Occupation: State Representative
What does “family” mean to you?
When I think about my family, I think first about how my have parents inspired me. My dad started as a small county district attorney in Eastern Oregon. He ran for Attorney General, didn’t accept contributions over $99.99 … and nearly won. He has been an example of putting values over expediency. My parents divorced, and my mom raised my brother and me while going to school and working. Looking back, I’m still not sure how she did it. She died of breast cancer when I was in high school, and I treasure the time we got to spend together. And I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing without my wife Katy. During the campaign I see her too little, but we try to spend some time together every night and try to have a date night every week.
More broadly, I see family as the basic building block of our society — from single parent and two parents who both work, to Brady Bunch families (which, remember, were remarried parents and step-siblings), and same-sex couples. The sons in my own family look about as similar as they sound: Lincoln River Heartsong, Robert Lambeth, Jefferson Smith, Jonathan Wood, and Sukho Gomes. None of us is genetically related; we are all brothers. Family is relationship infrastructure. Family is love.
What do Portland’s families need more of?
I’m running to make Portland a city that works, works better, and works for more people. It’s an agenda put together after dozens of conversations with families around the city.
Families need living-wage jobs, smart, future-worthy infrastructure, and workforce development and training. We can expand on projects like the “Cool Schools” work I championed in the legislature to retrofit public school buildings to improve the air our children breathe and the amount of energy we spend in their classrooms.
Families need to feel safe in their communities and know how to access government. We can increase civic engagement and get more people involved in running the city. Families often can’t make it to city council meetings during the day downtown — let’s move some meetings to neighborhoods in the evenings so more people can participate.
And lastly, we need to make sure the city is working for more people. More and more data is showing that perhaps the biggest driver in the achievement gap is the summer gap. Kids fall further and further behind each summer, and are more likely to drop out of school and end up in trouble. But what if we put together a robust set of early education and summer enrichment programs so that kids continue learning and staying active during the summer? We’re calling it Portland Summers, and we’ll work to increase graduation rates, keep kids from going hungry in the summer, and provide job training that helps young people enter the workforce.
What’s one of your most treasured family memories?
It’s hard to pick just one. My wedding was one of the most joyous events of my life.
I had the honor of curating a TEDx session last year, and I picked my dad as a presenter. At first I paused for fear of nepotism, but then I realized that my dad is one of the better communicators I know, and him being my father would have been the only reason I would not have invited him. He vindicated the choice. His talk on “How to Use One Paper Towel” now has over one million views.
Perhaps my most treasured — and painful — memory is the last year of my mom’s life. Listening to Dodger games as she went through clinic visits in California. Her giving me tickets to Game 1 of the 1988 World Series. Going to Multnomah Falls and Laguna Beach and seeing “Stand by Me,” “Parenthood” and “When Harry Met Sally.” I miss her every day, but I feel blessed to have been able to share those moments with her.
Who was/were your favorite Portland mayor(s) and why?
I don’t cleave to a single role model, but take lessons from different leaders, including Bud Clark’s connection to and expression of the spirit of the city, Vera Katz’s personal political acumen, Tom Potter’s commitment to the public interest, and Sam Adams’ knowledge of the city.
What are some places you would describe as providing ultimate Portland experiences?
Lot of places. Academy Theater. The Rose Garden. Bunk Sandwiches. Forest Park. Pok Pok. Normandale Dog Park. Farmer’s Markets from Parkrose to Downtown to Lents, and all around the city.
One that stands out to me is Waterfront Park, because its history tells us something about what makes Portland special. Forty years ago, an eventual member of the City Club was named Allison Belcher, and she helped form the soul of Portland.
Downtown was polluted and struggling then. She learned of a plan to expand Harbor Drive into Westside Highway in downtown Portland. The project would make it easier to move cars through, but not helping the pollution or people moving within the town.
A New York planner named Robert Moses had built a kingdom on highway projects just like this, and had in fact drawn up the plans for this project.
Allison Belcher organized picnics on the side of the road, signaling passersby and the media — “Imagine a park.” She and her friends helped turn public opinion, the City Club supported a change in favor of what is now Waterfront Park. The highway dollars were used for light rail and helped reinvigorate downtown, bringing people in. It had multi-value benefits, and made the way for Portland to be a national model of city planning for the next 30 years.
What’s your idea of a perfect Sunday afternoon?
