Jefferson Smith hopes to make history next year by becoming the first mayor to come from east of 82nd Avenue.
Since 2008, Smith has represented part of East Portland in the Oregon House of Representatives and has been a champion for a part of town that has often been overlooked by City Hall and faces challenges in education, transportation and poverty. Smith grew up in Portland where he attended Grant High School. He went on to graduate from Harvard Law School. After taking a high-paying job at a law firm, he left to start the Oregon Bus Project, a nonprofit venture that seeks to increase civic participation through get-out-the-vote and voter-registration initiatives.
While serving in the House, Smith, 38, has worked on how the state manages water, helped upgrade schools, made budgets more transparent, made it easier to register to vote and even made national headlines by rickrolling the Legislature to the tune of Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give you Up.”
Jake Thomas: You’ve long campaigned for greater reinvestment in East Portland, home to a large population of immigrants, families in poverty and working-class communities. What are some concrete things you are going to do for this part of town as mayor?
Jefferson Smith: [Scribbles down points on a legal pad.] Six things. One: Using economic diversity as a lens through which we make planning decisions. When we have built developments in inner Portland we have often not done enough to avoid displacing housing that’s displaced by that development elsewhere, including largely in East Portland.
Two: As we make affordable housing investments, making sure that our design review process, while not making it more cumbersome, makes sure to improve the flavor of the neighborhoods.
Third: Looking for some centers of excellence in the area, including the plan for the Gateway Education Center.
Fourth: The safety on the MAX line is something I’ve been working on for the past year and a half with a bunch of people to try and find low-cost alternatives to improve safety on the MAX line. Crime on TriMet is down everywhere in the city except for east of 82nd Avenue.
One thing we can do is link to my fifth point, which is community policing with a strategy. The plan we’re working towards is an “adopt a station” plan. The easiest way to think about it is combining neighborhood watch with Adopt A Highway and doing it around MAX platforms.
Sixth: Do what we can around foreclosures. That part of town is hit harder with more foreclosures than other parts of town. If we can make sure we don’t lose the settlement money from the attorney general’s lawsuit against the big banks, we can dedicate that toward foreclosure avoidance.
And the last one I want to say is schools. Schools are not directly within the ambit of the mayor, but nor do I think a mayor or a city can abdicate its responsibility. We have to be looking at routes to increase school capacity. When I was at Grant High School, it was about 1,600 students. David Douglas is about the same size. Grant is still about that size. David Douglas is now about 3,200 students. Eighty percent of those students are on free or reduced-price lunch, and 73 languages are spoken in the school district. We haven’t kept up with school capacity in some of our poorest schools as population has increased.
In addition, another thing we can do with schools is set an objective to have the most robust set of summer programs of any city in the nation. We can do that without spending too much because we can stitch together existing nonprofits as well as SUN schools and the parks department and see where the gaps are and help address what we’re learning to be one of biggest drivers in the achievement gap between upper-income and lower-income students: the summer gap. This is particularly important for kids who are making critical choices on whether they’re going to end up like someone who puts a microphone in my face or like the 13-year-old kid who was beaten and shot to death 10 blocks from my house.
I skipped parks and sidewalks and streets. I applaud Commissioner Fish’s efforts at the E205 initiative to get more parks in the area. We have an objective in the city for everyone to be within a 20-minute walk of a park. There are various parts of the city that aren’t. One of the biggest swaths of those areas is in East Portland.
We have 59 miles of unpaved road not just in East Portland, but in Southwest. We’re not going to pave all of them, but we should pave some of them. We should see if we can’t find other funding options to add some more sidewalks to areas that could use them.
J.T.: You’ve talked about the need to address the foreclosure crisis on the local level. I was hoping you could talk more about that and how this would work.
J.S.: According to a joint congressional committee, the economic cost of a foreclosure is about $77,000. The estimated cost of avoiding a foreclosure is about $3,000. One thing the city can do to help families facing foreclosure is actually buying their house and working out a deal so that they can stay in it. Banks are not moving money aggressively and aren’t terrifically motivated to help with some of those purchases.
The key question is, will the economics work? You can buy the properties for 50 percent to 80 percent market value and get sufficient leverage to do that. So even without that many millions of dollars you can get a lot of properties. If you do it at 50 percent, the risk per unit is higher; if you do it at 80 percent, the risk is lower. We can use some of our leverage with local banking institutions to also get in the mix. The question remains, how should the public-private partnerships be set up? What pots of money are we talking about? The one that seems most obvious is the trying to dedicate a meaningful portion of the bank settlement money should it come so it can kickstart this.
J.T. What if the bank settlement money doesn’t come?
