Jefferson Smith at Heavenly Donuts, open 24-hours at NE 102nd and Glisan
If East Portland was a city it would rival Eugene for the title of Oregon's second largest. It would likely be the most diverse city in Oregon, and the youngest. Almost 40 percent of Portland's school-age children live east of 82nd Avenue. And students in David Douglas School district speak 73 different languages.
These are just a few of the facts I learn from State Rep. Jefferson Smith, the East Portland champion who has just announced he is running for Mayor of Portland. Two days after launching his mayoral campaign, Smith arrives at Heavenly Donuts on 102nd Avenue, wearing a black eye patch that makes him look like a strangely clean-cut pirate.
"I can't see very well, but I have vision," he quips.
The reason for the patch? Skip this if you're squeamish. Pulling a late night work session with his wife Katy, he kept going so long that his contact lens "fused with" his eye. At least that's what he discovered when he removed the lens, and pulled off patches of sensitive cells from the surface of his eye. Ouch! The injury didn't make him postpone his announcement. He simply didn't make a speech, which is a shame because he has plenty to say.
"The first thing to understand is that this city doesn't work because it has a great mayor; this city works because it is a great city," he says. "Anyone who runs, promising that they are the answer, is asking the wrong question!
"Portland is at its strongest when there are a lot of Portlanders engaged in rising to our challenges and creating opportunities for the city. That's what makes Portland special."
What makes Smith special? For one thing he is the only mayoral candidate, so far, with his own Wikipedia page. His entry reveals that he is the great, great, great nephew of Joseph Smith, who founded the Mormon religion. A graduate of Grant High School, the University of Oregon and Harvard Law School, in 2001, Jefferson Smith also founded a revolutionary new organization: the Oregon Bus Project.
Where old-style Democrats went to meetings, the Bus Project took its progressive political message on the road, signing up hundreds of new voters -many of them people of color –and injecting humor into politics with events such as, 'Candidates Gone Wild'. Elected in 2008 to represent East Portland in Salem, Smith took that sense of humor with him, somehow managing to get his fellow Democrats to work together to "Rick Roll' the Oregon House of Representatives.
Boys at the 162nd MAX stop in East Portland
You Can't Segregate Poverty
Now, Smith says he wants the mayor's job because local government is best placed to solve the serious challenges facing neighborhoods in East Portland, and across the entire city.
"I listened to what my neighbors were facing and I realized how little of that I could impact in the Legislature, and how much more it related to local government: sidewalks, paving streets, the equitable distribution of resources; gang intervention; safety on MAX platforms and the development of our local economy.
"The MAX line runs through the whole city and the economy of the entire city is linked, from our businesses to our customers. So for our city to work, the WHOLE city needs to work."
For Smith, that means a fairer shake for his current constituents in East Portland, who are more likely to be people of color and immigrants as well as poor and young. Many of those pushed out of the inner city by gentrification found cheaper housing in his district. But investment in the area has not caught up.
"If we think we can segregate poverty, thinking it's smart to segregate our problems, then we have another think coming," he said. 'You can't segregate problems; you concentrate them and exacerbate them."
If the future of the city depends on the steps we take now to support young people and help them become successful contributors to the economy, we must take a long, hard look at equity issues, he says. Until recently, Portland has been very, very White. And it shows.
"Portland can be the most inspiring city in the world. But to do that, we have to make sure that our city's culture and habits of government are ready for the next 30 years," he said.
Most people don't realize how Portland is changing and a city is only as strong as its citizenry. That's why spreading the love throughout Portland's communities matters now, he said.
"We will be increasingly diverse, increasingly multicultural, and we should be aggressively equitable in hiring and contracting practices. We should integrate management functions in the city, including budgeting and auditing to ensure smart and fair resource distribution. "I don't care if it's an Office of Equity or a Desk of Fairness, but the city has to be intentional about equity."
The MAX stop at 102nd and Burnside
A Grassroots Jobs Strategy
One of the fastest ways to support struggling young people now, Smith says, is to expand summer and after-school activity and enrichment programs, and to pay more attention to preventing youth violence. He'd like to see more programs like the "I Have a Dream" program at Alder School in the Reynolds School district to offer help and inspiration to students as early as possible. And he sees possibilities in community-led efforts such as the Walter Dines Basketball Tournament that brings together teens who can't play sports at high school, either because of grades, or because they don't make the team that year.
"If we have an area in Portland where youth violence is fostered, that gang activity can impact the whole city," he says. "Unfortunately, we are going to continue to have more need than supply of services, so we must have cost-effective services.
"We need a smart, bottom-up, jobs strategy and economic plan so we can reduce poverty."
What would that economic strategy look like?
Smith wants to see more neighborhood-scale public works projects that are more likely to use local hires. We need to shift our priorities and do more to create and support homegrown local businesses. He's also interested in using Oregon's new tax credit program – similar to the federal New Market Tax Credit—to spur development in low-income neighborhoods.
"How most of our business job growth happens is through the home grown and earlier stage businesses," he says. "Later stage, larger, non-resident businesses are important, but in net they have lost jobs in Oregon and that's true in other states also. There is a lot more we can do to help local businesses start up and grow."
Local businesses help communities in other ways too, he says, because when people live in a neighborhood they care more about it, and are more likely, for example, to apply for neighborhood improvement grants.
Smith is skeptical of creating any new Urban Renewal Districts without reviewing the impact of the dollars being spent now. He's currently looking at the Main Street program, active in St Johns, Hillsdale and on Northeast Alberta Street. If new applications are accepted it could offer a way to boost more of Portland's local business districts outside of Urban Renewal Areas.
What's important, he says, is that every area of the city has a thriving business district, preferably with resident business owners, which is why, he adds, "we don't want any business districts that are limited to strip clubs and strip malls."
The MAX line can be a big advantage, he says, because it connects the city across dividing lines such as the freeways and the Willamette River. But it has to be safe and welcoming for everyone. That's why he has urged TriMet to work with the Adopt a Stop program, a kind of Neighborhood Watch for transportation.
Smith with his wife Katy who is a research administrator at Oregon Health & Sciences University. "She's sassy, but she's a saint," he says.
Campaign Pledge: No Out of State Corporate Contributions
As the third major player to jump in to the Mayor's race, Smith faces formidable opponents in New Seasons co-founder Eileen Brady and former City Commissioner Charlie Hale. According to Willamette Week, by Sept. 12, Brady had raised $177,000 and Hales had raised $155,000.
"There are two well funded business candidates in the race – both of whom I respect –so for my campaign to be successful it will have to be people based," Smith said. "The good news is that I have had opportunities to work with a diverse array of people including business leaders, nonprofit leaders and government leaders."
Smith has pledged not to take any corporate or group contributions from out of state.
"We're going to try to raise our first $50,000 in contributions of $1000 or less," he said.
Less than a week later, his campaign is on its way. Within 48 hours, he raised 100 contributions and now has $31,091 all in amounts of $1,000 or less.
"The way we campaign sets the stage for how we govern," he said in a press release issued Tuesday Sept. 20. "We want to build a campaign with the broadest possible base. They say 'early money' is important...because it builds a 'relationship.' We want those early relationships to involve thousands of people in our campaign who bring ideas, time, passion, and commitment for the city."