There is one Portland, not two or three. I’m not suggesting that we invest in East Portland not because it’s important to do so, instead we need to invest in East Portland because we are all in this together.
When you share the titular name as Jimmy Stewart’s character from the movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, a career in politics should perhaps be presumed for your future. Such is the blessing- or the curse- bestowed upon Jefferson Smith, the current state representative for Oregon’s House District 47, co-founder of the Bus Project, and current mayoral candidate.
Last month, Smith announced his candidacy for mayor, becoming the third high profile candidate to join a race that includes former City Commissioner Charlie Hales and former Ecotrust executive Eileen Brady. Smith’s House District covers a wide swath of Portland east of 82nd Ave, and was easily elected to the statehouse as he ran unopposed to fill the vacated seat of Jeff Merkley. To run for the mayor’s race, however, Smith needs to ensure voters that he can ably represent the entire city while also coming out on top of two qualified and formidable candidates. On a recent morning, Jefferson Smith agreed to meet at his favorite donut shop in East Portland, to discuss his views about Portland’s present and future, as well as his campaign and prospective mayoral agenda, touching on the future of the Columbia River Crossing, who he cast a ballot for in the 2000 Presidential election, and in what ways the city of Portland is like Miller Light.
To begin with, I’d like to hear your thoughts on Portland’s future and what Portland’s future going to be. In some estimates, by mid-century the Portland metropolitan region is going to be as large as Chicago’s. Millions of people are expected to come and move here, attracted by the region’s livability. What are these people going to do? I was trying to think of what are the industries that are going to support such a large population increase. And I’m looking around and drawing a blank. You know, to put in perspective, you think of the names of sports teams, and if they’re not picking an animal mascot they’re picking an industry that the city is known for, such as the Pittsburgh Steelers or the Green Bay Packers.
We do have the Portland Timbers, but it’s been a while.
Exactly. And so using that metaphor, what would it be- the Portland Planners or something? So, using that as a starting point, what do you think Portland’s future will look like? How are we going to sustain such a population increase, if those predictions are true. What are people going to do?
I’ll reply with two things. First, is to the first question you asked which is the future of the city: There’s a lot we don’t know. But what we do know is that it is going to be bigger and more colorful. Also, history is destiny. And there are things we get to decide. This election and the next city council will not just be predictors, but shapers. So, in terms of if we are right, that we get bigger and colorful, but we also need to make sure we’re getting smarter and faster as well.
Can you expound upon that a bit?
Yeah. That we need to make sure we have competitive educational opportunities, for both commerce and citizenship. To go faster, we don’t want people wasting too much time- whether it’s in traffic or lacking a robust IT infrastructure. Beyond that, we should compete on health, beauty, and sustainability. And not just be Phoenix with rainier weather.
In terms of what people are going to do, the second question you asked, often our predictions of the next industrial crest are actually “fad falling.” If you listen to Joe Cortright, he’ll go through the sort of the economic development fads and he’ll sort of give the list. And I don’t have the list memorized, but bio-tech was one of them, everyone wanted to do biotech. And everybody wanted to do software. What the traditional B- economic planner does: is think about what’s hot or make a bad guess as to what will be the hot and attempt to muddle through towards doing that. An entrepreneurial economic planner thinks in terms of “what are we best at”- or what can we be the best at and what is needed to support that. And when you think about what we could be best at: we can be really creative. We have a wonderful outdoor culture. We have a strain of health consciousness. We are more compassionate than average.
And so these are strengths of Portland, and how do we use them to build towards the future?
How do we build towards them, right? The best answers will be delivered by entrepreneurs. But I’ll make some guesses. Some of these things describe our apparel cluster. People are still going to need clothes and still need shoes. And that continues to be an area of excellence for the region. Technology and software is another sector that is a growing cluster for our region. And I think it would be nice if we could get small scale manufacturing. The kind of things that are happening with r Indo Windows, which creates an insert for windows for energy efficiency. We have the elements to be a global leader in sustainability technology. The future of those things play to our strengths. Yours is the major question, and it was asked of me by someone who worked for me, during the time in which I was talking about running for mayor. He said 'cool', and then he called me back and asked, “What are we best at?” So, to me this campaign is not nearly going to be me answering that question, but asking it.
