In 1990, political consultants Liz Kaufman and Rys Scholes were working for Barbara Roberts, a Democrat running for governor against the better-financed Republican, Dave Frohnmayer.
Roberts’ team was squeezing votes out of inner Portland, mostly on the east side. It’s a swath of the city known for its hard-left orientation—so far left that Kaufman and Scholes started calling it “the Kremlin."
“We used it to describe inner-Portland voters (not just the east side) who are left-leaning, and who form a critical mass for swinging some elections—if they are effectively worked,” Kaufman recalls.With gentrification, the Kremlin has grown; it now stretches from North Fremont Street all the way to Southeast Tacoma Street in Sellwood, and as far east as 55th Avenue.
It’s home to the school-funding warriors, Prius-driving, bicycle-riding, OPB-loving, never-miss-an-election voters who own $500,000 old Portland homes but love sticking it to The Man.
The Kremlin’s unifying issue has been public schools. That’s why kids edge out bicycle helmets as the prop of choice in campaign literature. After the economy, two of the top issues for Portlanders in the PBA poll were “ensuring equal rights for all Portlanders” and “having a sustainable environment in the city.”
In other words, even these bleak economic times have not changed liberal Portland’s outlook. Groups such as the National Abortion and Reproductive Action League, Planned Parenthood and Basic Rights Oregon are big in the Kremlin and will help guide the district’s mayoral choice.
“You are talking about people who generally vote for ballot measures and are really well-informed,” says former City Commissioner Lindberg, “They are probably pro-Occupy Portland, and an extremely high percentage of them vote.”
What the Kremlin voter wants is the most progressive candidate in just about any race.
In 2008, Steve Novick lost to then-Rep. Jeff Merkley (D-East Portland) in the Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate. But Novick’s appeal to the Kremlin meant he beat Merkley by 13 percentage points in Portland, even though Novick had never run for office before and Merkley was House Speaker.
The voters helped Potter beat Francesconi in the 2004 mayor’s race and Sam Adams when he defeated Sho Dozono in 2008. In a city race between any two credible candidates, the more liberal of the two almost always wins.
Hales might have trouble with these voters. He avoided Oregon taxes on his lucrative salary from HDR Inc., a streetcar development company, by claiming Washington state as his residency for four years—this while voting in Oregon and keeping a Portland home.
Brady’s New Seasons connections are appealing to the Kremlin, where she’ll compete mostly with Smith. He grew up in the Irvington neighborhood—the epicenter of the Kremlin—and racked up a pretty liberal voting record in two Salem sessions.
The Sustainabilitistas and the Rail Mafia
When you hear candidates talking about bikes and bioswales, they’re trying to sway voters who identify with the city’s sustainability movement.
Brady has hit this message hard, branding herself with her ties to New Seasons, Ecotrust (where she used to work) and Chinook Book (she’s on the board). Her flip-flop on the CRC ceded turf to Smith.
Evan Manvel, a longtime environmental advocate and CRC critic, says in a race where the candidates mostly agree, the CRC offers a point of distinction.
“The CRC will be a larger issue in the race than people initially thought because there are clear differences between the candidates on it,” Manvel says.
But streetcar and light-rail extensions and sustainable development also have powerful backers. No candidate code words speak more clearly to a specific constituency than “multimodal transportation.”
The planning and sustainability crowd wants Portlanders out of cars and on buses, trains, trolleys, trams and bikes—hence multimodal.
Members of this tribe, led by U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Portland), favor designer eyewear and have advanced degrees in planning, architecture and public administration.
The capos in the movement feature prominently on Hales’ list of contributors. Hales was the driving force behind Portland’s streetcar, and he quit office in 2002 to work for HDR.
An early sign that Adams’ mayoral career was ending came June 21, when Stacy and Witbeck, the California contractor that built the city’s light-rail and streetcar systems, gave Hales $25,000. Pearl District developers followed: Al Solheim ($10,000), Williams/Dame ($5,000) and John Carroll ($5,000).
The distinction between the PBA crowd and the transit-oriented developers who are solidly behind Hales, 55, is an important one: The latter group, which has built up the Pearl District and South Waterfront, depends heavily on city money and helps make Portland’s projects work.
“It’s clear that Charlie appeals to the new urbanists and planners who are behind the transportation and land-use principles that make Portland Portland,” Francesconi says.
The Red and the Gray
Yes, Portland, there are conservatives here. It’s true Democrats outnumber Republicans 3-to-1. But conservatives have seethed as Adams’ administration lavished money on bikes, streetcars, a soccer stadium and plans for the Oregon Sustainability Center, while jacking up water and sewer rates sky-high. Conservatives are angry and motivated—a prize ready for the taking.
Older Portlanders may not drink, have nightly sex, or play kickball as often as younger residents, but they are much more likely to be conservative and vote. That is their power.
Fewer than one in 10 Oregonians under 40 voted in last year’s primary election. More than half of those 61 and older filled out a ballot. That means whoever appeals most to older voters is likely to survive the primary.
Portland pollster Mike Riley surveyed the Portland Water Bureau’s spending this year.
“We saw the level of discontent with the Water Bureau is correlated to age,” Riley says. “Many seniors are on fixed incomes, and so a significant increase in utility costs really hurts them. And they vote.”
Look for at least one candidate—probably Hales, a former Republican—to hit GOPers with a stealth mailer and to secure a last-minute endorsement from Vic Atiyeh, Oregon’s last Republican governor.
Hales, Brady and Smith have all been angling for the east-of-Interstate-205 vote (“The Other Portland,” Oct. 12, 2011), where resentment of City Hall is most pronounced. In 2008, Adams lost every East Portland precinct, some by crushing margins.
Smith lives in outer Northeast Portland, where voters know him from his two Oregon House victories—even if he’s a carpetbagger from Irvington.
The Young and the Restless
Like most big cities, Portland’s population is disproportionately young. But what makes Portland different from rust buckets such as Cleveland or Omaha is that underemployed youngsters flock here, lured by food carts, good beer and cheap living.
Demographers call them the “young and the restless” and the “creative class.” They’re in line at Stumptown right now. They can afford tattoos but not haircuts, wear thrift-store threads and cover their MacBook Airs with ironic stickers.
Candidates appeal to them by riding bikes; showing up at the local chapter of Drinking Liberally, a gathering for young Democrats; or trotting out the city musical-political elite, Pink Martini and Storm Large.
But young voters are like doughnuts—really attractive yet ultimately insubstantial.“Unfortunately, young people just have less ability to influence the outcome of the mayor’s race because they don’t vote as frequently,” Francesconi says.
Getting young voters involved is a big challenge, especially in a primary election. When they register, they don’t like to join a party and often vote once—because they’ve been harassed into it by a get-out-the vote campaign—and then fade.
Smith should have a big advantage with the under-40 crowd (at 38, he is one of them). But he faces a challenge getting enough of them engaged by the May primary to matter.
The Rest of Us
No candidate for mayor is ever going to say that any group, no matter how powerful, is more important than you are.
But in each candidate’s words, voters will see coded messages designed to send signals that resonate with the greatest number of voters.
In a city as satisfied with itself as Portland, that’s a tricky equation and one that will probably take the six months between now and the primary to decode.
“The candidates are still trying to figure out what their messages are,” Riley says. “They are trying to identify areas where people recognize the need for change.”
Watch the candidates' pitches for your vote: