to an end, the president of the “Rental Housing Alliance”, a notorious landlord advocate group, issued a plea to their members to donate a year’s worth of profits — i.e., money garnered from our rent payments — to the More Housing Now! PAC in a last-ditch attempt to forestall renters’ strongest chance of fighting back in the legislative arena.
Portland Tenants United, in contrast, is a grassroots organization, funded by member dues, not shady donations from corporations and the rich. Our strength in this fight came from our army of organizers, our commitment to housing justice, and people power.
Now, soon-to-be-ex-Senator Rod Monroe’s chickens have returned to roost.
The takeaway is simple: as a political force, Oregon renters are stronger and more organized than ever, and we won’t stop until rent control and just-cause eviction rules are the law of the land. Reactionary politicians like Monroe may resist us for a time, hiding behind the increasingly meaningless label of “Democrat”. But as their terms draw to a close, these politicians will ultimately have to choose between supporting our agenda — the tenants’ agenda — or following Monroe into the dustbin of our state’s political history.
Unfortunately for Monroe, his troubles won’t end with the loss of his seat. In addition to being a state senator, he’s also the landlord of a 51-unit apartment complex in East Portland, which is alleged to suffer from untreated mold and poor maintenance in a lawsuit filed against Monroe by one of his own tenants. According to the suit, his tenant suffered a severe injury and lifelong disability due to the poor condition that her apartment was kept in. (Never one to do the right thing when he couldn’t profit from it, Monroe responded with a retaliatory countersuit. Both lawsuits are still pending.)
Keep an eye out for further news of ex-Senator Rod Monroe as the case develops; in the meantime, please join us in congratulating Shemia Fagan on becoming our newest state senator. Let’s make sure her commitment to rent control in Oregon remains unwavering, and that it is taken up urgently by her colleagues in Salem as well.