Here is a fundamental tenant that should inform our- well pretty close to fundamental- that should inform our economic thinking, and I will say it until I’m blue in the face: How often do we hear “You know what, we could attract more business to Portland or to Oregon if we just do ‘blank’: lower commercial tax rates, deregulate, have better schools, keep it a beautiful place- you know, whatever you want that blank to be.” Much less often do we hear, “You know, we could grow businesses in Oregon if we just do ‘blank.’” It turns out this latter story cleaves much closer to facts and reality. Over the last ten-plus years, non-resident, later-stage companies have lost jobs. And that’s true all over the country. Where net job growth has come from is from home-grown, earlier-stage companies. And we need to focus our economic development efforts to include those areas more robustly.
You’ve kind of touched on sustainability, and Portland has a reputation as a livable city. But for many young people in this region, it is pretty difficult to find and make a living. And there is this idea of “keeping Portland weird” that we’ve all seen through the bumper stickers, and has that ethic. And while there is something to being attractive for the city to have the creative class to come here in their 20s to become bartender or start a band or do their DIY art thing. And then ten years later, they want to have a family, they want to purchase a house and while housing prices a lower due to the recession, affordable houses can be found in East Portland and other parts of the city. If you want to live in the inner east side, forget about it. And if you want to raise a family and make a living, its pretty difficult. So, there’s that tension there, about how Portland is the most livable city that you can’t actually make a living at. How do we bridge that tension?
Let me divide those things a little bit. One reason I talked about focusing on our strengths as part of our economic strategy because I fear a false dichotomy from people who say that “we should have a weird, unique city.” And others who say “No- we need jobs and houses we can afford.” It reminds me of that old “Tastes great, less filling” argument, by that I mean that old Miller Light ad where there’s supposed to be an argument, but of course it’s both. Weirdness is our strength. Attracting creative young people that do interesting things is a strength. We should hoard young talent as much as possible. If there is an “overdemand” then that raises the question that it turns out, having too many twentysomethings and thirtysomethings is not a huge burden on the tax rolls. They’re not generally going to be people taking a more than average share of social services. It does not worsen our dependency ratio, it improves our dependency ratio. So, we need to double down on that stuff and play to our strengths.
But what about the concern that if young creative people are unable to do what they want to here, they”ll leave?
Right, the second part of the question is, it’s not to make Portland less livable and less weird. Okay, so then what do we do about making sure people have jobs and have a good place to live. On the jobs front, a little bit about what we were talking about before. No mayor can truthfully run on turning around the global economy, however tempting it is. I have worked on a lot of campaigns, and I’ve seen this temptation to promise the world and promise things beyond our control. But there are some things we can do, even as a city. One: we can continue our trajectory in economic development around entrepreneurship, including business intelligence, help home-grown companies find new customers and markets as well as fiscally responsible access to capital measures. We can be careful in procurement efforts. One of the reasons I want our transportation plan to include neighborhood scale public works projects is so that local contractors can compete for them. Every leader in the state should be thinking about how we can get national class higher education institutions in Portland. National class research. We have OHSU, which is the closest, and we have elements at PSU. We need to include helping what we got in the areas that will make us competitive in the global knowledge economy. Universities create research ecosystems, and we need more of that. I asked myself, as a thought exercise: What would FDR do as mayor in the 21st century and were a mayor? I haven’t answered that question yet, but I think it would include some of what I’ve talked about all ready. I think future-worthy, Portland-appropriate, neighborhood scale public works projects would certainly be within the answer.
