Jefferson Smith: A flawed candidate, but a decent man working for the public good

Kari Chisholm FacebookTwitterWebsite

Jefferson Smith made a mistake. Several of them. And as a result, his campaign for mayor is on the rocks.

But let's be absolutely clear about something: Jefferson Smith is a good and decent man. And over the last dozen years or so, he's accomplished some extraordinary things - mobilizing and motivating a whole new generation of activists who have, collectively, done a lot of good here in Oregon and around the country.

I still don't know what I'm going to do with my vote in the mayor's race. I am more undecided in this race at this point in the calendar than in any election before. Over the course of the summer, every time I've started to lean into Jefferson Smith as my pick, something happened and I snapped back to neutral. I have some real concerns about his readiness to be mayor. (More on that below.)

But I'm not undecided about what I think is the core character of the man. I've known Jefferson for a dozen years, and in my experience, he's always treated people well. The caricature that's developing around him as an anger-management head case couldn't be further from the truth. We've watched a public flogging that is now way out of proportion to the underlying facts and allegations.

Twenty years ago, Jefferson Smith made a big mistake. Whether it was "a freak accident during a moment of self-defense" (as the Oregonian put it) or a deliberate punch to the face, we'll never know. But we do know that it was twenty years ago. It's called "growing up" for a reason. People do all kinds of stupid things in college - and the difference between a police record and a bad memory can be dumb luck.

The reason that courts allow "criminal diversion agreements" - particularly for young people - is to emphasize the lessons learned, rehabilitation over punishment. And by all available evidence, it's never happened again. (Don't talk to me about the basketball incident - a punch in an athletic contest is a foul, not a crime. Not even when it happens to the president and he gets teeth knocked out.)

This is not to excuse what happened all those years ago. Violence is always bad. And those who support Jefferson should avoid the temptation to minimize or excuse what happened that night. It was wrong.

But the only reason we're talking about it is because Jefferson is a candidate in an election. And the only reason it matters in an election is because we're trying to evaluate the whole character of the man. And when it comes to Jefferson Smith, we have many more data points available to us to evaluate his character. He chose to walk away from a career in corporate law in order to develop a community organization. He successfully mentored dozens of staff, many of whom have gone to achieve important and influential positions in our community and elsewhere. And he did it all for the public good, not for private gain. Jefferson Smith is, at his core, a fundamentally good human being.

Should he be Mayor of Portland? That's a different question. I do have concerns about his ability to do the job. He's not a detail guy - we know that, and he's admitted as much. So, the core question I've had since the primary has been this: Who will be Jefferson's right hand? Who is the person that Jefferson trusts implicitly, to handle the details and manage the process? Who will be his Josh Kardon? His Curtis Robinhold?

And those concerns became all that much deeper for me as this most recent story unfolded. Jefferson made an unbelievably bad decision to visit the home of the woman he injured 20 years ago. Utterly stupid. That decision, more than the 20-years-ago punch, is why his campaign is suddenly in a tailspin.

To me, it was clear evidence that he was reacting emotionally and either not asking for advice or not following it. The fact that this story blindsided his campaign is evidence to me that he doesn't have a right-hand man or woman he trusts completely giving him serious advice.

As I told some of his campaign staff months ago, it's evidence of that person - that relationship - that I've been looking for before I can commit to the idea of Mayor Jefferson Smith. And all that's happened since points me in the opposite direction.

He may not be ready to be mayor. But I know this: Jefferson Smith has always had the public good in his heart. And he's a good man.

And when all this is over, win or lose, I'll still be proud to call him my friend.

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      I'm not convinced Smith knows how to hold down a steady high-paying job.

      Further, he took money that wasn't earned by him and started a project that worked for the interests of its big startup donors to try and give those same powerful interests a grassroots facade. I don't see reason to be impressed.

      Does the Bus have a specific platform it is espousing? Not really. It's a Democratic Party insider-supporting machine.

