Sean Davis’s continuing bid to be mayor of Portland; he ponders what democracy means and wonders why we perpetuate a viewpoint that politicians need to be rich and/or careerists.
Is democracy dead or alive?
That all depends if you’re paying attention. As a “fringe” candidate without money or the type of exposure being a career politician gets you, I’ve not gotten the press or been invited to the debates like the two “frontrunners.” If I make a big deal about not being invited, every once in a while I get into some.
One time a beautiful concerned citizen suddenly jumped on stage at the beginning of a debate and asked the “frontrunners” on stage if they’d mind including the other candidates. Of course they couldn’t say no. It was awesome. Another time, I made it to the stage of a forum hosted by a Willamette Week reporter, and then the next day they printed a story about the contentious Columbia River Crossing project titled, “Both candidates for Portland mayor avoid taking strong positions on the Columbia River Crossing,” as if they completely forgot about my existence.
Many of the upcoming debates have five thousand dollar or ten thousand dollar buy-ins, which is to say that if you haven’t that much money in your political action committee (PAC), you’re not going to have your voice heard. A recent example is happening this Thursday when the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) is holding a mayoral forum on social injustice while only inviting the two white rich guys to their forum. Do they see the irony? I honestly don’t know. Taking this all in, you’d think that there is little hope for democracy on the local level, but that’s not completely true.
Last month, our largest news source OregonLive and its print product The Oregonian announced that it would host a mayoral debate with only the top two candidates. We don’t have a real newspaper anymore in Portland, but The Oregonian was supposed to be the closest alternative and here they were committing an injustice that real journalists would historically do a story on in order to fight for the people. Journalists are specifically protected by our Bill of Rights and as a tradeoff we expect them to have ethics. This debate was unethical, so I called them out on it. I emailed everyone who would listen, posted on their social media event page, and generally protested as loud as I could. This got the attention of the head editor Erik Lukens and he sent me an email asking what I was going to do about it. I told him that democracy is not just a word that is used to send people like me to war, and I would make sure my voice would be heard. In his immediate email response, he sent me his phone number and asked if I would call him. I did and in a firm and clear voice I repeated myself.
I was prepared to walk on stage, grab a microphone, and force them to explain why they arrested a combat veteran and mayoral candidate for trying to speak at a mayoral debate. I believe standing up for what you believe in helps define you as a good person. If my experiences fighting and protecting people in some of the worst times and conditions of our modern era have taught me anything, they’ve taught me we need to all be good people. At any rate, I didn’t have to do this alone. Several groups in the Portland area got wind of this and they made their frustration known, so much so that Erik Lukens cancelled their farce the day before it happened.
The other candidates that were excluded contacted me and we planned to put on a debate ourselves. We were in the process of contacting the owner of the venue, Revolution Hall, and asking if we could put one on since they weren’t going to use the space anymore. Then Ted Wheeler, in a great political move, announced to the public that the debate would happen without The Oregonian and he was going to invite all the candidates, so he got all the credit and looked like the champion of the little guy while taking our idea and benefitting from the work all the civil disobedience groups did. We were understandably upset, but this politics is a chess game after all and we’d lost a rook at most.
I’ve been in four debates with six to eight other candidates for mayor so far and having more than the two rich white guys really adds a positive element to the process. While they are too polite to call each other out on obvious issues, we’re not (at least, I’m not). Their talking points have changed as a result. Jules Bailey can no longer claim he’s the champion of the little guy like he did before because, guess what, the little guys are sick of career politicians and we’re championing ourselves. He would attack Wheeler for being a one-percenter while ignoring the fact that he’s a two-percenter. Having candidates that actually know what poverty is, beyond the definition on a policy brief, has changed the landscape. And, as a good politician should, Wheeler listens for applause lines in one debate from other candidates and changes it around to announce himself in the next debate. He’s good, but he’s not unbeatable; every once in a while he makes a huge gaffe. During the debate sponsored by the Native American Youth and Family Center when the tribes were asking if they could have a liaison for Native Affairs on the mayor’s council, he asked why he couldn’t be the liaison. The room fell silent and the elders shook their heads. Somewhere on the wind I heard Exaybachay from Jim Jarmusch’s movie Deadman say, “Stupid white man.”
Being the mayor of the 29th largest city in the United States is a huge responsibility and we want someone who is qualified and capable to do the best he or she possibly can for the city. This is true and I’m not arguing it. I will also concede that many people believe I may not be that person. But that is beside the point. We are a Democratic Republic, and we’ve always been that way. In this system we are supposed to elect the officials that have the same priorities and perspectives as the population living in a specific region so they can accurately represent us. The problem is that over the years we’ve come to believe that only rich people or career politicians can fill that job. It isn’t true. The rich and career politicians would love for us to keep thinking this, but it isn’t true.
When it was revealed that Bullseye Glass poisoned our city’s air and I read about Wheeler trying to make a bigger name for himself by yelling in front of reporters that the DEQ failed us, I remembered seeing the person who runs Bullseye Glass in Portland on Wheeler’s list of donors. I called him out. A few days later, he gave the money back. I have plenty in store for both the “frontrunners” and I look forward to throwing some monkey wrenches in their political machines.
Will I be the next mayor of Portland? The odds are: no, but there’s a shot. And even if I knew without a doubt that there was absolutely no way of winning, I would continue with my campaign because if I can’t make a change I will at least make a mark. The point is that democracy is just like Schrödinger’s Cat, in order to see if it’s alive or dead, we need to check the box.