For mayor, the campaign Portland deserved, but didn't get

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.

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      TA, the differences between Brady and Smith that people were pointing out were of policy -- not negative character attacks.

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          See Nigel's latest work re: Smith today at

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          TA, I remember reading that myself, but not really caring about it, so I wasn't one of those people "gleefully" posting it all over the internet, and I don't remember anyone other Smith people doing it. Can you tell me who was? Otherwise, I think you are wrong. And besides, it's not Jefferson's job to defend other candidates, is it?

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        Punching a female who's a foot shorter than you and 100 pounds lighter is violence against women. Even if you really really like the guy who's doing it. Even if she's a crazy-ass drunk who started it, as he and his campaign present as an excuse. There's no excuse. He could have, and should have, walked away.

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          Overreacting to a female attacker is hardly violence against women. But anyway, the campaign isn't making excuses - Jefferson apologized and accepted responsibility. Pretty much everyone agrees Jefferson made a mistake 20 years ago. What we disagree on is whether frat party shenanigans 20 years ago are relevant to this election.

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            Punching someone in the face is violence. When that person is a woman, well, you know.

            I'm not nearly as concerned with what happened 20 years ago as I am with what's happened this week: blaming the victim, omitting facts, etc. That's not accepting responsibility.

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              Not only are you being dishonest, but the way you are talking belittles the problem of actual violence against women. Equating what happened 20 years ago to guys beating up their girlfriends/wives is just irresponsible.

              Regarding your trying to shame people for "victim blaming", you do understand that the person you are calling "the victim" initiated the violence according to all witnesses, don't you? How can you pretend that doesn't matter? She is a victim in the sense that she was the one who ended up hurt. That doesn't absolve her of responsibility for initiating the violent encounter.

              Now, obviously what Jefferson did was wrong. But noticing the fact that he was defending himself from an attack is just accepting the truth. It is not blaming the victim at all.

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      This incident of "violence towards women" appears to have been an accident, happened 20 years ago, and Jefferson apologized and accepted responsibility. We're only talking about it because a slime ball campaign needed an October Surprise.

      Forgive me if I feel I can stand against violence towards women and also stand against slimy attempts to distract Portland voters from the real issues in this campaign.

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          According to Smith and witnesses she had him against a couch, caught unawares. And what does this has to do with running a city, again?

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          Who were you drunkenly attacking in a rage when you were hit? Otherwise i don't see the connection.

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      You're making it into something it simply wasn't. Also, what would you expect Mr. Smith to do? He's promised not to investigate to find negative things like this about Mr. Hales. Mr. Hales has made no such promise. There's a steady drumbeat of negative stories being published in the O, which never identifies the sources, nor even why it isn't identifying its sources. Is Mr. Smith just supposed to stand silent in the face of these criticisms? He promised not to investigate his opponent's personal life, not to refrain from preventing false characterizations of his own past. Whether or not Mr. Hales' staff has been behind this, he has not distanced himself from it. Where's his promise to campaign on the substance?

      Besides, this incident bears none of the hallmarks of a pattern of violence against women, despite your implication otherwise. Regarding your comment below, is Mr. Smith somehow not entitled to the legal principle of self-defense because he's what...a man? A larger person? A political candidate? He's already said he wished he could have dealt with the situation differently. He probably would, now that he has more life experience. But one incident of self-defense against a woman does not make this a pattern of violence against women. To attempt to make it otherwise for political gain demeans the cause.

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        I thought that the entire Hales camp got the axe after the primary...

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      Stephanie, we're all concerned about the future of Portland.

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        Agreed. I went to a couple of JS house parties this year and liked a lot of what I heard. But I'm offended by the blaming of the victim that's been happening in the past week.

        IMO, here’s the apology that Portland deserves (and didn’t get):

        "I'm embarrassed about several things I did as a young and impulsive college student. But more than anything else, I regret the physical and emotional injuries I caused a young woman when I struck back at her in what I imagine must be one of the worst nights of her life. Regardless of the circumstances leading up to that moment, there's no excuse for what I did. I am profoundly sorry for my unacceptable behavior in this situation, and especially for the pain it caused. I’ve often wished I had made a better choice. If this same incident were to happen today, I would walk away, which is what I should have done that night."

        An apology like that would have been fine by me.

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          I'm curious where you've heard this "blaming of the victim". I've heard Jefferson talk about this for over a week and I've basically heard him say that. Did you watch the entire press conference that he spoke at a week ago? The press has excelled at dicing that bits since then to do their best and not convey what Jefferson actually said, spinning it into a victim-blaming narrative. Things can always be more eloquently stated but I am certain it is not Jefferson's intent to blame the victim -- the only blame I have heard him assign is to the media.

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      Excellent way of putting it, Marshall.

      I won't make any excuses for what Jefferson did almost 20 years ago, but I think that the other side is pushing a narrative here and using it to paint Jefferson like some sort of monster. Since that time he has been a great public servant and even worked on issues specific to women (e.g. human trafficking). Charlie seems to have struggled to connect to voters and earn his own votes, so the powers of the status quo, are taking the very serious issue of domestic violence and using it to attack Jefferson and take him down.

      Jefferson Smith Speaks Against Human Trafficking

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    It's troubling to me that people who defend Jeffereson Smith downplay what he did that night. His supporters seem to think the best way to protect his candidacy today is to keep downplaying that night as a long time ago, self-defense, crazy drunk woman, etc.

    What would be more credible and palatable for me is to hear them say that JS made a bad choice that night, leave out the part where they trash the victim or downplay the seriousness of the offense, and still say he'd be a great mayor.

    Of course it's possible to be stupid 20 years ago and be fit for service today. We've all made mistakes we wish we hadn't. But admitting to mistakes is better than shape-shifting if you're trying to rebuild trust.

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