      Is it able to take credit for any meaningful policy victories? Not yet, as far as I can tell. Online voter registration, maybe, but that's not a fundamental shift in how registration works and voter registration numbers continue to drop compared to the voting eligible population. Inspiring people to go out and stump for some lukewarm center-left folk via bus for a weekend isn't my idea of useful. Perhaps if they sent people out to do direct education on local issues rather than supporting noodly candidates to supposedly expand the party caucus size, it would be a useful organization. Hell, if we took money out of politics with campaign limits and restrictions against union and corporate donations, his organization would disappear overnight, which is probably why he's mainly only supported public financing and hasn't been much of an advocate of finance limits in the past.

      I tend to as a rule not support machine and insider politicians. That's why I'm at this point writing in Scott Fernandez for mayor. Hales isn't eligible and Smith kicked himself out of the race.

      On Sept 28th I filed a new complaint regarding Hales with more details of case law and how they were supposed to handle it (including a full investigation).

      Instead of rejecting the election complaint in 24 hours like last time, the Secretary of State formally accepted the new complaint for investigation. Hales's days are numbered, too. Now will they both just resign so we can have a new special election as our city charter allows? I'd like to be able to vote for some actually qualified candidates.

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          I didn't say it was. Here's the context:

          "Leaving a steady, high-paying job and starting the Bus Project is one of those successes and there are many more."

          You can't claim a success that involves leaving a steady, high-paying job for a non-profit when you never held one of them steadily before going for the non-profit job. To me it looks like he was actually failing and called it a success instead to make up a nice say-so story that makes him look more competent than he is.

          I voted for Cameron Whitten. He didn't have a steady job -- not sure if he ever had a steady job in fact. I voted for him based on his values. Well, I don't agree with his penchant for not tipping well, but he at least said the right things on a lot more issues than the others.

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            So you're saying be an attorney at a powerful law firm is unlikely to be a high paying job...?

            It's easy to be a jerk when a guy is down. It's not as easy to be graceful in the face of someone else's loss. It would be nice to see you take the harder road on this. It seems like the human thing to do to me.

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              Nope. He couldn't manage to pull together being a successful attorney at any powerful law firm. The point of his supporter was that he abandoned something as if he actually gave it up. In order to give something up you have to be on the trajectory where you'll still have the job later. Instead, he parted ways with two firms, one without even trying and another when he essentially got forced out. Smith tried to spin it as a "mutual" situation, but we now know what a Smith Spin has behind it so I feel free saying what I've been told by insiders at his old employer for a while now (which I hesitated to reiterate because most of them are now supporting Hales, though not all).

              I'm just resistant to this fake life story that reminds me of the opening intro of the book of Mormon. Perhaps it runs in the family.

              For what it's worth, I've been skeptical of Smith's stories during his ascendancy, so an I told you so is in order here rather than trying to say I'm kicking him when he's down. Sure, but I was kicking him whenever he waffled and tried to spin himself out of a commitment to real progressive change in order to hold on to a chance to change his mind if it suited his future run for governor.

              As I'm not a Hales supporter either, I'm just calling it as it is. Hales is not so much a spinner, he's an outright liar. If I had to vote for either, I'd probably still vote Smith, but thankfully there's a write-in spot. Scott Fernandez is getting my first choice vote.

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        Seth, I think you misunderstand the Bus Project. It's about getting young people involved and teaching them how the political system works (like it or not). It fulfills its goals.

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      What were "her terms?" There was no evident restriction on contact, whatever one might think about the advisedness of it.

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      Personally, I wish we were more forgiving and less Puritanical as a society in general. We demand that our public officials are spotless and then are surprised when they aren't. We are creating a climate where the only people fit to be in office are people so boring that they've never done anything in their lives or have been so strategic minded that they've been able to cover everything up.

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        Let's be a little honest. Smith's skeletons are severe and they continued well into his supposed adulthood. That's not normal by any measure. His rap sheet, though not all criminal, is extensive, and I find the characterization of fouls as not-assault a bit misleading since he punched a guy in the nuts. It wasn't incidental contact but lashing out. I've had incidental contact with people that hurt them in sports, not so much to send them to a hospital, but it was obviously an accident and not intentional. Nowhere in sports or frat life is a fistful of rage really acceptable behavior. If he can't handle diplomacy in these situations, how can he handle the pressures of running a city?

