Portland: No Republicans?

Jeff Alworth

"Though Republicans are nowhere to be found, classical liberals are pro-capitalist, because a thriving economy is necessary to support the services liberals want to provide, but having such high concentrations of like-minded people creates a political milieu that assumes it is somehow unseemly to want to make money."

Last week, Linda Seebach came to Portland for the National Conference of Editorial Writers.  She took the opportunity to study and write about Portland's "famous livibility" (though she seems more interested in our "famous smugness").  The piece, reprinted in today's Oregonian, is a collection of assumptions, broadsides, and GOP talking ponts (delivered by our fave, Tim Hibbitts).  She argues--or repeats Hibbitts' argument--that Portland, peopled by "the full range of opinion from left, to far left, to ultra-left (and so on)" is dangerously anti-business. 

Or, if business success is not exactly unseemly, it's not a high priority either. Before Portland's new mayor met with business leaders, Hibbitts noted, he found time to visit a bikers' group - Portland's big on bicycles - that gets together regularly to ride around breaking traffic laws.

Now, let's leave aside for the moment how Seebach seems to be conflating the issue of city bureaucracy (possibly not the most laissez faire) with public opinion (where you find far greater support for independent businesses than in, say, Denver).  Let me throw it open to you all.  Presumably, I'm speaking to a high concentration of the "ultra-left," and many of you are Portlanders. It is an increasingly common view that Portlanders are anti-business (and also that there are no conservatives here, though apparently 98,000 of those lefties inexplicably voted for Bush).  As I go from my local coffeeshop to my independent bookstore and later out to a great local restaurant, that view sure doesn't ring true to my experience. 

Well, ultra-lefties, are you anti-business?

  • C2TBF (unverified)

    I grew up in Portland but have lived in Boston now for 5+ years. As a socially liberal, fiscally moderate, Libertarian-leaning independent, I have a lot easier time of it here in Boston.

    Or put it this way. I consider myself centrist - I voted Democrat in the 90's. But I have a lot easier time disagreeing with my conservative evangelical friends from Houston than my liberal ones from Portland. The former politely disagree, make cogent arguments, and are straightforward about the role that faith plays in their thinking. The latter tend to shoot first and not even ask questions later. Sorry - that's my honest impression from the "blue" sky. Portland is ground zero for that kind of uniformity of unthinkingly liberal politics. They may be more intensely liberal in the Bay Area, but at least there is more diversity there (ie, a Republican or two). And at least here in Boston and/or NYC, people will support reasonable Republican governors on occasion, or at least not get harangued for doing so.

  • Sid (unverified)

    I'm a raging liberal and a small business owner who does business with other businesses who are owned by lefties. I buy one of my key ingredients from a lefty and my Northwest distributor is run by a bunch of lefties.

    A majority of my closest friends are also small business owners and happen to be lefties as well. So basically, we're all a bunch of raging lefty capitalists.

    Some of the wealthiest business owners I am aquainted with in the region are so liberal they're Green. They're birkenstocks and fleece hide their wealth and some of them look like they just fell out of the back of truck.

  • Sid (unverified)


    I think you missed the point of the post. The question is, are Portlanders so liberal that they are anti-business? My answer to the question was NO because as a business owner I find it hard to consider myself anti-business eventhough I'm very liberal. So I think the point I and others are trying to get to is that capitalism and liberalism work just fine together. In other words, liberals are not the communists conservatives make them out to be. Many of us are quite business savvy!

  • C2TBF (unverified)

    Sid - Could you have a civil conversation with someone who supports W's foreign policy? Or his stance on gay marriage? Can you see arguments for either, whether you disagree with them or not, without attributing all to world-domination Jesus fever? Are you capable of testing your own ideas on these subject? If so, you are a rare Portland entity in my experience.

    I am neither Christian nor Republican, but I do support W's foreign policy and intervention in Iraq, largely as a result of living in Egypt in the 1990's and watching the powers-that-be up-close and in action. Iraq isn't about world-domination or Christianity or Halliburton, and the only time I have to face that kind of thinking en masse is when I go back to Portland.

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)

    Well, Jeff, it all comes down to the meaning of anti-business. If one is a communist, that would make one anti-business, certainly, but I doubt many NW ultra-lefties [I live in Oak Grove] are communists. I suppose some folks have an emotional dislike for businesspeople or the customs of doing corporate business, but I have seldom heard this translated into looking for ways to drive businesses bankrupt.

