The election results in Portland this week prove the old adage: The more things change, the more they stay the same.
On one hand, the city will no longer have a law on its books criminalizing the possession of relatively small amounts of marijuana. On the other hand, Portland cops say they will continue to enforce the state law that criminalizes possession of even one thin joint. On the third hand (Dude, you’ve got, like, three hands — whoa…), Portland has long been the kind of city where you can discretely toke up pretty much anywhere, so the situation on the ground won’t be much different.
The Portland City Council will have a new member, former state lawmaker Jon Hinck, who’ll fit right in with the cadre of spineless Democrats who’ve controlled the council since anyone cares to remember. Another former Democratic state legislator, Ed Suslovic, won reelection to the council on Tuesday, as did Jill Duson, who used to lobby state legislators for power companies.
We can expect more nanny-state ordinances from Portland’s governing body (Hey, isn’t second-hand pot smoke cancerous, too?), more boot-licking of wealthy developers who cry poor and beg for tax breaks, and more of the same inertia that’s made problems like the city’s maddening permitting process a perennial pain in the butt.
When Duson ran for mayor two years ago, she cited the permitting regime and other city functions as areas in need of improvement. When I asked her why, having served on the council for 10 years at that point, she hadn’t done much of anything to fix those problems, she said that as a councilor she simply didn’t have enough time to tackle those issues. Being a full-time mayor would enable her to make progress, she said.
Voters soundly rejected her mayoral bid, but now Duson’s been given four more years to be a part-time councilor who doesn’t have time to fix City Hall. Not that she’d even know where to start. When the Portland Phoenix asked council candidates what city service or department should be changed to save money, she could think of no specific examples. (Inexplicably, the alt-weekly endorsed her anyway.)
Why do Portland voters keep electing these bozos? The answer — this year, at least — is the lack of a viable alternative. And by “viable alternative,” I mean a candidate who has both different ideas and the means to let voters know what those ideas are.
Most voters in Portland did not want to give Duson another term on the council. She won this week with less than 50 percent of the tally. Her two challengers, Greg Smaha and Chris Shorr, nearly split the votes against her. How could a candidate like Shorr, whom I endorsed last week, have won this race?
The short answer is money. Shorr, a lobsterman making his first run for public office, hardly raised any cash for his campaign. He told me he spent a week’s wages on signs but was not willing to stoke his girlfriend’s ire by spending any more of his hard-earned dough on this race. A couple Greens had given him checks for the campaign, but he was still waiting for them to clear.
I have some sympathy for Shorr’s situation, but here’s the bottom line: To be competitive in a citywide political race, newcomers have to raise the money to get their name and message out there. Signs by the side of the road won’t get you very far. Signs in people’s yards and windows go much further. So do palm cards hand-delivered to voters’ homes and ads in the local papers they read.
Candidates in Portland don’t have to sell out to big business interests to raise campaign cash because the vast majority of local businesses are small-time operations. Find out what hurdles mom and pop face at City Hall, come up with ideas to address those problems, and ask the small businesspeople for a modest contribution to help you make their lives easier.
Another tip: Do not, as Shorr did at a forum sponsored by the West End Neighborhood Association, say the incumbent has “done a great job.” You don’t necessarily have to go negative, but don’t go positive on their behalf. Clearly articulate the mistakes they’ve made and how you would do things differently.
My last bit of advice: Get more civic experience. Do some time in the trenches of your neighborhood’s association. Get appointed to a dull city board and learn the ropes. Then you’ll have a record of public service to build on and some tools to help topple the powers that be.