        How many people here have been kicked out of multiple sports leagues recently? Let's get this out in public. It's clearly no big deal. Right?

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            I did laser tag probably 50 times and never saw a single fight.

            Similar with disc golf.

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              Disc golf has zero contact. Yeah, I was astounded when I saw a fight in laser tag as well, but it happened.

              Basketball, soccer, football have a lot of contact. It's quite common that people fight or exchange a few blows before people break it up. All the way from recreational to competitive leagues. People obviously get kicked out for it, but to pretend like it's a rare occurrence is beyond absurd.

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                Disc golf was a joke, but ultimate is the main contact sport I have a recent history in. Generally, contact is avoided as much as possible except when going for a disc in flight. I try to avoid sports that will give me long term physical damage, but for some reason I'm still not buying the idea that it's altogether normal to be kicked out of multiple sports leagues for violent behavior.

                Maybe you're exceptional too? BTW, have you ever hit a girl for any reason? Now I'm curious.

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                  My sister and I used to fight when I was 8.

                  I didn't say it's "normal" to be kicked out of games, but it's not "exceptional" either. The rules exist to punish behavior outside the context of the game, but 9/10 dirty plays aren't called and any given one could get you kicked out of a game.

                  Pick up games are actually worse because there's no ref to enforce rules, so it becomes tit for tat. Things really escalate there. The guy in the WWeek article who said he'd never seen a fight in a pick up game is either very limited in his experience or a total liar.

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          I'm not particularly interested in talking about the particulars of what we know and don't know about that night 20 years ago. But I think you've put the worst possible interpretation on the collection of known facts and unprovable allegations.

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            Constantly saying we won't know what happened that night kind of bothers me. I mean, if I were the victim and I read this conversation I'd be livid.

            She won in court. She is anonymous, and not looking for attention. Smith came to her unannounced.

            Based on all the evidence, I believe her 100%. Even if that would be wrong, Smith's indefensible actions today fit with the indefensible actions he probably tried to do back then.

            Is there any reason to trust Smith after this episode?

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              She won in court.

              No, she did not. It never went to court.

              All we have is a police report. That's raw, unprocessed data. There's a reason why we convict people after a jury trial - we don't send them straight to prison after an arrest.

              I have no reason to disbelieve any of those reports from 20 years ago. But even if it's all true, then I'll still stand by my post.

              People do really, stunningly dumb things when they're young and reckless.

              The question is - how do they handle their life going into the future? And we have a LOT of data about what Jefferson Smith's done with his life since.

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                She won a diversion agreement filed with the court:


                The charges were dismissed with prejudice with a conditioned agreement to do things like admit wrongdoing. That's winning to me, not a trial, but people only sign those things if they don't think they'll win at trial.

                It's official, he was wrong.

                You're right, we have a lot of data about him now. I'm not impressed. Punching people in the nuts and getting kicked out of sporting events due to violence, racking up a long list of careless behavior with cars -- another form of violence to me -- violence against the safety of others.

                His campaign team had a strategy to deal with most of his skeletons -- irrational fanbois ready to pounce on comment forums and such -- officially being against negative campaigning while feeding the negative campaigning to people loosely connected to the campaign. But that only works so far. This latest problem managed to tank his campaign for good.

                As far as the Bus Project. Taking big money and convincing young kids to spend their youthful enthusiasm on lukewarm center-left candidates in the suburbs -- not impressive to me. That's not a recipe for long term wins, that's being part of machine politics.

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          You are accepting an unverified and fairly well contradicted account, in order to reach your conclusion.

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      Pat, if you had been caught by a cop doing that & then, a month ago, tried to find that cop to get him to not tell anyone -- would the problem be the speeding years ago or the attempt to do something stupid last month? that's the problem here. not the mistakes; his recent & very bad decision-making that undermines his candidacy.

