Outtakes: Jefferson Smith on His Candidacy for Portland Mayor

Jefferson Smith. PQ Monthly file photo
By Erin Rook, PQ Monthly

As you have probably noticed by now, PQ Monthly does not provide political endorsements. But we do want to make sure you have the information you need to make an informed decision in the upcoming Portland mayoral election. So we sent out a questionnaire to candidates Charlie Hales and Jefferson Smith and included the highlights of their responses in the Sept./Oct. issue of PQ Monthly.

We tried to ask question that forced the candidates to dig deeper than recycled content from their campaign websites and I think, for the most part, we succeeded. Now, we know you want the full scoop, so we’re posting the candidate’s questionnaires in their entirety. Because Hales and Smith had so much to say, we’re giving them their own posts. Earlier today, we gave you Charlie Hales’ responses. Up now, Jefferson Smith.

PQ Monthly: What is the most important difference between you and your opponent?

Jefferson Smith: My political values and leadership strengths fit the City and our future. I have experience leading an organization and managing staff, as well as operating in politics—that combination will be helpful as we lead our city in this century. I have a record of bringing people together, developing new leaders, and advocating for progressive policies and social justice. I take the work seriously, but I don’t take myself too seriously. Here are some things my candidacy offers:

1. The candidate who has served in recent elected office.

This candidacy is informed from what I learned from two terms as a state legislator for East Portland, and being elected and re-elected by my colleagues for leadership in the House.

2. The candidate who has founded and run a successful organization.

I will take what I learned from starting the Oregon Bus Project and the Bus Federation, a 7-figure family of nonprofits with affiliated headquarters in 4 states. The Bus just had its 10th Anniversary… and never missed a payroll. We registered more than 70,000 young voters in Oregon alone, graduated more than 160 Fellows from our PolitiCorps summer democracy training program, and encouraged multiple young Oregonians to successfully run for the Oregon State Legislature. We made mistakes—I certainly did—but along the way I learned valuable lessons about budgeting, planning, hiring, managing, and holding the position where the buck stops.

3. A recent and relevant track record of making government better.

From transparency to performance-based budgeting to government benchmarks to online voter registration to reducing middle management in government, I have done more than talk about improving government; I’ve worked at it.

4. The candidate committed to running a positive, progressive campaign.

How we campaign is linked to how we govern. That is why I’ve pledged not to spend on opposition research or personal attack ads. We will build a historic, grassroots campaign. We have had over 2,900 donors so far, the most of any candidate for any race in the city. We have also had over __ people agree to volunteer. We have 10 policy teams established, including an LGBTQ and Allies Group (contact us to join: info@jeffersonsmith.com). We will bring people together to take a close look at our city and how we can make it even better.

5. A deeply-felt focus on equity.

a. The first mayor in Portland’s history to live in East Portland.

I don’t want to overstate it, but living and representing where my wife grew up (a few miles east of where I went to high school) gives me a broader perspective. My legislative district is where many people move whose choices are limited. 27% of Portland’s population lives east of 82nd Avenue, but tend to be overlooked too often. In my local school district, 80% of the students are on free or reduced-price lunch, and 73 languages are spoken in the district. I will do more than talk about geographic inequity. And people who live on the west side, in better neighborhoods, are not isolated. We are all in this together, whether you live in East Portland or in the West Hills. Concentrating poverty does not segregate problems. We need to solve problems for the whole city.           

b. The candidate who did not criticize the proposal for an Office of Equity.

We have a lot to do, and we need to work closely with the Communities of Color Coalition to address a changing Portland. More than 12,000 minorities have been displaced from inner Portland neighborhoods in the last 10 years, likely 20,000 or more going back to 1990. I have constituents who live here and commute to Church in North Portland.

c. Track record of progressive leadership.

I am the candidate who publicly supported Measures 66 & 67 for a fairer tax structure and funding for essential services. I am the candidate who has worked to help elect progressive candidates across the state for the past 10 years. And I am the candidate who embraced a strategic, patient approach to the Occupy encampments.

PQ: How have you supported LGBTQ rights in the past, and how will you support them as mayor?

