Jefferson Smith & the politics of progressive purity

T.A. Barnhart

We've seen this movie before.

Here's what Jefferson Smith said about Eileen Brady during the primary:

Let me tell you how you run for political office. You hire a political consultant, and that person tells you, You need to raise a million dollars. And the thing you need to do is buy a bunch of polls that tell you what kind of you know what to say. And so what you do is go to a bunch of people who want to build major projects, and they say, Will you be in favor of major projects? And you say, Of course. And you get their checks. And then you go to the development associations, and you go to the Portland Business Alliance, and they say, We'd like some tax breaks. And you say, Of course, I'll do that. And you get their checks. And you have lots of individual meetings, and you say, Oh I'm doing to do this. And they say, You're going to do something about permitting? And you say, Yes! Four-figure checks.

This was not a statement made in the abstract; this was an accusation made at Eileen Brady (his words verbatim, at a forum hosted by the Portland Business Journal), that she was changing her message depending on who she was speaking to in order to maximize fundraising. It was a bogus charge. I was in many of those rooms, watching her speak to groups and individuals from diverse backgrounds, perspectives and demands. She stayed on-message at all times, consistently saying the same things whether the audience was developers, tech entrepreneurs, environmentalists, community activists or "ordinary" citizens. She raised over a million dollars, not by tweaking her message to the liking of an audience but by remaining consistent, by being the same progressive person she had been before considering running for mayor.

But the consistent content of her messaging was ignored by Smith. (You might have another term for that behavior.) What mattered for Smith and his campaign was that Brady raised lots of money from those most wicked of political actors in Portland: developers and "business interests". For a large segment of Portland's lefty political activists, Brady's success at "raising money" made her untrustworthy. Add to that her endorsement from the PBA and her support for the Governor's CRC plan, and you had a woman who went from being an admired progressive to an unelectable, unforgivable partner with those who seek to destroy all "we" hold precious about Portland.

This was utter nonsense, of course. Brady not only had endorsements from developers but from unions, environmentalists, educators, equity and civil rights leaders and more. But Eileen Brady committed the cardinal sin of raising lots of money, and raising it from "business". In Portland, for the liberalish types behind Smith, to be morally pure is to spit upon the ground in disgust at the mention of the Portland Business Alliance, developers, the CRC and anything else that deviates from their definition of what is right for Portland.

I happen to agree with some of these opinions. I still oppose the CRC, I don't trust "developers", and I would like to see money removed from politics and campaigns. (History lesson: Brady's husband, Brian Rohter, was co-chair of the committee to save Voter-Owned Elections). But as I worked with Brady, I got to know her and I learned that she was not only consistent, she was adamant that her administration would find solutions that served the city, not donors. I never had the slightest fear she would sell us out in the way Smith intimated she would be required to do by, as he characterized it, her donor-driven campaign.

And now he's throwing the same charges at Charlie Hales. I am no Hales fan. He lied to us during the campaign (I have the video) and his treatment of his campaign staff following the primary election was embarrassing. I think he has Portland's best interests at heart, but I have strong doubts about his competence. However, I do not believe he is for sale any more than Eileen was. But that's the subtext of Smith's messaging. To raise large sums of campaign cash is to prove, ipso facto, that you are a bad person doing bad things. And it's the critical element of his campaign so far, because his major strength is to prove he is The Real Progressive, and the proof of this is that his opponents raise more money than he does.

And they raise it from "them".

Sanctimoniousness in politicians is nothing new. Running for office requires a certain amount of ego, often bordering on hubris. Citizens have to be wary of being misled by empty rhetoric spoken by charismatic figures. We know the influence of money in American politics is bad for democracy, but that doesn't mean all money in politics is bad. Eileen Brady didn't become Mitt Romney because she raised a boatload of money; she was, and is, the same progressive, pioneering woman she has been for the past twenty-five years. Charlie Hales isn't Dick Cheney because he, too, is pretty effective at fund-raising. But Smith and his fervent followers are spreading the message throughout the city (and beyond) that Hales might as well invite the Koch Brothers in because he refused to kowtow to Smith's demands on campaign finances. It really is that simple.

Jefferson Smith took down Eileen Brady in large part because he was successful at portraying her as a tainted, semi-corrupt handmaiden of developers and "business" interests. In other words, exactly the kind of person who should never be Mayor of Portland. And how he's turning that same tactic on Charlie Hales. Given what we've seen in past elections, there may not be any way for Hales to combat this.

I expected better than this from Jefferson. When he made it clear over a year ago that he would be running for mayor, I expected a campaign of substance that gave clear guidance on what he would do as mayor. We certainly got that from Eileen Brady; she went full-wonk in the campaign, with long and detailed lists of policy and program proposals. Smith? Not so much. He speaks at such length, volume and speed, you would think there'd be something in the midst of all those words. Go look at his website, under Issues. Lots of generalities, a number of minor proposals, but very little of depth to deal with our most critical problem: the economy. (Better government, smart projects and implementation of a program enacted by the Legislature three years ago; not exactly a roadmap to prosperity.)