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      When he took money from the gun lobby and voted to keep private concealed carry permit status, that was sound policy despite the rest of the Portland delegation not taking the money and voting differently?

      Just checking.

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        I could care less about guns, I care about coal trains and nightmare freeway projects.

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          "I could care less about guns" Wow - you should spend a few nights in the ER at Emanuel.

          You are so focused on just two issues, that you can't seem to get past yourself.

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            Myself? No, "myself" has very little to do with why I support Jefferson. The health, welfare, and wellbeing of EVERYBODY ELSE in our community is at the forefront of why Jefferson Smith will get my vote. These two issues alone connect to so many others; traffic, transit, ecology, housing, health, property value, jobs, you name it. There simply is no greater schism between the two candidates than these "two" issues.

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              At the risk of repeating myself...oh what the heck :-)

              1) CRC: While this is a significant issue, the Mayor of Portland's role in this is one of many local, regional and federal players. The Governors of both Oregon (Kitzhaber) and Washington (TBD) actually have much more say and responsibility into this boondoogle then either the mayors of Portland or Vancouver. Of course, the mayor of Portland should be a strong advocate and voice to make sure whatever is done, is in the best interest of ALL Portlanders. I don't expect either Hales or Smith to stand up too much to Obama either (

              2) Coal: Fortunately because of how our city council functions, even if Hales wanted coal trains to run through the city (or condone it), he would run up against 3 or 4 other commissioners who would block that.

              While these are two important issues, they should not be the only factors in who one votes for.

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        I do believe there's a sound policy argument for it, yes. Are you trying to scam people into thinking Smith is pro-gun, despite OFF's lowest rating? Did you know the same group that gave Smith money gave it to Courtney and Prozanski? Are they now pro gun too?

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          My critique of the policy is that it's anti-transparency, not that it's pro-gun. People are walking around with the ability to avoid certain laws that apply to all other citizens, in secret, that have an impact upon the health and safety of others. That doesn't fit with me.

          I'm not against the 2nd amendment myself. I'm just pro-transparency in government.

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      Jefferson was entirely uninterested in having a conversation with me about HB 4131 and it's effect on the public sector workforce. When he determined that I didn't agree with him, he summarily dismissed his attention. He was pretty patronizing and I will long remember it.

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    Kari, your concern with separating Jefferson Smith the candidate from Jefferson Smith the friend is understandable. You are an admirable compatriot. But as all this applies to how one should vote for mayor you may be overlooking an important point. There is another candidate in the race who, in my estimation at any rate, is far more qualified to lead Portland.

    When the primary began, I tried to take a close look at the three candidates. Initially I was attracted to the idea of Eileen Brady as an appealing outsider, but dismissed her fairly quickly. The gaps in her basic knowledge of city government were little short of appalling and made her run seem arrogant.

    It seemed to me that Smith's heart was almost always in the right place and that he was qualified for a lot of jobs, but mayor might not one of them. As I asked around, I also heard a few unflattering things about him -- all from ostensible allies. Not the scuttlebut that wound up making headlines but rather a depiction of someone who is more sizzle than steak -- scattered, quick to take credit but slow to do the real work, opportunistic, unreliable. You obviously have experienced a different side of the man.

    The one candidate i knew least about at first was Charlie Hales, who left the city council three years before I moved to Portland. But the more I spoke to a wide variety of people the more good things I heard. In terms of credentials and attributes, his strengths appeared to be the antidote to all of Smith's (and Brady's) weaknesses. No, he was not the classic Stumptown progressive. My god, he'd once been a Republican! But what I was told and came to see for myself is that Hales is more doer than do-gooder and, in what is rare indeed these days, willing to act decisively only after actually weighing the merits of an issue. So I started volunteering for the Hales campaign, spent some time around the man and have had all I'd sensed about him affirmed.

    At the very least, Charlie Hales will be a good mayor. If we and he are lucky, he could be a great one. He would have my vote if Jefferson Smith had never driven a car, missed a dues bill, kneed a ballplayer in the groin or tried to undo a 20-year-old indiscretion by pressing the victim into changing her story,

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      I deliberately chose not to discuss Charlie Hales in my post.