    No, in this neoliberal dominated nation, anti-business means that one opposes the further reduction of the already shriveled share of taxes paid by business - big business in particular. It means that one dislikes the privatization of profit and the socialization of cost that much of business extols. Anti-business means that one is not happy with the near corporate hegemony that lobbying and campaign contributions have wrought. It means that one is uncomfortable with the "buy what you can't afford and throw it away before you pay for it" wasteful and unsustainable consumer culture.

    At least, that is what whining executives and braying co-opted commentators mean when they complain about anti-business ultra-leftists.

  • Sid (unverified)


    I understand the point you are making, and I'm not arguing with you at all. I'm just pointing out that the post is about the business-political environment in Portland, and being I business owner and a liberal I was drawn to Jeff's post: are Porland liberals anti-business. I would say they are not. There may be some nutjobs out there who are, but for the most part I think Portland liberals are pro-business (and pro-business, of course, can have several different meanings in today's political environment, as in are Portland liberals pro-corporate welfare or are they pro-sustainable business...)

  • iggir (unverified)

    C2 -

    "Iraq isn't about world-domination or Christianity or Halliburton..."

    well, there you have it...please stay in Boston, by all means.

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    This life-long Dem was slurping coffee while reading Linda Seebach's opinion piece at 6 AM. Portland has huge declines in public school student enrollment, exceedingly high rental properties and the folks in the 25-34 demoghaphic dedicated to the belief that their version of Portland represents the rest of us. Well it doesn't. There are many many livable cities who smartly welcome business and provide incentives for businesses. Like Sam Adams said, "The incentives Portland can offer to attract new businesses is modest." Sam also commented, "Livability is a crucial tool but we overrely on it." I loved the Portland of the 80's then I moved to Cambridge, MA. Upon return, I asked myself, "What in the hell happened to Portland?" I'm still wondering.

  • Gil Johnson (unverified)

    Well, Paullie, we suffered for 12 years under the ironfisted and hamhanded Queen Vera, and the high tech bubble popped and we have a bunch of young people moving here with no job but a lot of dreams, thus creating a huge wave of underemployment, which may or may not be temporary. I think we now have some very good civic leaders, from the mayor to some of the people on the city council (including, mostly, that guy who blogs here all the time).

    Now as to whether Portland is anti-business, as another small business owner, I've had my share of red tape over permits. I find that the people on the front lines of the bureaucracy now are more helpful than they used to be.

    I certainly don't think being pro-livability is tantamount to being anti-business. Business interests can be pretty insatiable. Can you imagine living in a city where businesses got everything they wanted?

    Actually, that may be impossible, because what's good for one business will be bad for another.

    Hey, Sid, what we need is a Progressive Business Association. If all the lefty (or at least reasonably civic-minded) businesses got together, we'd have a lot of clout at City Hall and elsewhere.

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    Tom, I also think righties fail to recognize certain businesses--indie coffeeshops, for example--as "business." One could hope that the local coffeeshop isn't replaced by a Starbucks and still be called pro-business. I'd go ahead and argue that it's MORE pro-business in the Adam Smith sense of the concept.

    So a follow-up question is: what do we mean by business?

  • Kelly J (unverified)

    Nothing like criticizing a mayor for joining with a group that regularly breaks traffic laws.

    What was he, commuting my car and breaking the speed limit? Not using his turn signal? Er, not completely stopping at a stop sign? Driving after having a beer?

    Oh, wait, he's being critized for going on a bike ride. Oops, my bad. Sorry, he should have been meeting with business leaders, not meeting with members of the community who believe roads are made for everyone.

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    Are Portland liberals anti-business? I think no.

    Are Portland liberals smug and hippier-than-thou and anti any business (or idea or person) that isn't homegrown or organic or locally-owned or Oregon-pedigreed? Absolutely.

    Yeah, local is neat, and I lived in the Denver hell of nothing but chains and big boxes, but the uppity attitude of most Portlanders about how very special we are to have "weird" local businesses is annoying and less than welcoming to any business that might want to come here from elsewhere.

    And damn, Jeff, why you gotta hate on Starbucks!

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    On the commentary C2 has made--I wonder how common this experience is for others. It's ascribed to Portlanders constantly, but how often does it happen outside the Buckman neighborhood (known as the Kremlin by certain wonks)? I'd easily talk to someone who wanted to promote Dubya's policies--in fact I'd LOVE it--but I find the opposite is true: proponents tend not to have thought through the issues much. They just repeat the talking points without really being able to engage the question.