But he's not really running on the issues, and he's not running on what specifically he would do to address the range of problems facing our city. He's running on being what his opponents are not: A Real Progressive. And the aultimate proof that he is that progressive is, again, in the negative: he's not raising the money they are.

I voted for Eileen Brady in the primary because she gave me a strong platform of positives I could support. I am not voting for Jefferson Smith for the flip-side of that reason: he's given me nothing but negatives, and I get enough of that from the Tea Party and the GOP.

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      Chris, i hope you return here, because i've been really bugged about this comment, and for one word - "technocratic"

      Chris, wtf does that even mean? what did the Brady campaign do that was technocratic? fundraising was done with an Excel spreadsheet, phone calls & lots of asks. that money was spent on a campaign hq, staff, supplies, media & polls -- exactly the same things Hales & Smith spent their money on. (correction. Smith also paid for people to go door-to-door. we didn't.)

      this was an old-fashioned campaign. there was nothing technocratic about it (we listened to music on Peter's iPod a lot). Eileen asked people for money by phone & in person. she attended over 300 events, from forums to houseparties to public meetings. we relied on volunteers. we didn't even do a very good job with social media.

      the #1 bad thing about money in local races is the potential candidates that can be excluded. that's why i, and Eileen, support voter-owned elections. but given that VOE was gone & that Eileen had to start her campaign super-early in order to offset the built-in advantages her two professional politicians had, she simply had to raise a lot of money. and she did -- honestly, and with a lot of damn hard work.

      technocratic? what the ass does that even mean?

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    Chris, simply put: you know almost nothing about Eileen Brady. and you are doing exactly what i said: equating her money with her character.

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      Chris did nothing of the kind, T.A. He said nothing about "her" money but about the kind of campaign she chose to run.

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        "Eileen ran a high cost technocratic campaign to the detriment of Portland."

        tell me that doesn't say something about her as a person. if you want to separate the two in this case, please tell me you'll do the same when talking about those spending $1Bn to defeat Obama. the Koch Bros are just fine citizens?

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          I really don't understand your point. You note that Brady's husband played a key role in the campaign to preserve Voter Owned Elections (for which he deserves props), but you take great offense when Chris notes the contradiction/irony in Brady's having run what's likely the biggest "big money" campaign in Portland election history?

          As for the Koch Brothers & the other major Romney backers/Obama haters: most folks I know who research and write about them don't focus on or much care what kind of people they are, because it's beside the point, which is what kinds of interests Romney is/will be beholden to. For all I know David Koch could be a wonderful father, husband, and Little League coach who is also very kind to animals and loves to eat kale. All of which is irrelevant.

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          T.A., I don't see Chris's comment as an attack on Brady. It's hard to argue that she "ran a high cost technocratic campaign."

          Whether or not it was "to the detriment of Portland" is arguable, but mainly because she lost.

          Brady's biggest hurdle is that the Mayor's office as an entry-level position is a tough sell. Sure, it's happened before, but Bud Clark sold voters that he was prepared for the job, and he faced an incumbent who was easy to dislike. And, still, he made some mistakes in office that a seasoned politician would have been unlikely to make.

          When I started paying attention to the Mayor's race, I was inclined to support Brady, but she seemed ill-prepared in some high-profile events. For me, for a neophyte politician, that was a deal-killer.

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      T.A., I don't get to BlueOregon as often as I'd like.

      There are people who raise big campaign money for venal or cynical or power political reasons, and who have longstanding patterns of political donations from specific interests whose agenda they push. If I were saying that about Eileen Brady I would be saying something about here character. But I specifically didn't say that. Whether any such relationships might have developed if she had become mayor I couldn't say. As you say, I know almost nothing about her as a person. I didn't comment on her as a person.

      I did not equate her money with her character. I criticized the expansion of the scale of money in the mayoral race by all three of the leading candidates, of whom Eileen stands out primarily because she was the largest fundraiser. I hold her responsible for her choices to run the kind of campaign she did, and Charlie Hales and Jefferson Smith too. They all are using way too much money and making our local politics less democratic. I don't really trust any of them entirely partly for that exact reason.

      I understand the pragmatic or realpolitik arguments that will be made about that but it's kind of like my not liking the social consequences of WalMart. I understand the technical market reasons why their business model works. It's effects still stink.

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    so no one's going to actually explain how money made Brady a bad candidate?

    but apparently throwing out a single "hooey" suffices as rebuttal. boy howdy, what vigorous discussion of the issues. let me respond with a strident "Sez you".

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      T.A., there were no "bad candidates" among the 3 leaders in the mayor's race. Let's not confuse losing an election with a personal indictment. As a Smith volunteer (I don't know who these paid canvassers were) I told lots of people that none of the candidates were bad and Portland was going to have a good mayor no matter who won. I chose Smith because I thought he would be great leader, inspire people, and represent Portland well in any environment. I felt Hales and Brady were less capable of that, although they might be better administrators. The only thing raising money had to do with it was as a proxy for how their administrations would work, and for that Smith still gets my vote.

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    Brady, who I liked except for her CRC stand which was horrible, lost because her campaign wasn't that good. End of story.

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    TA, let it go. It is over. Moving on...

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