      But savvy readers will note my concerns about Jefferson as a potential mayor - and note further that I am "more undecided in this race at this point in the calendar than in any election before."

      Infer what you will.

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      Your last point is entirely unfounded, but i digress: Hales has experience all right--well versed in the old boy network, who you have to grease to get ahead, how to keep it working for the same limited few it does now. If you think things are going well in Pprtland and we should keep going as we are, no doubt Charlie is the man.

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        I am a lifelong reformer, Mark, but If you and other apologists for Smith are in effect part of a new boy network – espousing change but offering little to suggest what it would be or how it would be accomplished beyond pretty words and a cult-like faith in a very flawed candidate - then maybe what you call the old boy network ain't so bad. Thanks to "old boys" like Vera Katz and Charlie Hales it is arguably the most progressive city in America. The issue ahead is getting everyone to share in that progress. It will be Mayor Hales' big challenge and I think he is up to it. Obviously you do not. We shall see.

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          Ed, well written.

          Whatever you may think about Smith and Hales, they are both solidly part of the power elite, albeit one that is separated by a decade or two. Have we forgotten so quickly about Smith's family connections? It's really misleading to claim otherwise.

          I've unfortunately heard much of the same scuttlebutt, and the tickets (sorry these are important to me--they show someone who has behaved consistently as if the rules did not apply), the behavior on the athletic fields (I've watched competitive youth and adult soccer for decades and I've never seen someone thrown out of a league), the rapid abandonment by allies. It all just fits together too well.

          "Cult-like faith" also rings far too true. I worry about this in almost any politician. But I'm an old cynic.

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      Maria, I suggest you go back and re-read my post above. I'm not making any excuses for Jefferson's behavior twenty years ago.

      In fact, I wrote:

      This is not to excuse what happened all those years ago. Violence is always bad. And those who support Jefferson should avoid the temptation to minimize or excuse what happened that night. It was wrong.

      But it was twenty years ago. And I don't believe there's any evidence that he's some kind of violent anger-management head case.

      The stupidity with the driving - and the even bigger stupidity with the failure to show up for court - well, that's all bad too. No excuses for that stuff here.

      But, Maria, you're not here. You're not seeing the nightly coverage on the television news - they're making him out to be some kind of serial killer or child molester. More than one commentator has raised the specter of Neil Goldschmidt.

      That's simply not fair. It's an over-the-top over-reaction.

      We can all learn a lot from this incident, most of all Jefferson.

      He's not likely going to be Mayor. But unlike, say, a serial killer or Neil Goldschmidt, Jefferson Smith still has a lot to offer this community and this state.

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        Kari - With all due respect, I follow Oregon news quite closely, whether it is politics, or the Ducks or the weather. I go to Portland TV websites daily and I have seen most of the pieces they have aired regarding Jefferson Smith and the revelations of the past couple of months, in addition to their other political coverage.

        I think those of us deeply disturbed by what we are seeing and reading, are looking at the continuum of reckless and violent behavior which clearly began in Jefferson's youth, and has continued thru his adulthood. Whether it was the UO assault, the reckless driving, the disregard for the law, the recent violent incidents in group sports, and his aggressive and inappropriate attempt to engage with his female victim after all this time, and clearly with concern for his own needs, Jefferson has now shown a long and consistent pattern of behavior that is 100% wrong and unacceptable. Especially from a trusted elected official, who wants to win higher office.

        Second, the lies and half truths that he has clearly been spinning to explain all of this have 1) insulted his victim 2) damaged the reputation of the organizations still standing behind him. It shows he really only cares about himself.

        Enough is enough. Yes, I can clearly understand why so many progressive Portlanders were really inspired and excited by his candidacy and the Bus Project. However, there is a side to Jefferson that many of you did not see. There is a side to Jefferson that is unfortunate, but quite dark. He is clearly not in control of that side of himself.

        The facts are all out there, one plus one equals two. The progressive community deserves more than to be torn apart by his unravelling. His and his supporter's attacks on decent people's opinions, local media, and the victim are doing a great deal of harm. Quite possibly irreparable harm.

