By Stephanie Vardavas of Portland, Oregon. Stephanie is a political activist, attorney, mediator, and arbitrator. Previously, she contributed daily "Postcards from Charlotte" from the Democratic National Convention.
Primaries are tough. They pit old friends and allies against one another in high-stakes environments that reveal to an uncomfortable extent just how far some of us are willing to go to win an election. And in a place like Portland, where most of the candidates in our nonpartisan general elections are Democrats, nonpartisan general elections are in some ways tougher than primaries, because the stakes are even higher, and there is no post-election reconciliation process. There's just a winner and - for want of a better word - a loser.
It's easy to say, "It's just politics," but it isn't. Especially for those of us on the progressive side of the spectrum who like to believe that we are primarily animated by principle, our principles are a dearly held element of our personal identities. In short, to a large degree our principles are WHO WE ARE. The choices we make in the heat of a high-stakes campaign are revealing.
By announcing in advance that he would not engage in opposition research or negative campaigning, Jefferson Smith created a precious opportunity for the citizens of Portland. We were on the cusp of having a thoughtful, issue-driven campaign that could have been decided by an electorate that was steeped in substantive information about the candidates' views and philosophies. The people of Portland deserve such a campaign, and would have welcomed it.
But we didn't get it. Because the other candidate, for his own reasons, has been unwilling to go there.
In my mind, this in itself is a test, a test that Charlie Hales' campaign has failed.
His lawn signs say "Love Portland." But he doesn't love Portland enough to run an issue-oriented campaign that is respectful of voters' intelligence and focused on the future of their city. Instead, he has chosen the expedient of running a negative campaign. Instead of focusing on a deep exploration of the issues, he has gone to great lengths to obfuscate the policy differences between himself and Smith, and relied on the periodic release of negative tidbits about embarrassing moments from Smith's teens and 20s to discredit him.
(I might add that Smith is at a chronological disadvantage here. Hales is my age, a generation older than Smith, and for all we know might have some equally unappealing episodes in his own youth. But it is his good fortune that his youth was lived before the Internet took over American culture, and so his teens and 20s are inaccessible to us without opposition research.)
The dirtiness of these politics has been a real eye-opener for me. The carefully curated, timed, spaced hits in the press may be effective at turning voters off an opponent, but they are the worst, most toxic course of action if your goal is to actually engage citizens with one's own campaign, or just generally with the polity.
I think this is the real reason Smith refused to engage in opposition research and negative campaigning: not because he didn't want to spend money on it, but because it is 100% contrary to every scruple he has about civic engagement and the importance of citizen involvement in their government.
It's risky to run for office: more than half of the people who run for office lose, after all (and in general elections, exactly half). It's riskier yet to run an issue-based, high-information campaign. Such a campaign places a lot of faith in the voters to pay attention and think about the issues. But if you truly love Portland, that's the choice you make, because it improves the objective quality of the outcome. Because the voters get to choose based on relevant information delivered in a media environment designed to heighten their interest instead of turning them off.
The flip side of that is that if you care more about winning an election than delivering an objectively great outcome, then you go negative. You do opposition research a year in advance and parse it out slowly to obtain maximum advantage. You allow or even encourage the electorate to wallow in gossip, because you need to distract them from the issues. Why? Because in a campaign run on the issues, there's a somewhat better chance you could lose.
This is the cynical choice the Hales campaign has made. They are playing a dangerous game. Because the price of their game is that the people of Portland might become as cynical as they are, that they might disengage further from politics and public policy. Many citizens need a little encouragement to care about the big issues, to engage in the public dialogues of our time, even in Portland, where engaged citizens have already achieved so much. But you have to keep reaching out to citizens, keep engaging and encouraging them. This process never ends. At least not if you are doing it right. As the City Club of Portland motto says, "Good citizens are the riches of a city."
This is not my first rodeo, so don't tell me I'm naive. I've been through brutal primaries before. Longtime Blue Oregon readers will remember the 2007-2008 US Senate primary campaign between Steve Novick and now-Senator Jeff Merkley. I was on the losing side of that one, and it was hard for me. But it wasn't like this.
I support Jefferson Smith for Mayor because I believe in his vision for the future of Portland: a more inclusive, engaged, functional, sustainable city where all Portlanders share in the city's progress. And I am extra proud to support him because he respects Portlanders enough to have offered them a clean, positive, issues-based, high-information campaign. Of course he felt he could win a positive campaign, but he was willing to run the risk of losing because he loves Portland enough to feel that Portland deserves that kind of campaign.
I only wish his opponent had had enough confidence in Portlanders, and yes, enough love for Portland, that he had been willing to do the same.