Voters in Portland, Oregon, will decide in November whether to elect an Antifa mayor, even after President Trump vowed to declare Antifa a domestic terrorism organization.
Longtime Portland community organizer Sarah Iannarone has made no secret of her political sympathies. She declared last year that “I am Antifa” and wryly embraced the “Antifa mayor” label. She and her campaign manager, Gregory McKelvey, were featured in a December article in Playboy with the headline “Antifa in Focus.”
“I am antifa,” she tweeted in September. “I stand proudly beside the good people of this city organizing in countless ways every day to oppose hate in its myriad forms.”
Two months later, she tweeted, “If they’re going to call me ‘Antifa Mayor,’ then I might as well fight fascism.”
Despite her proud stance, or maybe because of it, Ms. Iannarone placed second in the crowded May 19 mayoral primary with 23.8% of the vote. That landed her in the November runoff with Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, who came up just shy of the 50% threshold needed to win the race outright.
A former Oregon state treasurer, Mr. Wheeler is as liberal as the next big-city mayor. He is a Democrat, though the office is nonpartisan, but the often-violent clashes between Antifa and right-wing groups such as Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys have placed him in a difficult position.
Mr. Wheeler, 57, has sought to discourage right-wingers from rallying in Portland, but he has run afoul of leftist extremists by refusing to ban right-wing groups from holding rallies on city property, given the free speech issues involved.
“He’s in a no-win situation,” said Oregon Republican Party Chairman Bill Currier, mayor of Adair Village. “He’s somewhat sympathetic to [Antifa‘s] objectives, but he is loathed by them. With the Antifa folks, you’re either all-in or you’re against them.”
Ms. Iannarone has taken advantage of the tension by accusing the mayor of using the “militarized” police to create a “safe space” for “white nationalists” while “abusing” anti-fascists.
Her “rethinking public safety” plan calls for exploring “all legal avenues to prevent hate groups from crossing state lines” and “speaking out against hate groups with the goal of destigmatizing antifascism and clearly demonstrating that the people of Portland wish to stand up to the rise of fascism and white nationalism.”
“Sarah rejects the notion of ‘both sides,’” her platform statement reads. “When the people stand up, the mayor should stand with them. The demonization of antifascism is dangerous for democracy.”
Ms. Iannarone’s no-tolerance position on “hate groups” may be a First Amendment lawsuit waiting to happen, but it has without a doubt made her a popular figure on the far left, a not-insignificant percentage of the Portland vote.
“There is a subculture in Portland that goes along with their unofficial motto of ‘Keep Portland Weird,’ where a certain amount of anarchy is embraced,” Mr. Currier said. “It’s about sticking it to the man to achieve social justice goals.”
She may toe the Antifa line, but Ms. Iannarone, who placed third in the 2016 mayoral primary, has the political sense not to look the part. With her short, elfin red hair and round glasses, the 46-year-old looks more like a cool college professor than a street radical.
She was savvy enough to take advantage of Portland’s little-used campaign financing program, which matches donations of $50 or less by 6-to-1, bringing her $330,892 in public funding, according to Willamette Week.
Ms. Iannarone also has been careful not to espouse violence. She frequently defends Antifa activists as peaceful and blames law enforcement and the far-right for skirmishes.
Instead of hurting her, the rioting spurred by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody may have helped Ms. Iannarone by giving her political ammunition. Mr. Wheeler has looked overwhelmed by the thousands of protesters descending on Portland.
The mayor has imposed a curfew and called for Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, to send in National Guard troops to bolster local officers. Ms. Iannarone promptly condemned the action.
“I oppose calling in The National Guard to stop the peaceful protests our community desperately needs to heal,” Ms. Iannarone said Monday in a written statement. “The mayor of Portland should not be taking marching orders from Donald Trump’s tweets.”
Portland police, who have made at least 75 arrests, may have a different view of whether the protests are peaceful, but Ms. Iannarone said the presence of law enforcement is making matters worse.
“The solution to outrage over police brutality is not a more militarized presence in our streets,” she said. “This perpetuates the ‘us vs. them’ attitude that is ripping our city apart. I stood proudly beside our community in protest this week. They need to be heard, not hurt.”
Mr. Wheeler has strong union support and will undoubtedly outraise her campaign, but Republican political consultant Jonathan Lockwood warned that Ms. Iannarone should not be underestimated.
“On one hand, you have the incompetent, impotent Ted Wheeler, and on the other, you have an Antifa candidate who was able to force a runoff by pumping taxpayer funds,” Mr. Lockwood said. “I think it should be taken more seriously that she’s out and proud Antifa, and the people scoffing at her campaign should realize she now has until November to drag Wheeler out of City Hall.”
Asked about his candidate’s Antifa affiliation, Mr. McKelvey said the campaign had no comment and took issue with questions about whether Ms. Iannarone belongs to the loosely organized anarchist group.
“We cannot respond to an inquiry which implies one can be a part of Antifa or which intentionally confuses the default position of antifascism with membership with any group,” he said in an email.
In her Playboy interview, Ms. Iannarone said she felt a “responsibility to change the public discourse around anti-fascism, absolutely.”
“Our society’s lack of awareness and understanding of the issue is extremely disappointing to me,” she said. “Because this problem exists within the system, it’s important we use radical tactics — though I definitely think electoral politics matter, and that’s why I’m running.”
Sign up for Daily Newsletters