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      Trust me, your reaction is typical of the southern framing on women--on pedestals, too delicate for the real world, objects of chivalry. It is ultimately a more debasing view than one which considers women as capable and responsible actors.

      It's stunning to assert the facts are not in dispute and even if not, that "abuse" or some kind of predatory behavior is at foot. It reduces the woman's agency to helpless waif on a couch, instead of physically assertive (if mistaken) self-defender. To transform a woman from an aggressor to victim solely by eventually receiving some blowback to their aggressiveness--regardless of whether the person retaliating should have thought better of it--similarly places a weak, cocooned frame on her agency.

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        Think of it as a straight man equal in size to him that was perhaps slapping him around a little. No historical marginalizing there.

        Remember that Smith wasn't injured himself.

        Is there any reason what he did was the right thing to do in that case? Nope. He had other options. I'm not going to go along with the idea that we all just believe that somebody half his size should be treated with southern grace. Absurd.

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        Mark - Please try to not sound like a prejudiced elitist when you characterize the South. We just hosted President Obama's re-election nomination convention. We were a BLUE state four years ago. And even in our neighboring red states, it is poor form, if not flat out wrong, to abuse a woman.

        How you can look at the totality of Jefferson's continued treatment of this woman and not see it for what it started out as, ugly and demeaning sexual harassment, is beyond the pale.

        She did not retaliate. When faced with the situation thrust upon her...she stood up and fought for herself. Good for her. I hope my daughters, now that age, are empowered to do the same.

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    My God, it sounds like the koolaid crowd has gone completely bonkers. Is this the homesite of the Jefferson Smith cult? Can anyone spell sociopath?

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    The reference was to Smith. For all I know, he may be a wonderful man in other regards, but he seems to have real problems when it comes to feeling any genuine guilt for his "sins". What did he hope to gain by visiting his victim? Did he consider her feelings?

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    write in Eileen Brady :)

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    The headline reverses the situation: Jefferson Smith is an imperfect person whose imperfections would have little effect on his performance as mayor of Portland.

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      Tom: You are high as a kite if you really think that. And I know you, so I have no problem being direct.

      Your comments justifying Jefferson's continued behavior towards this woman, and his original assault of her, absolutely disgust me.

      And disappoint me to no end.

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    There's a lot missing from this thread about Jefferson. One of the more important things is his apology, in which Jefferson took responsibility for his wrongful action 19 years ago and said it was wrong to have visited the woman.
    I do know Jefferson well. He is brilliant intellectually, and committed to the public interest. I have watched City candidates closely for 43 years, having first elected a Mayor and served on his staff.
    I think Jefferson would make an excellent Mayor, and that he has been crucified by the press. I also think Charlie and Eileen are excellent candidates. I am sorry that Portland's power-hungry press, and I refer to Willamette Week which has relentlessly attacked Jefferson and Eileen while endorsing Charlie, and The Oregonian, in which we have a new right-wing publisher from Orange County,and his hand-picked right-wing editorial page editor. I also believe, at age 71, that part of this battle is generational, that Jefferson is a Gen-Exer and Charlie is a boomer. If every flawed voter in Portland were to vote for Jefferson, he would win in a landslide. I am concerned about who we know with such a spotless record as to stand up under Weiner and Kaufman feeding Jaquiss and Slovic. Maybe you know people like that, and they certainly should start thinking about running for Mayor if so. Me, I am not sure there are many of them out there. As a group of people who are interested enough in politics to come to this website, we ought to be thinking a little bit more about how we make our local politics work to solve problems, how we find true leaders, and how that proces should work. I would suggest that the lessons from this race are, do your opposition research and maybe you will be able to keep your negative advertising in the can. The complete victory of cynicism. My own opinion is that this field of three are all in the top 10% of candidates for city-wide positions in the last 43 years I have been watching, but you sure wouldn't know so from reading the character assassination in the local press, with a complete absence of any suggestion from that same press of what the city agenda should be, and how the issues should sort out.

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