Smith: You can count on me to not just support, but to champion equal rights. This will not be a new commitment. I have had support from the LGBTQ community to win my previous elections, and I’ve been there to stand up for our shared values. I’ve gone toe-to-toe with Lars Larson on Face-Off on the air specifically supporting the freedom to marry. I’ve walked (and occasionally cartwheeled) in more than a half-dozen Pride Parades. I don’t think I’ve missed a year without attending a BRO dinner (as a co-host when I could afford it) in the last decade.

A few things we can do:

a. Public Advocacy: A mayor of Portland has one of the biggest microphones in the State. I will continue my outspoken support of key issues facing the LGBTQ community. As mayor I will stand up, and on a more noticeable platform. A mayor can highlight heroes, be a spokesperson, go to events, speak up to the media, and stand up.

b. Political Partnership: A mayor should also play a role as a partner in regional, statewide, and even national political debates. This will not be new to me. The Oregon Bus Project has knocked on thousands of doors for marriage equality. Our affiliates have run equality campaigns in Colorado and Montana. As a mayor I will be able to help. Not only will I be able to participate in strategy meetings and fundraisers where I’m wanted, but also, we are building a campaign organization that we do not plan to jettison after the election. We will have bodies and voices to apply to progressive priorities.

c. Policy Decision-Making: Many of the more obvious things a city can do have already been done; that is a credit to the City. Our City has already pushed nondiscrimination in employment and housing, domestic partner benefits for City employees, and added coverage for gender reassignment care for City employees. We need to continue and amplify our reputation as a gay-friendly city. Not only do we have a moral commitment; our reputation boosts our ability to attract and retain talent and boosts our economic competitiveness.

We still face challenges. There were incidents this year where gay people have been victims of violence. So as much as we think of Portland as this haven of civility and tolerance, the basic idea of protecting the community’s right to exist and be free from harassment is still a huge concern. I think the Q Patrol is a great thing. We need to do more. I will push for more “eyes on the street,” from ONI foot patrols to police officers walking the beat to Clean and Safe personnel to street-oriented commerce. I want to hear your ideas too.

We need to maintain our commitment to our residents who are homeless. According to Outside In, 40% of homeless youth are LGBTQ youth. All of Portland should share in our commitment to ending homelessness for more and more people.

PQ: Will you carry the torch lit by Mayor Sam Adams and encourage local companies to extend transgender-inclusive health benefits to their employees?

Smith: Yes. Health care is a basic right, and we can make Portland a model for the nation in terms of inclusive benefits.

PQ: What do you see as the biggest challenge facing LGBTQ Portlanders, and how will you work to fix it?

Smith: We need to work together to address lingering homophobic elements of our culture and practices. These include:

  • Homeless youth: According to Outside In, 40% of homeless youth are LGBTQ youth. While the mayor can do little to change the intolerance that puts these youth in such a terrible situation, we have the power to improve their prospects at finding stable, affordable housing. See my answer to #10 below for a longer list of thoughts on what we can do about that.
  • Discrimination at school and work: Despite real positive policy progress led by Basic Rights Oregon, the Oregon Student Equal Rights Alliance and many others, too many LGBTQ kids still experience harassment and bullying in school, and too many places of business aren’t accepting. In Portland, LGBTQ people deserve to grow up, learn, work and live in a safe and welcoming environment – we can accept nothing less. We need to make sure our workplaces are truly non-discriminatory, and offer trans-inclusive health benefits. We should prioritize doing business with companies that are exemplars in this regard. We can help to strengthen anti-bullying programs across the city, by working in partnership with our city’s school districts, teachers, administrators and student leaders.
  • Marriage Equality: This is among the most important civil rights issues of my lifetime. While of course the mayor cannot personally amend the state constitution (only a statewide ballot measure can undo the discrimination that has been written into our constitution), I’ll remain a vocal and active champion of the cause. I’ll work with BRO and allies to pass a marriage equality ballot measure as soon as we can possibly achieve it. I’ll be a spokesperson to the degree that it’s useful to the campaign; I’ll raise money to fund the ballot measure campaign; and I’ll help get out the vote.