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    I wrote about this op-ed myself this morning (http://www.darrelplant.com/blog_item.php?ItemRef=345), but I'd have to challenge its very assumption that there aren't conservatives in Portland. Hibbits is paraphrased as saying "politics in Portland covers the full range of opinion from left to far left to ultraleft." But that's far from a true statement. Yet it's the viewpoint that the entire op-ed is built on.

    The paradox is, if there are only leftists in Portland, who's running all of the businesses that are complaining about Portland being anti-business? And aren't those complaints a part of the politics of Portland? If leftists are the only people in Portland, who's listening to Rush, Hannity, and Lars Larson? Would anyone notice if Dave Reinhard was shuffled out of the Oregonian?

  • Steve Bucknum (unverified)

    I think the question should be asked more broadly - are Democrats and Progressive/Liberals Anti-Business? I think this partly because I'm from Central Oregon, and I get weary of all the Portland centric stuff.

    I own my own business. I supervise myself. I make money, more than I have had any place I had a paycheck. I daily deal with the banking community, and I daily deal with the public. Frankly, I just don't see liberal or conservative written on any of the checks I get for my work, or the checks I send out for the services I buy. Business is business.

    No, I don't think Democrats/Progressives/Liberals are Anti-business. We just have a different world view about all sorts of stuff.

    We tend to see people in the world as important. We tend to see our place in life as being part of (versus apart from) our community. We tend to value fair play (versus exploitation). We tend to value fairness in all aspects of life, and believe in concepts like "level playing fields" for competition. We don't object to competition per se, just unfair competition. This is why we don't tolerate monopolies, and concentrations of wealth that have the effective of monopolies.

    If that is anti-business, then the vision of "business" is different than mine. I view my business as a "cog in the wheel" of our society. Yesterday, I appraised the house of a woman I know as a waitress at one of our local restaurants. I have been served by Ginger perhaps 25 times. The appraisal fee she paid to the lender, who in turn will pay it to me will be higher than what I have paid her in tips those 25 times, but then again, I will eat there again. We are interconnected.

    So if business means unfrettered domination - take the candy out of the babies mouth - then I guess I'm anti-business. Otherwise, I really am pro-business, but I like to insert the word "responsible".

  • LT (unverified)

    The real question is this: does being pro- or anti-business mean small business, all business, anything written in Oregon Business Magazine, or what? If it means disagreeing with the stated positions of NFIB, then I guess store owners (like a friend of mine) who didn't join NFIB because of their politics were anti-business? Anti-business store owners?

    Read some of the writings of Kevin Phillips, who writes on the difference between main street small businesses (like what Steve talked about) and multinational corporations whose stock is traded on Wall Street.

    If small businesses don't like multinational corporations, or if someone comments (as a relative did recently) that Mom & Pop stores are being replaced by national chains, is that anti-business?

    Sounds like someone has a political agenda and is hiding behind talking points.

  • C2TBF (unverified)

    Sid - I get your point. Thanks.

    Paulie - That's exactly the question I keep asking myself. Why do I keep hearing about cities out west that are enjoying economic booms (Boise, Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, Spoka-vegas, Missoula...) while Portland tends to show up on shows about crack-addicted homeless youths? For someone who loves Portland as much as I do, it's frustrating.

    iggir - If you think Iraq IS about "world-domination or Christianity or Halliburton" or "world-domination Jesus fever," why didn't we overtake the whole region decades ago, since these interests are certainly not new? The fact is that we've been doing business-as-usual with the devil over there for 7 decades and now we're finally having to pay for it. Rest assured that if I do move back to Portland, I won't be dropping any change into your hemp bag.

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    This is a great discussion. Regarding W's foriegn policy, I agree it has been a long time coming to deal with the complete mess that is the "middle east." I find it hard to believe that with the many thousands of innocent Iraqi's dead, excuse me I mean large amounts of collateral damage, increases in extremist's use of suicide bombings on Iraqi's themselves as well as American troops, $9+ billion unaccounted for, none of the 9/11 hijackers were trained, passed through, or were Iraq nationals that somehow going into Iraq was warranted. If W's foriegn policy really had balls, we would be occupying Saudi Arabia right now. This Iraq-war apologist speak is frankly worse than crap.

    If you have to rationalize the Iraq war as a lowest common denominator policy internvention, I hope you go to sleep every night with the screams of the thousands of innocent children dying or dead because we just had to do something in the middle east.

    I'm not saying that we should not have changed course regarding our middle east policy, I whole heartedly agree with you there. But, we definitely differ on the Iraq war.

    O.K. this is supposed to be about Portland being a lefty, anti-business place.