I’d take our dog George to the dog park and then maybe play some tennis with Katy. We’re not very good, but we have fun playing. Follow that up with Dim Sum at Wong’s King or Vietnamese food from one of the places along 82nd Avenue.
After that, I’d probably do three house parties for the campaign to build the strongest grassroots campaign in the history of the city (we’ve done over 150 so far, and while they may not be everyone’s idea of the perfect Sunday activity, they’re pretty fun).
What makes you laugh?
I got Katy a dog for Christmas last year. He’s a puggle puppy named George Bailey, and he’s hilarious. We’re still working on training, and last week he managed to snag an ear of corn from the table while we were in the other room and hide his prize behind the couch. He has a Twitter feed. I bear no responsibility for, nor do I vouch for, its contents.
Movie that changed your life?
It’s a corny answer, but I’d have to say “Rudy.” I first watched it in college, right around the time that I was inspired to get more serious about school. I was a public school kid my whole life and ended up getting into and graduating from Harvard Law School.
First concert: where, who were you with, who was it?
I think it was a Joan Baez concert with my family at the Schnitz. (It would have been cooler if I could say Guns n’ Roses.)
Most ridiculous thing you’ve done in the name of love?
During the legislative session I knew I’d be working long hours, so I found a room to rent in Salem. But it became clear right away that Katy didn’t like having me away (neither did I!) and I ended up staying there maybe a dozen times over those six months.
If I weren’t running for mayor I’d be:
Running for mayor in the nasty modern political era is no easy decision. If I weren’t running for mayor, I’d likely be running for reelection to my House seat, and hopefully taking an extended trip to Africa to help the operations of and learn from the Bus Project — inspired organizations in Liberia and Cameroon.
Portland’s greatest asset is that we already_________________. …
We already have a culture of innovation and civic engagement. See the Allison Belcher story above. See our active neighborhood associations, our thriving nonprofit sector. We don’t have the deepest or widest port. We don’t have the sunniest weather. We don’t have the most famous universities. We do have the best people.
Portland’s greatest potential could be manifested if we were sure to have____________had:
A commitment to ongoing innovation and civic engagement, along with a growing commitment to equity.
The way democracy is expressed today is:
One way democracy can be expressed is through groups like the Bus Project. In late 2001, I gathered a group of friends together to start what became a nationally recognized organization to connect more young people with politics — registering voters, knocking on doors, and getting out the vote.
We need to build civic power. That is much of the hopeful purpose of the Bus Project — not merely to be a vehicle for one set of self-interests, but to try to be a place that drives the good of the order, and engages people in democracy with that in mind.
My pitch to readers is that we express democracy through doing stuff. Not just watching stuff. Not just complaining about stuff. Or even voting for stuff. But doing stuff.
One thing you’d change about the nature of today’s politics:
My biggest critique is that we have insufficient power applied to broad-minded, publicly interested democracy. We have too many organizations focused on advocating for the financial self-interest of their members, and too few focused on the good of the order.
An advocate made a good point: It is in no one’s financial self-interest to invest a million dollars so that they can breathe imperceptibly cleaner air or drink imperceptibly cleaner water. But it is in the financial interest of a myriad of organizations to invest a million dollars to reduce environmental and land use regulations so that they can make a million dollars plus one in additional profit.
(You can Google “Priceless Politics” to watch a TEDx talk I did on essentially this subject. Plug plug. It doesn’t have near as many views as my dad’s talk on paper towels, but it’s still worth watching).
Thanks for reading. There’s much more to say about the challenges facing our city, and I hope you’ll watch a debate or go to www.jeffersonsmith.com to learn more.
In our system we don’t hire a dictator or even a manager … we hire a leader. A servant leader. And the most important asset that leader has is you people. And we need you badly. The world needs someplace, and the nation needs someplace, that can set an example of what a place can be like and how a people can live together.
Portland, Oregon can be that place.
We’ve done it before in our state. We have a park on our waterfront instead of a freeway. A downtown that revitalized when other cities were concerned that their downtowns were failed experiments.
Our state is the pioneer of the bottle bill, land use planning, public beaches, the minimum wage, Labor Day, the ballot initiative system, vote by mail, the Oregon Health Plan, and Death with Dignity.
At multiple intervals in history our place has answered history’s questions with a different set of responses. And we have to be that place again. At this point, in this century, we have to be that place again.
And a mayor can’t do that, but we can do that. More than this city needs me, this city needs you.