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Thursday, March 13, 2008

Voter-Owned Democracy, part 1 (Portland-style)

Portland, Oregon--

Now that the deadline for candidate filings has passed, voters have the opportunity to size up the field and see what their options are, both in specific races and in terms of how the larger pictures shape up, policy-wise.

Most legislative primary races are uncontested.

“Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. “ ("Won't Get Fooled Again," the Who)

Yet the voters want change, fresh voices, new perspectives, access to power for real citizens, not just the same career politicians again and again.

The voters want legislators that reflect the changing demographics of our state, so that no citizen is left behind.

That may have to wait until the next go-round.

There is only one House and one Senate race in the May 20 election that would bring the legislature a step closer in reaching these strategic goals.

The marvelously-gifted Cyreena Boston will likely be successful in her bid to re-integrate the House. May other community members have the courage in the future to step up and serve beside her there.

That level of courage among Portland’s racial and ethnic minority communities is hard to find. Lots of talkers, few takers (of the opportunity).

My race in the Oregon Senate is far more difficult, and I am going to take some time to write about how this effort has unfolded, and the barriers to democracy and authentic citizen participation that I’ve encountered along the way.

In Part I (Portland-Style), I want to offer a different perspective on Portland’s Voter Owned Elections (VOE) in a larger sense of access to democracy, and the contrast between the City Council’s commitment to democracy in city races and the overt cronyism that has appeared in the race for Senate District 23.

When Senator Gordly announced her intention to retire last summer, her Senate seat became open in the election cycle, and any citizen could step into the ring and compete.

In the last election cycle, there were five candidates for retiring Representative Steve March’s seat, and I had assumed that there would be several competitors for Senator Gordly’s position. I looked forward to the opportunity to discuss competing views and perspectives.

This is perhaps the most important contested seat in the Senate in this election cycle, as with Senator Gordly’s retirement the legislature loses its most unique voice, its most independent spirit, its most tireless champion for the underserved in every respect. Seniors and people living with disabilities, people living with mental illness, and racial and ethnic minorities would be first to feel the pain, the least likely to gain another champion.

The Senate also stands to lose ground as a mirror of its Oregon citizenry.

As Oregon experiences the pressures of its growing diversity, the Senate stands on the brink of moving in the opposite direction.

I waited for some months after Senator Gordly’s announcement, to see if any regular citizens would step up and enter the race. I focused instead on doing my job as Senator Gordly’s Chief of Staff. In any case, I had decided, out of respect for Senator Gordly, that I would not be the first to file for her seat.

I had no idea that the City Council had already made their commitments in the race.

State Representative Jackie Dingfelder began her campaign to replace Senator Gordly in late summer of 2007, opening with the endorsements of four Portland City Council members in her pocket.

While these endorsements were not a discouragement to me, as residents of East Portland rarely see them out here anyway, I felt that they would dampen the enthusiasm of other potential candidates and act as a deterrent to real citizen access to this process.

Endorsements like these also deter contributions and other support for grass-roots campaigns.

These City Council endorsements were announced some seven months before the deadline for candidate filings arrived, which brings us to the point of Voter Owned Elections, currently a death-rattle away from an ugly demise.

The race for Senate District 23 is, to the best of my knowledge, the only race that has drawn the Council members early interest.

There was no discussion, no opportunity to debate, no nothing prior to the endorsements, not even a competing candidate, just POW! Massive full-scale endorsements, many months prior to the filing deadline.

So much for democracy and inclusion, and that commitment to diversity that one often hears from City Hall and the County Commission.

One side of the mouth bespeaks grass roots, the other bald cronyism.

Later, in early fall, when the Carpenters Union and the American Federation of Teachers invited me in for candidate interviews even though I wasn’t in the race yet, I asked them why they were conducting these interviews so far in advance of the filing deadline. There is only one candidate in the race, I noted.

Neither group had an answer to the question.

How can you decide on a candidate now, when you don’t know who will be in the race?

Shrugs in response. The point, obviously, is that they don’t need to know who else might be in the race.

How does this process, and these early endorsements, benefit the constituents of Senate District 23?

I mulled this question over as the months passed by, but can think of no way in which this is a benefit to the senate district, to the community or to the state.

The special interest groups embody self-interest. No surprise there. It’s not about you, it’s about them, pure and simple. It says so right on the door.

Voter Owned Elections, however, speaks of a level of commitment to keep the doors to elected office open wide enough for more citizens to enter.

The people of the City of Portland are spending a lot of money on encouraging regular citizens to step up, a ton of enabling money flowing out of the Council.

But all of that VOE money pouring into local races swamps the limited funds available to citizen candidates in other races. Never level in the first place, the spillover into other races tilts the playing field further, inhibiting new voices.

The Council members early endorsements hinder fund raising for grass roots candidates and then the spending begins, and the grass roots campaigns cannot compete with the avalanche of media that the VOE money buys. You are screwed both ways.

The Council is a major factor promoting diversity and broadening citizen civic participation in Portland, but the old boy/girl factor is hard to beat, and the essential clubbiness of insiders a reminder that once a candidate crosses to the other side, they are different from you and me.

Now the field is closed. We have what we have. The early endorsements did their work, the candidates are few.

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

Coming soon:

Part 2: The inside story on special-interest group interviews and endorsements, and what this means for voters in Senate District 23 and beyond.

Part 3: Race and culture in Portland politics

Part 4. The impact of presidential campaigns on local democracy

1 comment:

I have an opinion said...

Sean, I read about you in the Portland magazine today. Was touched and inspired on how you have overcome so many obstacles in life. I want to support you and I want your support as well. Can you send me email at

My blog is