PQ: In an interview with CBS, President Barack Obama said that his job is not just about getting the policy right, but also “to tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism, especially during tough times.” Does inspiration play a part in the job of mayor? What story would you tell to the people of Portland?

Smith: Absolutely.  In a commission government we don’t hire a dictator or even a manager, we hire a leader. And the most important asset that leader has is our people.

I know you were speaking metaphorically, but I’ll answer your question with an actual story. 40 years ago, an eventual member of the City Club was named Allison Belcher, and she helped form the soul of Portland.

Downtown was polluted and struggling then. She learned of a plan to expand Harbor Drive into Westside Highway in downtown Portland. The project would make it easier to move cars through, but not helping the pollution or people moving within the town.

A New York planner named Robert Moses had built a kingdom on highway projects just like this, and had in fact drawn up the plans for this project.

Allison Belcher organized picnics on the side of the road, signaling passersby and the media — “Imagine a park.” She and her friends helped turn public opinion, the City Club supported a change, in favor of what is now Waterfront Park. The highway dollars were used for light rail, helped re-invigorate downtown, brought people in, had multi-value benefits, and made the way for Portland to be a national model of city planning for the next 30 years.

The world needs someplace, and the nation needs someplace that can set an example to the nation of what a place can be like and how a people can live together. Portland, Oregon can be that place.

At multiple intervals in history our place has answered history’s questions with a different set of responses. And we have to do that again. At this point in this century, we have to do that again.

We can get Portland working, working better, and working for more people.

Inspiration can’t be merely for its own sake — we need to use it to motivate people to action. Because there’s no way a mayor can solve all of our city’s challenges. But we can do it, together.

PQ: Who inspires you? Whose story moves you?

Smith: I take pieces of inspiration from many people. My Mom. My Dad. Our president. Caitlin Baggott, the head of the Bus Project. One I especially admire (and not just because I’m talking to PQ Monthly readers) is Harvey Milk. He had unswerving commitment to bringing people together to champion equal rights. He knew that he could not do it alone. And we saw the national impact that can be had by showing courageous leadership in city government. In homage to him (and the great movie about him), I have started multiple rallies by saying “My name is Harvey Milk and I am here to recruit you.” He offers an essence of leadership—recruiting new people, all people, to approach their common purpose.

PQ: What does democracy mean to you? How will you engage the citizens of Portland to play a part?

Smith: This underlines the very motivation of my candidacy. We need an unflinching focus on fairness. We need to honestly face where Portland is failing Portlanders. It is an economic and moral imperative that we invest in equity across city government. We have to manage our spending and strive for economic diversity in our neighborhoods as we build a city that is prosperous, fair and sustainable—for everybody. We won’t always get it right, and we won’t change things overnight, but we have to commit ourselves.

In Denver, Colorado, former Mayor Hickenlooper reportedly built the most diverse team in the history of his city. A mayor’s staff can set the tone.

Right now, not everyone can participate. Young people and people who don’t have a lot of means have a really hard time finding an affording a place to live. My new friend Milton Lopez has lived in his apartment for 15 years, just became a citizen, and will cast his first vote ever this year. He is just getting connected to the power structure to improve the lives of his renter neighbors.

When we look at development projects, we need to put a higher priority on finding ways to help more people enjoy what the city has to offer.

There is a consensus building among certain members of the chattering class that suggest Portland should move away from its tradition of civic engagement. I heard from a powerful political leader, “We need someone who just will make decisions.” I heard another candidate say “There’s just too much process.”

I am running in part to disrupt this false notion. We can have strong leadership AND place power with people. Indeed, our city requires both. At its best, Portland is defined by our people.

I’ve heard other critiques that resonate more. A community leader told me not too long ago, “When we got community members together over 18 months to discuss plans, our input was just set aside.” I heard from someone working on a development project that “We went through a process, options were presented, and none of the options were picked.”

The answer lies not with less civic engagement, but with better civic engagement. Helping people solve problems together. We’ll have something exciting out soon on storm drains (yes, you read that right, stay tuned). I’m honored to have had volunteers knock on 49,000 doors in this race and had over 2,900 individual contributors to our campaign, more than any city candidate not running under public financing. I look forward to having an administration that’s built on people power.