    I don't think Portland is anti-business. I think Portland is pro-regualtion. We have regulations and permits for everything under the sun. Because of this, I think Portland's entrepreneurial class is somewhat stymied. The more regulations you have, the higher the costs are to those engaged in what is regulated. In a way, regulations serve in the establishment of quasi-monopolies. Inevitably, those who legislate the regulations do so with the explicit influence of business interests who seek to protect their interests by making it harder for competitors to enter the market. Sam Adams didn't visit 100 small businesses is 100 days for s&g's. Mayor Potter didn't nominate Tom from the coffee shop to sit on the Portland Development Commission.

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    I've struggled to figure out Portland and Oregon politics since my return 5 years ago (family been here since 1977). Like C2TBF, I found my blend of social liberalism, moderate fiscal, pro capitalism, and a professionally trained political skeptic (either my personality or political science) fit very well in North Carolina. I was a rock solid liberal and felt comfortable in my own skin.

    Since I've been here, and most frequently in the company of my colleages at Reed College, I think I often come off as a conservative, even though I've never pulled the GOP lever in my life. The reason, I suppose, is that I'd also never pull a Green lever. I'm a pure inside the party type.

    My summary statement is this: complacency. I think it captures the smugness, the insularity, the one-party corruption, and the small town feel of politics in Portland.

    I think you have to be fair to the article--not only Hibbitts was quoted, but also Adams and Seltzer. And the writer commented on the slummy areas that you encounter when you come into town (I presume she must have gotten off of the highway near Lloyd Center) and all the homeless.

    But. On Business. Again, let's be clear, I don't think the article said we were anti-business, but we aren't particularly entrepeneurial. We are smug about how wonderful it is in Portland and in Oregon, and how we don't need to work to attract or retain companies.

    And I have seen a lot of that attitude, unfortunately. I look at Seattle and even Vancouver and I see aggressive policies aimed at promoting businesses and employment. I just don't see the same commitment here.

    Instead, we focus on the creative class who will just pick up and head out to the next hip city, whether that be Austin or Bend or Raleigh/Durham or wherever. Or they'll grow up, have kids, see that sorry state of our schools, and move to the 'burbs. Or they'll actually create a business, realize that they can get an immediate 5-10% increase in profits by moving to the 'Couv.

    I'd love to see Cmmr. Sam or Randy weigh in on this ...

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    Paul, I always look forward to your comments with some concern. You always take me to task. So, a couple things on the post, then to your more substantive comments. In this case, I think you should take the writer of the article to task a little more rigorously. She commingles the attitudes of Portlanders with the policies of our leaders in a way I find sloppy, if not disingenous.

    Look at her last line: "But as long as the city's mood is self-congratulatory, as Hibbitts described it, the question is going to be, what will they do for a living when they get here?" But wait, does the city's mood matter a whit when we're talking about policy? And didn't she just quote a city councilman who wants to be more energetic in wooing business?

    I harp on this mainly because it's the same kind of sloppy thinking I see regularly applied to Portland politics: they're a bunch of woo-woo hippies, and they all hate business. Yes, it is a liberal city, and yes, anti-corporate sentiment is high here. But we have wonderfully diverse local businesses, we actually have a fairly strong conservative streak in fiscal matters, and there is an active conservative minority who constantly keeps this issue burning.

    Portland has always had a hard time wooing large corporations, and would have faired as badly in comparisons to Seattle in the 50s--when this surely wasn't a liberal haven--as now. I don't know that many would argue it's a bad idea to revisit regulatory issues or come up with new ways to encourage larger companies to come here. And I don't think many would argue that this is a liberal city. But to blame the lack of large businesses on a smug, disinterested leadership is, I think, simplistic.

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)

    close italics

    Portland has historically lost out to Seattle because of Washington's sensible decision to maximize its access to cheap BPA electricity. Oregon has remained enslaved by the privately owned utilities, who have sucked $billions out of our economy.

    As a leftie, I believe that large corporations do some things better than small businesses. Economies of scale are especially important in R&R and complex, expensive manufacturing processes. On the other hand, small business can do many of the things that globalism and subsidies have empowered big business to take over. Peak Oil will bring a major reversal of this. Portland is a bit ahead of the curve on this, but should increase exponentially its support for small sustainable business.

  • C2TBF (unverified)

    Hey Pat - Let's not argue about Iraq before we even establish where we disagree.

    I AGREE with you that if W's foreign policy had any balls, we'd be occupying (and holding elections in) Saudi Arabia.

