Sean Davis is running for mayor of Portland, Oregon, with an eye on making a positive impact in his city. He will be chronicling his run here through The Big Smoke.
“One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.” —Plato
I’m running for mayor of Portland, Oregon, the 28th largest city in the United States.
Never once in my life have I ever considered running for public office until this year; so, in order to tell you why I’m running, I’ll have to tell you about me as a person.
I was born to a teenage mother in San Francisco, California, in the Presidio which is now Lucas’s Industrial Lights & Magic. Mom was sixteen when she found out she was pregnant and my dad was eighteen. She had two more sons before she could legally drink. Dad joined the military so he could afford to have me, but was kicked out with a dishonorable discharge. The marriage failed early on and my brothers and I bounced around from relative to relative living in poverty. We landed in the trailer parks of the Cascade Mountain range up and around McKenzie Bridge, Oregon, when I was six and there we lived either poor or on welfare and food stamps depending on if my dad had a job or if he was in jail or rehab. My dad is a felon and my mom is a high school dropout. I’ll tell you that right off. This isn’t to say they’re bad people. My mom is the hardest worker I’ve ever seen, but because of the life I’ve lived I’ve learned that the circumstances of your life do not define you as a person.
Sure, I was the poor kid who wore hand-me-downs from his cousins and had free school breakfast and lunch, but I was also the kid walking around reading Animal Farm or The Lord of the Flies for fun. I recognized at an early age that you get what you put into life.
Seventy percent of my graduating class in Sweet Home, Oregon, joined the service at graduation. I resolved not to be one of those people, so I worked a shitty job and lived with roommates for almost two years. One day after working a graveyard shift, I came home and all my stoned roommates were watching MacGyver help save rhinos in Africa. I had it. I knew there was more to life than that, so I grabbed the phone book and called the Peace Corps. They were very nice but informed me that without a degree I couldn’t go save the rhinos in Africa like MacGyver. The next week I drove to Portland and walked around Portland State University wanting to go to college, but I’d been living on my own since I was 16 years old and had no one to help me believe higher education was a possibility. I didn’t know how to even start. Did I just walk into a classroom or what? So, I let it intimidate me, went back to my shitty house with my stoned roommates, and I joined the Army infantry the next week.
I spent six and a half years in the regular Army. I lived in Hawaii, New York, and Germany. I visited many states and many countries and I was deployed to Haiti during their revolution. I learned to appreciate what we have in the Pacific Northwest and I also learned a deeper sense of responsibility as a fortunate citizen on this planet. After getting out in January of 1999, I moved to Portland, worked odd jobs, went to college, and tried to raise my kids. The day after the terrorist attacks on 9/11, I re-enlisted, this time in the Oregon National Guard. I knew the world would change, but I wanted to protect my home, not fight in a war. However, in a short time, I found myself in Iraq leading men in combat.
When I found out I was going to Iraq, I learned about their history, their religion, and as much of their language as possible. I learned a lot about life training up to go to war and more while I was in combat. I was critically injured and a good friend of mine was killed in an ambush on June 13th, 2004. But when I healed up, duty called again. The governor sent my unit down to Hurricane Katrina where I helped save lives. I’m proud of my military career, but it was during that deployment where I realized I couldn’t be an infantry soldier any longer.
It was a hard, transformative time in my life. I struggled to find my place again in the world. After a battle with a self-destructive lifestyle, I went back to school and, five years later, I finished with an AA from Mt. Hood Community College, a BA from Portland State University, and an MFA from Pacific University. I worked my way through college and supported my new family by working as a graveyard security guard. I started as a part-time employee with that company and worked my way up to the second in charge for the whole state. I was offered a promotion which meant a near-six-figure salary and my own branch, but it would have meant moving away from Portland. I examined my life and left that job. With the support of my wife, I started teaching as an adjunct college professor. That’s what I do today, years later.
I volunteer in my community because I believe that is what a responsible citizen does. I may have joined the military to get away from a bad situation, but I learned duty and self-sacrifice in my thirteen years in. I’ve learned through several near-death experiences that we are all here only to try to make the world a better place. I’m the Post Commander at the American Legion in my Northeast Portland neighborhood and in the year and a half I’ve been doing it we’ve helped our community immensely. We organize food, blood, and clothing drives. We’ve revitalized the art in the Alberta Arts District. We’ve given voice to the people who want to be heard. We promote art, writing, music, and healing.
