To Connect, Start to Canvass

By Neil Simon of Portland, Oregon. Neil is a Portland native, former journalist, diplomat and global communications director. He lives in Southwest Portland’s Hillsdale neighborhood.

If you needed further proof of the strength of State Treasurer Ted Wheeler’s candidacy for mayor, it was on full display this past rainy Sunday in Southeast Portland.

From the sign-draped gazebo at Abernathy Elementary School, more than 40 volunteers fanned out all day with a singular goal: to restart a civic conversation. A strong candidate with no opponent a full six months before a primary could afford to spend plenty of Sundays at home, but Wheeler was out working for the vote.

And wow, if the residents of Ladd’s Addition (where I walked) were any indication, our city is yearning to be engaged.

They have ideas to address our runaway housing prices and they want to share them (the resident came out to talk to me, despite his ‘no solicitation’ sign). They have experience with sensible gun control policies and they want city leaders committed to them (she invited me in for tea). I even met a civil engineer dedicated to educating our leaders about the critical importance of upgrading our bridge infrastructure to ensure emergency crews continue to be able to cross the Willamette and Columbia Rivers in the wake of a major earthquake.

The experts are among us, and every time you knock on their door, it is as if you are giving them the gift of a platform for their voice to influence the thinking of their next city leader.

If you have not taken part in this democratic tradition in a while, I heartily recommend it. Rain or shine, it will leave you reinvigorated for the positive path of our city and prideful to share the title of Portlander with so many thoughtful neighbors.

A friend of mine from my journalism days covering legislatures used to always say, if you don’t vote, you can’t complain. Canvassing this past week made me think of a twist on that axiom: If you don’t talk to your neighbors, you can’t complain about them, either.

Hearing one another, listening, thinking expands all of our minds. And these early campaign discussions are worthwhile for all of us to have more often.

As Wheeler sent off his volunteers to canvass, he predicted that he would draw an opponent in this race, and he probably will. But, he also said, given the opportunity to canvass before any one else is in the race affords the city a chance to have a uniquely positive dialogue, one focused purely on substance, issues, the people’s real feelings before they are clouded by any clash of candidates’ personalities.

In all the doors I knocked on, nobody brought up partisanship, and nobody droned on about their distaste for politicians. They eyeballed Wheeler’s progressive platform with nodding approval, and several surprisingly added their two cents about how Portland needs to transition to a strong-mayor form of government, a change which is long overdue.

More often than not, voters said, they like what they hear about Ted. But even more than that, they appreciated the volunteers simply asking them their thoughts. It’s a discussion that by itself helps build a stronger city fabric.

To really get to know somebody’s views on the state of our city, the formula is pretty simple: ask them.

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