2020 Voters Guide: Meet the candidates running for Douglas County Commission’s 3rd District seat

photo by: Contributed photos

Republican candidate Pam McDermott, left, and Democratic candidate Shannon Portillo, right, will face off in the Nov. 3 general election to serve on the Douglas County Commission as the 3rd District representative.

Two Douglas County Commission candidates who opposed the county’s plan to expand its jail will face off in the upcoming general election.

The two candidates — Pam McDermott, a Republican, and Shannon Portillo, a Democrat — come from different political parties, but their views on serving the community, and particularly their focus on criminal justice reform, are rather similar.

However, there are some differences between them as they compete for a seat that has been held by Republicans for several decades.

While both McDermott and Portillo have worked with the faith-based advocacy group Justice Matters — which has long opposed the county’s recently abandoned $29.6 million jail expansion project and called for establishing more alternatives to incarceration — the candidates have slightly different views on what the county should do next to address the issue.

Additionally, they also offered slightly different views of the county budget, as McDermott said rising property taxes may need to be addressed, while Portillo said she views the budget as a “values document.”

Pam McDermott

Pam McDermott

Historically speaking, McDermott may have the upper hand as a Republican aiming to fill the 3rd District seat. According to the Douglas County Clerk’s Office, since 1928, Democrats have only served in the 3rd District seat for three terms. The last Democratic commissioner for the 3rd District was I.J. Stoneback, who served from 1972 to 1976.

But McDermott, 54, did not strongly attach herself to the political party, recently telling the Journal-World she does not want to be tied down by labels and is “not an ideologue.”

When asked whether she identifies as conservative, she said she doesn’t know where the political lines of parties are at the moment and she has rarely considered herself in political terms. She said what matters to her are people, and making sure she and others are kind and generous.

“I have shaped my entire adult life around helping people and adding value to their lives,” said McDermott, who works as community life director at Morning Star Church. “They are the ultimate resource and are capable of solving complex problems. Strong communities are built by people caring for other people.”

She said the local government exists to serve people, and it should be simple and make sense to those people. While her opposition to the jail project was the driver behind her decision to run for the seat, McDermott said her concerns also include a lack of transparency and a disregard for residents’ opinions — two things she said the current County Commission showed when it approved the jail project in January.

But the project has since been discontinued. To further address criminal justice and the jail’s overcrowding issues, McDermott said she wants to conduct a comprehensive study on what drives the crowding issue. She also wants to establish further alternatives to incarceration like the current behavioral health and drug courts and find ways to increase efficiency in the local court system.

Another big issue for the next County Commission will be crafting the county’s next budget, which will likely be affected by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. McDermott said she has noticed the county budget has grown significantly in the past 10 years, and she wants to know why. She said it may need to be adjusted in the future, but she did not commit to any specific cuts.

“Every family and business has had to alter their budget in this season, and it’s unreasonable to think that our government would not have to do the same,” she said.

She also said she doesn’t believe the county should consider increasing any taxes as a solution to a pandemic recession, and she would like to see the state consider “property tax reform” that would make sure those taxes “cannot continue to climb.”

McDermott is originally from Massachusetts. She moved to Lawrence to attend the University of Kansas in 1983. She and her husband, John, raised five children in Lawrence and are now grandparents to four children who all live in Lawrence, she said.

Shannon Portillo

photo by: Contributed photo

Shannon Portillo

Portillo, 35, a University of Kansas associate professor and administrator who has extensively studied criminal justice, identifies herself as a progressive candidate.

When asked to explain what it means to her to be a progressive, she said that means she’s running a campaign that aims to make sure the community feels heard, especially those in the community who have been discriminated against.

“Over the past few months, our country has begun to realize that the things activists have been saying for decades is true — the way our systems were built actually (doesn’t) work for a lot of people, and certainly (doesn’t) reflect the things we say we believe in,” she said, noting that she would work to hold the local government accountable to its constituents.

Portillo said she was “thrilled” that the county chose to abandon the jail expansion project, but she said there is still more work to be done on criminal justice. She said she too wants the county to conduct a study into the causes of overcrowding in the jail. She also said she wants the Douglas County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, which includes County Commission representation, to work with the Douglas County District Attorney’s Office on bail reform.

Portillo is also a co-chair of Gov. Laura Kelly’s commission on racial equity and justice, the Journal-World has reported. She said the group would be releasing recommendations to local governments in the near future that she thinks will be useful for addressing these issues in Douglas County.

As for dealing with a budget during an ongoing pandemic, Portillo said the vast majority of the county’s revenue comes from property taxes, which will not be greatly affected immediately by a recession like sales taxes might be. She said that the county might need to adjust its tax rates in the future, but she did not directly respond to the Journal-World’s questions about what she would change or cut.

“My general philosophy is that budgets are values documents. You invest in what’s important to you,” she said. “However, our current economic situation may eventually impact property tax collection, and it will mean that we need to be cautious in how we plan moving forward.”

Portillo is the assistant vice chancellor of academic affairs at KU’s Edwards Campus in Overland Park and an associate professor for the university’s school of public affairs and administration in Lawrence. She moved to Lawrence when she was 16 to attend KU, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and a doctorate in public administration from the university.

Portillo’s first position in academia was at George Mason University, located in Fairfax, Va. She returned to Lawrence in 2013 to work for KU, earning tenure in 2015. She now lives in western Lawrence with her partner, Jevan Bremby.

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