This says a little bit about jobs, doesn’t say a lot about where to live. That’s a hard one. The good news is there are some places in Portland where you can buy a house for under 170 thousand dollars. They tend to be in my neighborhood in East Portland, however, in Hazelwood. Certainly under two hundred thousand dollars. This is one reason why we got to make sure this is a city that works for everybody- or at least pretty close to everybody and pretty close to everywhere. This is why we got to ensure that investments in public housing are promoting economic diversity. It’s why we need to make sure our transportation infrastructure, that our city planning makes it so the neighborhoods furthest away from the central city also work. So that the schools work. So that those housing options are real housing options.
Isn’t there also the inherent tension that when you make those improvements, you increase the value and therefore make them unaffordable?
That’s one reason why it’s hard. That’s why “It’s hard” was my very first answer. But I think that if we manage our resource deployment equitably, I think it helps a little bit. If we, for instance, focus a lot of our resource deployment on inner North and Northeast Portland while simultaneously under-investing in outer East Portland, then housing prices increase in one place go up, communities get displaced, and there have been 12,000 members of minority communities who have moved from inner North and Northeast Portland to East Portland the last ten years. I have constituents who- hopefully- vote for me and commute to North Portland to go to church. If you invest equitably or at least carefully I think there is a way to modulate some of that displacement a little bit. And to have the housing market compete a bit differently. There remains a risk that things getting too expensive. Then in the immortal words of my friend who I have never met in New York, “The rent is too damn high.” We can’t allow fear of increased housing prices mean we don’t invest in communities, mean we don’t work to make communities safe, we don’t make communities easy to get around. We don’t make sure there are local businesses within communities. We still got to do that stuff. And while we do it, we’ve got to be investing in housing options so that people have a place to live.
So, back to Portland’s reputation in sustainability, there is a well-deserved reputation as a leader in these trends, innovations, and technology. But also from being a leader you get placed squarely in the targets, so now all these other cities are “hunting” Portland. Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco. Portland at one time had the most LEED buildings per capita, and I don’t know if it still does…
Oh, probably not.
I think it may have fallen to number three. So, despite all of our innovations and efforts, are we losing this race to be the sustainability leader, or can we recapture that leadership role?
I’m not ready to call a winner or loser. I do think work needs to be done to re-capture a leading position. I just saw a questionnaire from a business organization that to me came across as a backlash against the idea of Portland being a sustainable place. It’s the same backlash we’re hearing against increasing the number of bike lanes and the same backlash we’re hearing about Portland being weird. One of the reasons why in your very first question I talked about playing to our strengths was that we are not going to be more competitive by getting rid of its best parts- that is ludicrous, it’s stupid, and half-minded. We do need to regain our mojo when it comes to sustainability, and simultaneously we need to make sure that the moves we make keep us competitive, and work for as many people as possible and are equitable. Sustainability and prosperity cannot just be for white people. We are not getting whiter.
So let’s now shift a little bit and talk about you personally and your decision to run for mayor, what you are running for and on and all that good stuff. Why did you decide to throw your hat in the ring and decide that running for mayor was worth the effort, and the time, and the energy as opposed to keeping your seat in the statehouse? Anybody who runs for office looks in the mirror and says, “I can do this. I can be- I can, you know, rep East Portland in the statehouse.” But now you’ve decided you looked in the mirror and thought “I can be the Mayor of Portland.”
I hope that we don’t ask and answer the question “What we can be?” I hope we ask and answer the question “What we can do?” And by “we” hopefully it’s “we together”- and then it’s what part I can play, how can I help with that? Every politician has ambitions, and they’re not being fully candid if they say otherwise. But my ambition is to help the world accomplish something great. And being mayor of the city of Portland seemed to me and to my wife the opportunity to provide the biggest contribution of our lives.
Could you expound on that a little bit more?