    I UNDERSTAND your frustration with W's foreign policy. But at least he HAS a foreign policy. The MOMENT any national politician has the balls to question our support for Hosni Mubarak after the recent sham election there, I will throw my support behind him/her/it/Democrat/whatever. Another WIDE-OPEN opportunity that Democrats will most like let pass by... while fantasizing about dying children in Iraq. I mean do you realize that the people we're fighting against lure children with candy so they can blow them up in larger numbers?

    Kerry had the WIDE-OPEN opportunity to take the GOP's foreign policy to task in a substantive way (ie, with alternative ideas) and he failed miserably. And Joe Biden is just pathetic. If the Democrats can't put their heads together by 2006 or 2008, they will deserve to lose again to the fumbling efforts of Republicans. Cut off Egypt, I'll vote for you. Cut off Israel, I'll vote for you. Cut off Saudi, I'll vote for you. So far under W, the leadership in Egypt is at least nervous and making different sounds. I don't know where your head has been. If you think all of Iraq's problems started in 2003, including the deaths of innocent children, then you are an ignoramous. Doubly so if you think Dick Cheney is the most evil force in the world; you're an ignoramous beyond repair.

  • (Show?)

    C2TBF...I think Dick Cheney is a Hobbsian at heart, and that sort of fatalistic worldview I believe leads to evil actions. I agree that the Dem's have a great opportunity to cut off all the regimes you mentioned. Alas, it will not happen with the current "group of the spineless" we have in D.C. Still in my mind, you have yet to honestly defend your least common denominator support for a failed Iraq war and the policy behind it. Also, I think it should be its own post to this blog and not going on in the background on an issue that is about Portland being anti-business and elitest. None the less, I really do appreciate your honest assesment. You and I may disagree, but I believe we could still get together for a beer and not walk away from a passionate discussion as enemies or thinking either of us is an ignoramous.

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    Thanks for the critique of the article. I actually look forward to our exchanges. Not only do you make me think harder, but you force me to be more optimistic about Portland's future. I love ya, man! When are you gonna let me buy you that beer ...?

    Seriously, I did not intend to indict Portland's leadership. Definitely not "woo-woo hippies." I do think that the political establishment is too uniform in their background and orientation. While the impact of our one-party system was not evident during the boom years of the 80s and 90s, it's becoming all too apparent now.

    I think complacency is more of a problem than smugness--the notion that we don't have to look at our competitors (in my mind, Austin, RDU, Salt Lake, Boise, etc), or that old ways of doing things in this town may need serious reexamination.

    I'm very encouraged that Potter is reviewing the Charter, which seems to me seriously out of kilter. I'm pleased that the City Club is examining partisan divisions. I hope to see regional cooperation on taxes that will stem the bleeding in the school district.

    I suppose I'm looking for some good news because my first five years here have seen a lot of pessimism and sniping.

  • C2TBF (unverified)

    Pat - Thanks for saying so; I hope you're right.

    If it's any consolation to you, I misspelled "ignoramus" (so that makes at least one of us).

    If you would be truly interested in my take of Iraq, I can't put the case any better than Christopher Hitchens did in "A War to Be Proud Of" in the Weekly Standard (available on his website www.hitchensweb.com).

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    When are you gonna let me buy you that beer ...?

    A free pint? Name the place.

    As to the thread at hand, I pretty much agree with your analysis here. Though, having lived in Portland since '86, I will say that the last five have been pretty rough for the civic set. This is probably partly due to the lack of funds over that period, but also, I wouldn't underestimate the strong anti-civic mood that has prevailied in the country over that period, either. That gloom seems to have thrown the collectivist planner-types into a tailspin. It's reflected at the state and national levels, too.

    This moment does actually offer an opportunity for leaders willing to seize it. All the old definitions of conservatives and liberals are being shattered--or, rather, blown away by hurricane-force winds. Liberals would do well to tune up their policies regarding business for the elections to come. The tax-cutting, anti-government approach seems to have neither benefited businesses (except those favored by government largesse) nor the economy. It's a real opportunity for Dems to incorporate business into their civic frames.

    Anyway, yadda yadda yadda...

  • Lindsey (unverified)

    I have spent a lot of time in Portland. Walking, seeing and even being talked to by homeles people. Should I give them money? Perhaps the less aggressive homeless people are less likely to do drugs. Aggressive homeless people do not deserve my money. Panhandlers should be punished if they threaten people. Should I help them? I have heard of a lot of stories about homeless people acting aggressive towards other people.

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