PQ: Everyone makes mistakes. Tell us about something you once did/said that you later regretted. What caused you to have a change of heart, and how did you rectify the situation?

Smith: After law school and clerking for a federal court of appeals judge, I took a job with a major law firm in Manhattan whose litigation practice was more and more revolving around big tobacco defense. That conflicted not only with my values but with work I had done in law school. After leaving and returning home to Portland, I continued with the practice of law at about the same time as starting the Bus Project. Not recognizing or being clearer even earlier about how I was going to spend my life meant not only mis-applying 2 years — it also did no favors for the law firms that were kind enough to hire me.

I will never regret bringing people together to start the Bus Project. (There’s now a Bus Project in Liberia!). But I wish I’d clarified my career path even earlier in my 20’s.

PQ: Do you think it is appropriate to expect people to pay more for less, as Trimet now seems to? How would you reverse this trend?

Smith: We’re in a tough budget environment, and I won’t make a promise I can’t keep to single-handedly reverse the trend of increased fares and service cuts. What I can do is work with Tri Met and consider some reforms. For instance, we can push for 1-2 city seats on the Tri Met board, so the needs of Portlander are better represented. If necessary, we might push for Metro to reassert its authority over Tri Met. One of the most important things we can do is look for revenue-producing activities for Tri Met, because our fiscal situation isn’t yet getting any easier.

PQ: What will you do to combat homelessness in Portland?  

Smith: Far too many people in our city struggle to find a decent place to live. Safe, decent and stable housing is a cornerstone of a healthy society, yet close to 5,000 people experience homelessness in Portland, while many more are displaced from their neighborhoods. All of Portland should share in our commitment to ending homelessness for more and more people. A few places to start:

  • Wrap-around services for the chronically homeless: We will lead with practical compassion, and we will not violate civil rights. We won’t conflate violent or destructive behavior with being homeless or quietly panhandling. Homelessness itself is not a crime. We will focus on solving problems, not sweeping camps. We can build on police partnerships–Captain Sara Westbrook understands these issues–and organizations like JOIN and anyone who can help. Mental health and equity have to be primary lenses. The city should lead the conversation with the county and the state.
  • I support a significant permanent source of funding for housing, like a housing bond. A regional solution would be best.  We can provide thousands of construction jobs, and make safe, decent housing available for seniors, people on disability, and other low-income people.
  • We should also consider alternative housing options. New forms of housing need not be scary. We are in the midst of structural changes in our economy, and it makes sense to look at new housing types, like courtyard-style family housing, or dormitory-style, with shared amenities like kitchens and bathrooms.
  • Foreclosure is traumatic. It is devastating financially and emotionally for people who lose their homes, and it brings with it huge costs for the community. This year, I championed fair foreclosure reforms in the State House that will end dual-track foreclosure and force banks to meet with homeowners, but we can do more. I’ll work to use funds from the recent settlement against the banks who got us into this mess to help get us out. We can seed an investment fund to buy troubled mortgages from lenders at a steep discount and help people stay in their homes.
  • Right now we have a city that works for some of us, but not all of us. Making Portland the city that works for everyone, in every neighborhood, regardless of income, color or geography, is our priority.  I’ll prioritize front-line services, not multi-billion dollar bridge boondoggles or tax breaks for corporations and developers that we can’t afford.

PQ: How will you distinguish yourself as the new mayoral intern on “Portlandia”?

Smith: I do not intend to be on Portlandia unless other council members and city staff are featured. Perhaps for a musical number.

PQ: Are there any myths or misconceptions about yourself or your candidacy you’d like to debunk?

Smith: One misconception that’s easy to perpetuate in a campaign is that the mayor can solve all problems. If you elect me mayor, there will still be too many unpaved roads. Our homeless population will still be too high. I won’t turn around the global economy. I want to be candid about the challenges we will face, and the work it will take — from the whole city — to get the city working better for everyone.

PQ: What’s your favorite gay anthem?

Smith: I’m partial to “We Are Family” by Sister Sledge.

Erin Rook is PQ’s web editor and a regular contributor to the print edition. You can contact Erin at erin@pqmonthly.com.