J.S.: Yeah. Then I don’t think we can set aside the priority merely because of that, but I can’t promise to defund current city obligations in order to do it. So we’re looking for other pots. So it could be displacement mitigation funds out of urban renewal zones or certain city deposits that we have. We need to prove this up as a meaningful investment so it’s fiscally responsible, but doesn’t take money out of the general fund. So there’s a couple routes we’re looking at. We’re also looking at what remains from potentially other federal monies.
J.T. When previously neglected parts of town see a renewal in investment, it often leads to properties rising in value and people being displaced. Do you worry that if we get all this renewed investment in East Portland, it will just lead to gentrification?
J.S.: Yes. We’re trying to make a hallmark of how we’re approaching the race by trying to get to the hard part of questions facing the city. First of all, it’s not a bad thing to invest in neighborhoods to make them safer and better. That’s a necessary and good thing. It is a bad thing not to do more to avoid undue displacement. So what are some answers?
One, looking at the kind of development that we do so it’s culturally relevant so we don’t turn it into Bridgeport Village, but we look to support things like Lily Market, which is a really great Asian food market near my house.
Two, look at aggressive minority-women-emerging-small-business contracting and local-source contracting arrangements so that it’s more likely to help with jobs. Because both homeowners and renters need jobs.
Third, if, for instance, we enter into a no-net loss-housing, working hard so that housing is nearby.
Fourth, looking holistically at how we do our city investments. It wasn’t merely the investment and no net-loss of housing arrangements in inner Northeast Portland along Interstate that led to displacement, it was also simultaneous under-investment in East Portland. It wasn’t just that housing prices in one part of Portland were going up, it was that they were going up disproportionately to other places.
Another is to look at a displacement mitigation fund. When we make urban renewal investments, we need to look for how to make sure that if we break it we buy it.
J.T.: You’ve called the requirement that 30-percent of urban renewal funds go toward affordable housing an imperfect tool. I was hoping you could talk more about that.
J.S.: We have too few funding streams for affordable and public housing. The 30-percent set-aside ought to be a floor not a ceiling. But, for instance, with the significant reduction in national or federal housing support, it is a perniciously thin reed upon which to rest all our hopes. At some point, we’ll have a lot of urban renewal zones. We already do.
J.T. What are your ideas to sustain or increase funding for affordable housing?
J.S.: To some degree, I’m looking to the housing community for their best ideas. The first I’d say is a commitment not to make it worse. The second is to work with our federal delegation to make housing a priority. Third is to consistently communicate that the 30-percent set-aside needs to be a floor not a ceiling. Four, we need to highlight the challenges of housing and homelessness in our community and the public dialogue. I’m not prepared to call it a silver lining, it’s a bronze lining at best, that the economic crisis reminded people how connected our homes are to our lives and our economy. The other thing that I’m looking to — and it’s different than sustaining, hopefully amplifying — is for mechanisms to increase funding, including potentially using currently vacant property that will help us with resources as distinct from tax increases and tax breaks.
J.T.: I was hoping you could talk about getting communities that haven’t been engaged in politics to become politically active.
J.S.: Somebody said something to me recently that I’m pretty close to adopting: “The only ideology I have that I’m sure about is civic engagement.” There has to be a city in America where the people rule.
I’ve spent a better part of my adult life on that question, imperfectly, but, working on it. And here are some thoughts. Generally, it takes two things to get somebody engaged: a relationship, or a set of relationships, and something they care about. And as we look at a changing city, a city that’s not getting whiter, we need to be thinking about how to engage new communities, both by expanding on our relationship sets and by working on relevant purposes.
That is one of the reasons why I think I’m one of the only candidates not to come out swinging against the Communities of Color proposal for an Office of Equity. Because we should get smarter about our changing city, and because we have to be looking for ways to engage communities in a political discourse. There are still issues about reducing barriers to government, making it easier for us to understand what we do, bringing City Hall to the people.
I can’t promise it in the first or second year, until we get a handle on our general fund, but I think we should get one telephone number for all non-emergency government telephone calls as they’ve done in Minneapolis and New York. It also doesn’t answer questions of barriers in peoples’ lives, from having to work a bunch of jobs, and facing a more challenging situation of having the wherewithal to engage in community activities.
J.T. You mentioned the Office of Equity. I’d like to get your thoughts on it, and if there’s anything you’d like to see come out of that office.
J.S.: I hope that we would do at least three things. One is to improve our occasionally good track record on minority-women-emerging-small-business contracting. Two, improve our ability to hire and retain top-flight people from various walks. Three, have a better sense of evaluating and how we can come to grips with our changing Portland and making sure that an increasingly diverse Portland is not decaying, but is one that is getting more rich and more robust and more competitive and more compassionate.
