Jefferson Smith made a mistake. Several of them. And as a result, his campaign for mayor is on the rocks.
But let's be absolutely clear about something: Jefferson Smith is a good and decent man. And over the last dozen years or so, he's accomplished some extraordinary things - mobilizing and motivating a whole new generation of activists who have, collectively, done a lot of good here in Oregon and around the country.
I still don't know what I'm going to do with my vote in the mayor's race. I am more undecided in this race at this point in the calendar than in any election before. Over the course of the summer, every time I've started to lean into Jefferson Smith as my pick, something happened and I snapped back to neutral. I have some real concerns about his readiness to be mayor. (More on that below.)
But I'm not undecided about what I think is the core character of the man. I've known Jefferson for a dozen years, and in my experience, he's always treated people well. The caricature that's developing around him as an anger-management head case couldn't be further from the truth. We've watched a public flogging that is now way out of proportion to the underlying facts and allegations.
Twenty years ago, Jefferson Smith made a big mistake. Whether it was "a freak accident during a moment of self-defense" (as the Oregonian put it) or a deliberate punch to the face, we'll never know. But we do know that it was twenty years ago. It's called "growing up" for a reason. People do all kinds of stupid things in college - and the difference between a police record and a bad memory can be dumb luck.
The reason that courts allow "criminal diversion agreements" - particularly for young people - is to emphasize the lessons learned, rehabilitation over punishment. And by all available evidence, it's never happened again. (Don't talk to me about the basketball incident - a punch in an athletic contest is a foul, not a crime. Not even when it happens to the president and he gets teeth knocked out.)
This is not to excuse what happened all those years ago. Violence is always bad. And those who support Jefferson should avoid the temptation to minimize or excuse what happened that night. It was wrong.
But the only reason we're talking about it is because Jefferson is a candidate in an election. And the only reason it matters in an election is because we're trying to evaluate the whole character of the man. And when it comes to Jefferson Smith, we have many more data points available to us to evaluate his character. He chose to walk away from a career in corporate law in order to develop a community organization. He successfully mentored dozens of staff, many of whom have gone to achieve important and influential positions in our community and elsewhere. And he did it all for the public good, not for private gain. Jefferson Smith is, at his core, a fundamentally good human being.
Should he be Mayor of Portland? That's a different question. I do have concerns about his ability to do the job. He's not a detail guy - we know that, and he's admitted as much. So, the core question I've had since the primary has been this: Who will be Jefferson's right hand? Who is the person that Jefferson trusts implicitly, to handle the details and manage the process? Who will be his Josh Kardon? His Curtis Robinhold?
And those concerns became all that much deeper for me as this most recent story unfolded. Jefferson made an unbelievably bad decision to visit the home of the woman he injured 20 years ago. Utterly stupid. That decision, more than the 20-years-ago punch, is why his campaign is suddenly in a tailspin.
To me, it was clear evidence that he was reacting emotionally and either not asking for advice or not following it. The fact that this story blindsided his campaign is evidence to me that he doesn't have a right-hand man or woman he trusts completely giving him serious advice.
As I told some of his campaign staff months ago, it's evidence of that person - that relationship - that I've been looking for before I can commit to the idea of Mayor Jefferson Smith. And all that's happened since points me in the opposite direction.
He may not be ready to be mayor. But I know this: Jefferson Smith has always had the public good in his heart. And he's a good man.
And when all this is over, win or lose, I'll still be proud to call him my friend.