Jefferson Smith wants to loom large in the mayor's race, and not just because he's the tallest candidate so far (6 feet 4 inches), but because he sees himself as an alternative to former City Commissioner Charlie Hales and businesswoman Eileen Brady. 

Smith, 38, grew up in California and Portland, graduating from Grant High School and the University of Oregon before earning a law degree from Harvard. He's now in his second term in the Oregon House representing Southeast Portland (he lives in the Hazelwood neighborhood).

He didn't last long working for law firms, preferring politics instead. He's best known as founder of the Bus Project, a get-out-the-vote organization launched in 2002 that seeks to involve young people in politics. (Full disclosure: Smith and the Bus Project work with WW on the "Candidates Gone Wild" election-year showcases. )

Smith's experience as a political organizer and potential favorite of labor unions (and their money and supporters' help) could allow him to triangulate in a race against Hales and Brady. He also trumps them in one area of the city they've been playing to: east Portland, where he's already shown he can win.

Smith also entered the race late and is famous for his frenetic, verbose style that leaves many associates wondering how effective a mayor he would be. Smith has publicly acknowledged he has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder—he blamed his condition in part for his failure to pay his bar dues.

In a two-hour interview, we asked Smith about his past accomplishments and top issues, the economy, the Police Bureau, engaging citizens in civic debate and how his ADHD does and doesn't matter. We also talked about his performance as a legislator, his political history in high school, and why he's like the giant Soviet boxer in Rocky IV.

WW: You say you quit your first job out of law school, with New York City law firm Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, because you didn't like the firm's representation of tobacco companies. Is that the one industry that created ethical problems for you?

Jefferson Smith: Yeah.

If it had been Exxon, you would have been fine?

Yeah, probably. I was briefly at [Portland law firm] Stoel Rives and I gave a speech at a Labor Day picnic, where I criticized Enron and Capital Consultants in a speech. And then afterwards I realized, wait a minute, those are both clients of the firm.

You stayed about a year at Stoel Rives.

About the same time I started there, I started the Bus [Project]. I was thinking it would be a sort of avocation. Ended up doing, trying to do both things for a year, a little better. And went to half time for a little bit. You know, ended up getting probably a C in one, a D-minus in the other.

Did they ask you to leave? 

I had lousy billable hours, but I—both because I was trying, essentially, two very full-time jobs. I think the phrase that was used [was] "a mutual parting of ways."

You probably spent $150,000 going to law school. As we've learned, you weren't a terribly active voter in those days. What made you throw away a comfortable living for a nonprofit in an area that you didn't appear to have a burning interest in?

The thing that helped motivate the Bus were a series of conversations with people of my generation. And we were looking at ourselves like, you know what, maybe we're lazy bastards. Or if not lazy, selfish. The [Harvard] Kennedy School of Government in the '70s, the '80s sent three-quarters of its graduates to public service. And in my graduating year, I think they sent one-third.

What would you say is the single greatest accomplishment of the Bus Project?

In 2004, Oregon had one of the biggest gaps between older voter turnout and younger voter turnout in the country. In 2008, Oregon had one of the five smallest gaps and the biggest growth in youth vote share in the country. It was the Obama year, which certainly played a role, but Obama was running in every state of the union. And there weren’t yet buses in other places.

The [second] most significant contribution will, in 10 years, be the easiest to tell a story about—the people who came through and the leaders that were developed.

How about biggest failing?

I think we would have had some impact on voter registration, which, in 2010, Oregon saw a dip. I think the Bus bears—that I bear—some responsibility for that. I think had I put my energies into it and the Bus’s energies into it, we would have passed voter-owned elections in Portland in 2010.

When we met you five years ago, it was clear you were running for office someday. When did that first occur to you? 

I think any kid who is precocious and verbose without being entirely obnoxious gets, “Oh, you’re going to run for office one day.” I think the first time I was told I was going to be president, I was 14 and I was running for, you know, high-school student council and we were doing a car wash.

What was your slogan?

I think it was “fresh start.”

Did you win?

No, I didn’t win my first election. I think I was appointed.


IMAGE: Morgan Green-Hopkins

We want to know your calculus about where your opportunity is to win. Is it younger people? Labor? People east of 82nd? New immigrants to the city? People taller than 6 foot 1?

That’s what it was. The essence of it was that I am bigger and faster and I think stronger than the other candidates in the race. And we did an analysis—I don’t know if you’ve seen Rocky IV, but I’m the Ivan Drago in this race.