One of the biggest complaints that I have about politicians running for office is that they promise to fix problems with grand solutions and don’t tell you how they are going to afford them. One of the first things I did after deciding to run was reach out to past mayors. I sent a long Facebook message to the former mayor of Portland, Sam Adams, that probably sounded like I was a loon, but to his credit Sam wrote me back. He’s given me some good advice that I’m using.
I have many ideas for this town, but I know that unrealistic ideas, or ideas not already included in the budget, are hard to make happen. So far, I’ve spoken to police officers about creating community liaisons. This would open up communication lines that were there at one time but just disappeared. This would cost nothing, but the benefits would be amazing. Give people a voice where they live and they will take ownership of their neighborhood. This means less crime and more leadership, less graffiti and more art, less complaints and more celebration. I saw this overseas. I’ve seen it here in Northeast Portland.
I want to listen to what community leaders say about city development, how to prevent gang violence, and how to enhance Portland’s livability.
Call me an idealist, but I truly believe that in a democratic republic the officials we elect have a real responsibility to help who they represent. I also believe wholeheartedly that our entire system was built off of everyday citizens being those elected officials. I know that corporations bring money and great community programs like Nike is doing with our new bike rideshare program, but I also know that it’s the mom-and-pop shops that really fuel the local economy.
I don’t think any of our politicians today have a clue what it is like to have to chew with only the right side of your mouth for months because you can’t afford to go to a dentist. Have any of them put a full week of work in at a service job while taking care of a family and trying to update a résumé and interview for another higher-paying job? How about living from paycheck to paycheck and having to factor in overdraft fees because you have to borrow from the next paycheck? I’ll tell you right now that I’m late on my school loans payment. I’ll admit it, but it was between that and buying a new dryer this month. That’s the truth. I understand these choices.
Listen, I know that the “I’m a political outsider” thing doesn’t really work unless you’re a billionaire or you at least have a super PAC, but our entire political system is about representation. I represent the regular people who vote. That being said, I’ve been doing a lot of homework. In Portland, the mayor is a part of the city council and doesn’t have a lot more power than anyone else on the counsel, but he/she is the technical head of the police bureau, the development commission, the bureau of planning and sustainability, equity of human rights, youth violence prevention, and more I haven’t researched yet. Learning about each one of these programs is like taking a college class. I’m not telling you to vote for me because I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. I’m telling you to vote for me because I will do the right thing when it comes to representing the people who live here, when it comes to representing you. I’m putting the work in.
I’m not running for mayor because of money or fame or power. I am running for mayor because I believe this is the best town on the planet and the reason for that is the type of people who live here. I mean the weirdos, the dreamers, the unique, the people who live in our communities.
Portland is the number one bike city, beer city, coffee city, distillery city, dog city, and so much more because of the people. Here, when you go out you find that every bartender, waiter, barista, and barber are working on a screenplay, writing a novel, playing in a band, expressing creativity on their time off. Portland is a place where people aren’t judged by what they do for a living; how they express themselves is what’s important.
I’ve been to Third World countries. I’ve lived in some of the most dangerous, ugliest, and beautiful places on the planet while serving in the Army, and I couldn’t wait to get back to breathe the air, walk on the beaches, or hike the mountains of the Pacific Northwest every time. Americana still exists here. Most importantly, community still exists here, and that is what I want to foster and promote.
So, where am I right now as far as my campaign? Tomorrow, I head to the Multnomah County Courthouse and finalize the paperwork. After it’s all approved by them, I have two choices: 1) I can pay $50 and I’m on the ballot, or 2) I can collect 100 signatures of registered Portland voters. I’m choosing to do the latter. Paying the money just feels like cheating to me. We have until March to do this, but I hope to get it done by January 23rd. After I file them, I am on the ballot.
Once I’m on the ballot, all I have to do is convince 700,000 people that I’m the guy. So far, people have been awesome and supportive, especially my wife and kids, but I’ll need a lot of help. Right now my team consists of me and Al. Al is one of the smartest (craziest) guys I’ve ever met and he’s a philosophy major in grad school at PSU. Al and I are doing some great things, but we need help. We’ll schedule a get-together/signatures-of-Portland-eligible-voter party in Northeast Portland very soon. If you live in the area, please come by.
Until then, spread the word. I’m coming for your vote.