Yeah, I will. I’ll start chronologically. It started when I first ran for the state house, and did not have city office pretty much in my sights. And we knocked on five thousand doors before the filing deadline, and I got a better sense of what my neighbors were facing. And it was sidewalks, and safe streets, and wanted a safer Max line, and wanting a fair share of Portland Development Commission distributive resources, and community oriented public safety and a bunch of other stuff that I couldn’t pass a bill for at the statehouse. And then while I was serving, I continued talking with people about their experiences. I talked to a woman whose commute was 38 minutes long. Then the bus routes were reduced, and her commute became 54 minutes long, just long enough so she was unable to get the second job she needed. Twenty-eight percent of the city’s population lives east of 82nd Avenue, yet the area only received 1.8% of the stimulus money that the city received and 3.3% of transit funding has occurred east of 82nd. Of all the PDC school funding and subsidized retrofits, zero went to David Douglas, Parkrose, etc. They weren’t even asked to apply! I saw a city fail to pass public financing of elections by 1200 votes. I saw the city fail to pass a school bond- when was the last time Portland voters shot down a school bond measure? I saw the city fail to give Tri-Met authority to get new buses. And the biggest projects recently have been the tram for OHSU commuters- which my wife loves- a streetcar for Lake Oswego and a highway project for Vancouver commuters.
Then I started talking to people. And I sensed this growing complaint, this annoyance that Portland was too concerned about being weird and had a sustainability fetish. I heard complaints about how there was “too much process.” I heard there was a need for leaders to make decisions. For me, I define Portland by what I think is its greatest traits- creative, sustainable, citizen-driven. And personally, I started getting scared: I was concerned that in an effort to improve the city, we would excise not tumors but organs. It seemed like there was a desire to get rid of the best parts of this city, and not to double-down on these best parts to help address challenges. And I felt like my friends took this city for granted: “We love Obama, and we disliked Bush the most!” They told me I should focus on state politics. But I felt that there was something at stake for this city, and when I asked myself what is the best way to serve, running for mayor seemed to be the best option.
Right now, during the run-up to the primary, most of the people paying attention are those who are paying attention to policy differences and are thick in the weeds about the differences between the candidates. Those who pay more of a surface level attention, perhaps flipping through the Willamette Week or The Mercury occasionally, might know you from your bill to pipe classical music in at eastside MAX stops or the legislative “rick roll” which got national attention…
International attention! The YouTube of the “rick roll” has a 98% “likes” rating- one of the highest rated videos on YouTube, ever!
What would you say those who are perhaps unaware or unfamiliar with your legislative record or background?
First of all, I would say come and meet me! I hope to meet as many Portlanders as possible during this campaign, and share what is important to me and hear what is important to them. There are things that the press doesn’t pay much attention to, but I have some accomplishments in the legislature that I’m really very proud of. In my first session, I worked on the Umatilla water shortage, and now the state is working on its first integrated water strategy. Water policy is not sexy, but we worked our tails off on it. I worked on allowing the ability to register to vote online, and now we’ve had 85 thousand voters register online. I helped put the state budget online, encouraging government transparency. I worked with the Governor on the “cool schools” plan- helped put it together and get it started. I helped get funding for investment in retrofits for public buildings- this is a big thing that needed to happen, and we need to do more. I helped pass Oregon’s first human trafficking bill. I helped with the Grow Oregon economic development plan that will take into effect at the first of the year, which will help fifty to over one hundred companies around the state find new customers and markets. This is something I’m tremendously proud of. Ultimately, I collaborated with so many people on all these issues, because in the end democracy and legislating is not an individual act.
So, let’s say the election occurs next week, you win and you move into the Mayor’s office. What elements of the current administration would you keep, and which elements would you drop and/ or change?
It really is too soon to say. There are three stages of investigation into current policies. The first one occurs during the campaign, the second is during the transition, and then the third occurs after you take office.
But the things I would keep include the mapping efforts by the mayor and the recent East Portland investments. I am heartened by some things, such as the city taking the initiative to address graduation rates and summer learning. This commitment and recognition of the role of education also comes through in the safer routes to school efforts. There are some things still to address, as we need to learn more and do better on equity and diversity. I am heartened by the right brain initiative that connects art & education. We need to have a commitment to do a better job in equitable investment so all neighborhoods have access to parks.
What about the elements of the current administration you would drop or change?
