On Aug. 6, Isiah Wagoner posted a Facebook video. It was the day after a grand jury found no grounds to charge Travis Waleri with crimes related to hitting Wagoner over with a car at a Black Unity children’s march. Wearing a green shirt with images of President Barack Obama on it, Wagoner said in the video he was feeling unmotivated and depressed. As the video continued, his mood changed, and he said, “We’re going for the mayor.”
“I’m a Black man running, and it’s not from the police,” he said. “It’s for mayor. Change — we’re done with. We want something new.”
Talking with Eugene Weekly, he knows his write-in campaign is a long shot. Mayor Lucy Vinis avoided a November runoff when she received 68 percent of the vote in May. But that was before Eugene — and the rest of the U.S. — began a racial reckoning after a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd.
So Wagoner, 29 years old, says his campaign isn’t just about winning the mayoral seat, because he wants to remain realistic. It’s about increasing his name recognition for future elections, getting people registered to vote and lobbying for change.
In the event of an election night miracle in which he wins the mayoral office, he says he wants to make small steps toward police reform. He would do this with increased funding for crisis response organizations, which would lessen police presence on the streets. He also wants to stop allocating money for military-like weapons and vehicles.
“I’m building an important base and a platform to stand on: that I’m in the community and these are the things I’d like to see and hope to gain, and maybe hold the current people elected in office accountable for those changes,” Wagoner says. “If I don’t see those changes happen the way the working class and lower working class and people of color would like to see them, then I’ll continue to fight that fight.”
The city’s elections office tells EW that a write-in candidate could unseat Vinis in the November election, but the office has never seen a write-in candidate win a local election in the past 20 to 25 years. And if elected, Wagoner would be the first Black mayor in the city’s history.
But Wagoner says that the election isn’t just an attempt to beat Vinis.
“It’s not about me. It’s about putting someone like me in the solution for future generations to say, ‘It can happen here, it can happen anywhere,’” he says. “It’s like Obama. It’s important for people of color to hold these positions of offices to show our younger generations that it’s possible.”
Although Eugene’s mayor has few powers, Wagoner says if elected, he’d use his voice and community organizing experience to elevate certain voices and push for changes that he wants to amplify.
He says he’d advocate for more affordable housing in Eugene that everyday people can apply for, not just through Section 8 programs or St. Vinnie’s. And he says that the city should strive for more low-barrier shelters that are non-religious, which would be more inviting for secular people.
And since Black Lives Matter-related protests had police reform in its sights, he’d call for some change, but it wouldn’t look like dismantling, as some protests groups push for.
Wagoner says he’d first invite all of the crisis response organizations to a meeting and ask how to fully fund them. He envisions inviting not just CAHOOTS but also nonprofits like Womenspace, New Roads and Looking Glass.
“Fully funding some of the crisis response teams in this town by lessening the plate of local police officials can help us end or slow the war on drugs,” he says.
He advocates for putting more crisis response workers on the street to help people who are going through a mental health crisis. He adds that tackling the city’s drug, mental health and homeless problems through these organizations is a way to take on police funding, too.
“You’re defunding the jail beds that are allocated in those funds,” he says. “We don’t want to house people in jails who are doing drugs — we want to house them in a facility.”
But Wagoner isn’t too soft on EPD. He says he wants to reduce police presence on the streets but not totally defund the police. He adds he’d take a closer look at EPD’s budget and question the purchasing of military-grade weapons and vehicles, because “playing military cop” in the streets is a waste of funds that could go to other services.
Wagoner is running his campaign in an election that could have a huge turnout since many voters will be motivated by the White House race. In 2016, 53,940 voters either voted for Vinis or a write-in candidate; however, 34,945 voters left it blank, known as an undervote. For Wagoner to win, he has to have tens of thousands of voters write his name in. It’s a huge ask and he says he knows it.
He says ever since he announced his mayoral ambitions Aug. 6, people have been telling him that they support him — and he’s even had some say that they’ve registered to vote because they want to support a person of color to political office.
“That brought me to tears,” he says. “That’s people who believe in me. It’s a great thing to see.”
Wagoner says he’s aware that to some he’s a hero and to others a villain for things he’s said in the past — but that’s the cost of being in the public eye.
The 2020 race is the first step of his political career. Wagoner works in financing and as a youth camp counselor for the YMCA. He says if his 2020 write-in bid doesn’t work out, he has his eye on other offices, such as his City Council ward or former Eugene mayor Jim Torrey’s 4J seat. Torrey was appointed to the school board after losing a 2018 election, and his term ends June 30, 2021.
But he says he wants his write-in campaign to serve as an educational purpose for voters and the importance of voting during the primary election.
“If I can encourage and register 2,000 more voters, that’s huge,” he says.
For more information about Wagoner’s mayoral campaign, visit IsiahWagoner.com. The website should be live Friday, Aug. 21