Do I think I can hold my own in competing for certain endorsements? Yeah. Do I think I have any of them sewn up? No. Do I think that we can compete in attracting and working with and empowering volunteers in the campaign? Yeah. Do we have that sewn up? No. Do I think that this city has been a place that has sometimes been electrified by new energy and young people—not just young candidates, but sort of young energy? Yeah.

What are the most important issues facing the city that you’d confront as mayor.

An economy worthy of the city. Jobs. Two, a public-safety system that fits the city and addresses the whole city. And then third, working with the whole city, I’d sort of combine the civic engagement stuff and the east Portland stuff, making sure that the informal power of the city as well as the formal power of the city is connecting with the whole city and a changing Portland.

What do you do as mayor to “create an economy worthy of the city”?

Any politician—much less a city politician—who says that they are going to turn around the global economy is a liar.

Nonresident companies in Oregon [those with headquarters elsewhere] in the last 10-plus years have not grown jobs, they’ve lost jobs. The latter-stage companies, like 100 to 400-plus employees, have lost jobs, not gained jobs. That’s true of most states. What’s gained jobs is early-stage, homegrown, smaller companies.

And there are things we can do to help those. One is, some of the entrepreneurship stuff that the city’s doing right now with the seed fund, etc. Another is more access to capital, including partnering with the state on a state finance authority—[maybe] a way to use a small portion of pension dollars to be focused more on in-state investments. Third, I think there’s more we can do with technical assistance, on helping earlier-stage companies find new markets and find new customers.

What do you have in mind for public safety?

This city has been at its best public safety when, like under Tom Potter as police chief and under Chief [Charles] Moose, there was a real commitment to community-oriented police. And that means being focused on building trust between the police department, police officers and the members of the community.

I think looking at three things—relationship with the community, prevention in addition to response, and looking at innovative models of citizen-engaged policing. Those are ways we can build a safety system that fits our city. 

And your third issue was—

Engaging the city in a changing Portland. The city’s been at its best when the people in the city have been really close to the power of the city. When we decided not to build the Mount Hood Freeway, it was in significant part because citizens were wielding real influence on the decisions of the city. 

Applying that to what I’ve seen in my district, where you get fewer requests for community gardens, fewer calls to fix streetlights. You get fewer requests to clean up brownfields when there’s stimulus dollars available. This city is run on, largely, informal power. 

How do we make that work for the future of the city? Portland’s reputation being a pretty white place. Our leadership very often is. In the biggest school district in my legislative district [David Douglas], there are 73 languages spoken. The city is changing. We need to figure out how to change with it.

Former Mayor Tom Potter spent two years on his listening project. Mayor Adams put together large task forces around transportation, the Memorial Coliseum, a headquarters hotel. There’s virtually no one in this city who hasn’t sat on one of his committees. So, how’s that worked?

I don’t think the answer is more task forces. I’ll tell you two ways how to do them better. One is to give clearer objectives and principles earlier. If we knew there were things that were gonna get vetoed on the Memorial Coliseum before we did them, we should have done that early. Second, monitor decisions as it goes. You don’t create a task force because it’s going to solve your problem. You do it so you’re making sure you’re hearing the things that need to be heard so a good decision can be made.

You publicly revealed that you have been diagnosed with ADHD. 


And when did that occur?

I didn’t know it then, but apparently, the first time when I was 8 years old. The second time when I was 20. I met a friend who thought I probably was, and I didn’t believe him, but I got checked out.

Were you or have you been prescribed medication?

Yeah, I take medication.

You brought up ADHD in relation to your failure to keep up with your bar dues. Is the medication working? 

What do you know about it?

I don’t know very much.

OK, so find out. I don’t mean to be sparring, but it does get sort of personal. 

I’ll tell you what I think is germane. What’s really important for me to do is build really good teams and focus on doing sort of cross-platform management, whatever that means—just being able to get a lot of people working together. I think that’s the kind of leadership that is long overdue in the city. I will not run for mayor or anything claiming to be a perfect person or without flaws. I make mistakes, I am not always right. But I think I can help institutions and policymakers and citizens make their lives better and get things done.

If you were to grade yourself for your time in the Legislature, what grade would it be?


An A-minus. You think others down there would agree?


If we didn’t ask lobbyists?

Depends. Some of the things I’m proudest of are not the things that I think are the primary priorities of the lobby.

No, if we didn’t ask the lobby. If we asked other legislators.

Yeah, I think actually I’m growing on some of them.