I want to be careful walking around a battlefield and shooting the wounded. Rather than provide a basis for changing things based on hindsight, I’d prefer to offer areas of improvement on potential foresight, such as transportation projects, and make sure that are best values and objectives are addressed. It’s not clear to me whether the Columbia River Crossing will come back to the mayor or not. If its correct that the current proposed project is not fundable, that Vancouver won’t support light rail or Washington won’t fund the necessary $450 million or the Oregon legislature won’t pass a gas tax or redistribute $450 million for pre-approved projects or Ted Wheeler is right that the toll math doesn’t work or that the Tea Party Congress won’t fund it. The next mayor might not matter much on the shape and scope of this project. If I’m right, however, and the CRC is returned to the mayor’s office, then we need to engage and ensure our most important priorities are represented: size and safety, freight mobility, local jobs, and it fits in with our transportation planning. I would work like hell to get a solution that satisfies all these priorities. It could be scary, but I don’t want to run on blinders. But I want to focus less on how I’d act and more on how I’d work through problems. I would work with Tri-Met on bus routes- they don’t want to cut routes, they want to preserve quality and frequency of routes. I would not just focus on economic hunting, but economic gardening to find customers and markets for local businesses. I would use the best public processes to improve those that are “not the best.” The “process frustrations” I have heard have translated into a hue and cry for less process. Instead, there should be a better process. We should not limit our commitment to civic engagement. We need to do a better job and be more robust and foster civic engagement. Helping get people more connected with government is how I have spent my adult life.
But I am not prepared to say that what I have just outlined is at odds for what is happening now. Going around whacking people is not the best way to get across the message that “We are all in this together.” There needs to be the ability to empower city commissioners to accomplish their best objectives. In a weak mayor system, we are only as strong as we are working together. If a mayor or a candidate leads by pronouncement, that is against this style of government- and against democracy in general. Building agreements and focusing priorities are just as important.
Earlier you mentioned East Portland, and hinted at how it's important that more attention should be placed on this party of the city…
Considering you represent a large chunk of East Portland in the statehouse and your ties to this part of the city, how are you going to take steps to ensure that you’re not coming across as “Jefferson Smith, running for Mayor of East Portland?”
Excellent question. Again, I want to return to what I just said about how “We are all in this together.” There is one Portland, not two or three. I’m not suggesting that we invest in East Portland not because it’s important to do so, instead we need to invest in East Portland because we are all in this together. There are 59 miles of unpaved roads in East and Southwest Portland. The MAX line goes through East Portland, and the rest of the city. If gangs fester in one part of the town, they impact the whole city. The city’s economies are linked- the consumers, the supply chain. Our ability to compete in the global economy depends on our city working together.
Growing up in Portland, I went to Grant High School. Some of my best friends work downtown. My folks live in inner Northeast where I grew up. I can genuinely say I care about the whole city. I hike in Forest Park. There are 96 neighborhoods in Portland- we should try to go 96-for-96. I don’t say it’s important to invest in East Portland because I represent the area in the state legislature. I learned it’s important to invest there because I do. I see the families displaced, and know that the services they need will have to follow. IRCO moved from inner Glisan to my neighborhood. We are all connected; we are all in this together.
In either a phrase or a list of priorities, would you be able to describe your campaign in three words?
I could give you two: “Portland will.” And if I’m able to provide a few more words, I could describe my campaign.
Prosperity. Sustainability. Equity. Democracy.
All right. Now I need to ask this following question: Who did you vote for in the 2000 Presidential election?
The 2000 Presidential election? I didn’t vote. I was helping my buddy run for Congress in Cincinnati. I was there for a month, not even enough time to register and have my ballot sent to me.
The most important election of our lifetime, and you didn’t vote?
No, I didn’t. But I did register hundreds of new voters for that election. In fact, that experience is a meaningful part for why I decided to throw my life away for democracy.
Any final thoughts?
Yes. I want this election to not be something people watch, but instead hope that it’s something that people do.
By Kyle Curtis
Oct. 10, 2011
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