And that third one is where I think there was some consternation among critics that somehow learning things is some how a wasteful exercise in government. It isn’t. The best institutions in the public, private and nonprofit sectors are learning institutions that are figuring out what they’re doing better. That’s not a waste of resources; that’s a valuable thing. We can have a plan to learn from the success and failures of other municipalities that have faced a changing population. That’s one of the most important things we can do in the next 30 years of our city. A single office, or a single employee, or even a few isn’t enough to do that, but if they can help shape the culture and shape the strategy of what the city is facing then that’s a noble pursuit.
J.T.: I’d like to get your thoughts on the Right to Dream Too encampment and the camping ordinance that the city has.
J.S.: I’m about a week behind in what’s currently happening with the camping lawsuit, but I have said, and will repeat here, that a settlement offers us a good opportunity to look at what Eugene is doing, which is using willing church property as a camping opportunity. We can’t make homelessness itself a crime. If we’re not doing everything we can to reduce homelessness on the front end or provide services to end people’s experiences with homelessness on the back end, then it feels somewhat disingenuous to make it a crime to find somewhere to sleep.
J.T. Do you have any ideas on how the county and the city can collaborate on meeting the needs of people living in poverty?
J.S.: At least more joint-budgeting.
We risk forgetting that we have to worry about both the big C City and the little c city. For instance, when I came in I said, I want to reduce crime, and one way I want to do that is by increasing police officers on the beat and by increasing our presence that would also increase the need for jail beds and for services at the county. If I’m mayor, it’s not my problem. But of course it is my problem. It is all of our problem; we are all in this together.
J.T.: Every year public transportation gets more expensive and free public transportation in downtown keeps getting chipped away. I know that TriMet is beyond the purview of City Council, but I was wondering if you had any ideas of how to preserve the Free Rail Zone.
J.S.: We have seen the advantage in cities, not just in terms of social justice, but also in terms of economic development and retail. Denver, Colorado’s downtown has made its relatively spread-out downtown functioning, in significant part, because you can hop on free rail and go around. When we had greater support for free rail, my impression is that one element of that initiative is that it would help with the functioning of downtown retail. So one answer is thinking about the politics and the economics of a revitalized downtown that has even the business owners wanting free rail. I don’t have a brilliant funding idea. Although I’m hoping to.
I have a question that I haven’t yet got answered, which, is, if depending on what happens with the elimination of the free rail zone, what is the desirability or doability with charging, but then having a remote system of vouchers to allow for a Street Roots vendor or somebody who goes to Outside In or somebody who is working with JOIN to get rail passes? And I acknowledge that it is not only beyond the area of control of the office of which I seek, but the granularities are beyond my ambit of expertise, but I am probably at least as open as you are to thinking about how we can make it possible for people to get around.
I was talking to the parks department and those that do summer programs, and they were saying that one of the biggest barriers to summer and after school programs is transportation. The challenge isn’t just limited to our homeless and low-income populations. We have youth passes for Portland Public Schools students. We don’t have them for Parkrose, David Douglas, Reynolds and Centennial school district. And those are in areas where it’s harder to ride a bike and harder to walk and more dangerous. But it also limits opportunities to get an after school or summer job, or be part of an after school or summer program. So having access to transportation has appropriately been a priority for the city.
J.T.: There’s been a lot of money raised in the mayor’s race. I wanted to know if you worry that there’s too much private money in politics?
J.S.: There is. The interface of political power with the money that dominates our campaigns and the linkage between that money and largely narrower and generally economic self-interest is tied to the biggest problem facing our system of governance.
If there is a book written about the failure of the United States democratic elected republic, one of the most important chapters will be that we were unable to make a good amount of decisions based on public interest outcomes. We were too often making them based on who was paying the freight.
The campaign contribution is the only financial transaction, that I’m aware, after which both parties insist that nothing has changed. This is why I have proposed campaign finance bills in each of my sessions in the Legislature. That’s why I was one of the leading fund raisers, ironically, in the public-financing campaign in Portland.
The failure of that is one of the reasons I am running for mayor. If that’s restored, it will be a question for the people not the mayor. It reflects some of the challenges that our city is facing. I wish and hope that the candidates for mayor would agree upon a maximum spending limit on each of our campaigns. There needs to be a city and country where the people rule.
Let me say something else. The problem is not too much money, or at least we should state the problem differently. Think about how much money gets spent on marketing a product. Do you know how much money Coca Cola spends to sell a product you can get in any location just about any time just about any day and it gives you a sweet taste on your lips? We have to do something, I don’t mean canvas, we have to do something to communicate with people about engaging in an activity that has to be done in a relatively particular way in a relatively particular time at a relatively particular place and doesn’t give you an obvious sweet taste on your lips. I do think that somebody has to communicate with the people, but we have to make sure that we are cognizant of how much that looks like purchasing influence or access and how much it looks like engagement of the public.