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March 21st, 2012 12:01 am NIGEL JAQUISS | Cover Story

Bus Boy

Jefferson Smith built a political machine. Now he’s trying to drive it to City Hall.

lede_jefferson_3820Jefferson Smith - IMAGE: vivianjohnson.com
On a recent Saturday morning, a sleepy-eyed retired auto-parts worker named Gavin Griffin opened the door of his Sabin-neighborhood home to find a blond giant on his doorstep. 

The stranger—at 6 feet 4—first greeted the man’s dog, Bella, a Belgian shepherd, before launching into his standard doorstep greeting: “I’m Jefferson Smith, and I’m running for mayor.”

Griffin talked to Smith about crime: Thieves had broken into his pickup truck twice in the past three months. What was Smith going to do about that?

Smith showed sympathy by turning the conversation back to his own experience: Crime in his outer-eastside neighborhood is a big problem. “I got my car swiped,” Smith said—and noted ruefully that police later found the vehicle, so he didn’t get an insurance settlement.

Still, the two seemed to bond. But when Smith turned to go, he looked back at Griffin, who was wearing gym shorts and a T-shirt.

“Get some shoes on,” Smith said. 

Puzzled, Griffin agreed he probably should.

“I’m just glad you’re wearing pants,” Smith added.

Normally, candidates who knock on doors to ask for votes steer clear of cutting humor and sarcasm.


At another house, Smith talked education with a young father named Buddy Herrlinger for 10 minutes, then left the man gaping when he blurted as he stepped off the porch, “I’m opposed to public schools. I’m just against them.” 

Smith says his attempts at levity with voters make canvassing bearable. “I can only do this if it’s fun,” he says.

Mocking the very voters he’s trying to woo captures the essential contradictions of Jefferson Smith.

He’s a Harvard law graduate and two-term state legislator who founded a nonprofit that’s grown into one of the highest-profile Oregon political movements in decades—and yet he often still acts like a college freshman.

“There are so many WTF moments with Jefferson,” says Caitlin Baggott, who last year succeeded Smith as executive director of the Bus Project, the voter-engagement group Smith co-founded.

Baggott calls such moments “delightful.” But for others, the cerebral man-child now running for mayor is a head-scratcher—the smartest kid in class who’s too busy cracking jokes to bother buying textbooks. 

Smith joined the mayor’s race late and has scrambled to catch up with the other two leading candidates—businesswoman Eileen Brady and former City Commissioner Charlie Hales.

GROUND GAME: Jefferson Smith’s strategy includes himself and his volunteers knocking on 50,000 doors.
Smith is a puzzling mix of brilliance, disorganization and earnestness at odds with his political wiles.

Over the past decade, Smith drove the Bus—as his organization is known—with hard work and the motivational skills of a revival preacher. He made it a magnet for young people who never knew they cared about political activism.

As the Bus grew, Smith’s dominance of the organization sometimes lent the appearance of a cult of personality. 

That’s transferred to this campaign, where Smith has presented ideas about making Portland a more equitable city but has mostly presented the idea of Jefferson Smith himself.

Smith says he’s in politics to “do things, not be somebody.” His allies point out—accurately—that he passed up earning millions as a lawyer for poverty-level wages. Smith leads the campaign in volunteers and Facebook friends, and earned two key labor endorsements—from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Portland Association of Teachers.

He campaigns like a July 4th sparkler: bright, firing off in many directions, and subject to abrupt flameouts.  

Smith’s energy is legendary. He penned the Bus Project’s best-known slogan—“VOTE, FUCKER”—at 3 am. He’s loud, pumps out words faster than a laser printer and windmills his arms around so much some lobbyists call him “the crab.” Salem insiders say Smith is, at 38, only now learning to listen more than talk.

He can be folksy one moment and impossibly dense the next, spewing out lists laden with jargon and punched up with words like “cognizable,” “concomitant” and “technocracy.” He even baffles friends with the term he uses for his job-creation strategy: “economic gardening.”

“Jefferson doesn’t talk to people the way they talk,” says Joe Baessler, the Bus Project’s first employee and now political director for AFSCME in Oregon. “He has a tendency to come up with his own phraseology.” 

Smith’s ability to appear simultaneously brainy and incomprehensible isn’t his only challenge.

There’s also the matter of experience. He wants to run the City of Portland, which has nearly 7,000 employees and an all-funds budget of $3.5 billion. His proof he can do it: his experience in leading the Bus, which has 14 employees and a total budget of about $1.25 million.

Yet Smith is scattered and chronically late, and has shown an inability to handle basic administrative tasks. The Bus has routinely filed paperwork late or inaccurately. And there are serious questions about how transparent the Bus has been and whether its claims of nonpartisanship are a ruse as it plays favorites with Democratic candidates.

“Being mayor is not a job where you get to pontificate on the issues of the day,” says Liz Kaufman, a veteran Democratic political organizer who has worked with Bus volunteers. “It’s a serious job where you have to manage a big operation every day.” 

Kaufman says her dealings with the Bus convinced her not to support Smith, and she is leaning toward Hales.

Smith says he’s worked hard to address his shortcomings, and takes pride in surrounding himself with the best and the brightest.

“I move fast and I talk fast,” he says, “but I have the ability to zoom back and forth between the big picture and granular details.”

BUS DAD: Joe Smith bought the first Bus, served on the group’s board and drives his son to Salem.
Unbridled ambition and chaotic energy define Smith. But there is no greater influence on his political career than the unfulfilled ambition of his father.

R.P. “Joe” Smith traces his family tree back to Joseph Smith, who in 1830 founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the founder was his great-great-great uncle). His great-grandfather became president of the Mormon Church.

Although Joe Smith, 76, is estranged from the church, he treasures his Mormon upbringing in a small Utah town.

“I grew up with a great sense of the gifts that I have enjoyed from my heritage,” he says. 

Joe Smith had lofty political goals. The legendary U.S. Sen. Wayne Morse was a close family friend. 

“When I was 16 years old, I knew I wanted to grow up and become a U.S. senator,” he says.

But Joe Smith spent his career on the fringes of power. After winning election as Umatilla County district attorney, he lost bids for attorney general in 1972 and 1980. 

Still, he clung to a starry-eyed view of good government, which his son says he believes in above all else. 

“Dad’s first governing value was making the world better,” Jefferson Smith says, “which was different than taking care of your family.”

Joe Smith, who is his son’s unpaid legislative intern, says he’s not living vicariously through Jefferson.

“But I feel a strong desire to leave things better than I found them,” he says. “I feel Jefferson could be a great gift to those who come after me.”

Jefferson Smith was born in 1973 and—he says—was probably conceived on the campaign trail. (His older brother, Lincoln, declined to be interviewed.)

His parents split, and from sixth grade on Smith grew up with his father in a historic Irvington duplex family and friends call the “Smith compound.” 

“It was the kind of place where you would find a copy of The Federalist Papers on the bookshelf,” says John Wykoff, a boyhood friend of Smith’s.

At Grant High School, Smith was student body president and was elected attorney general at Oregon Boys State. 

Smith was a high-energy prankster, better known for his quick thinking than for hitting the books. He says he was a comic-book nut and Blazermaniac, and aspired to be general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

“He was a big, bouncy kid,” recalls Grant High teacher Doug Winn, Smith’s mock trial coach. “He knew how to boil things down to short phrases that condensed everything. His delivery was very measured but forceful.”

Smith’s mother died when he was a senior, and he ended up at the University of Oregon. He was, by his own estimation, a distracted and lousy student. After two aimless years, his father suggested he take a year off.

Smith worked with juvenile delinquents in Lane County and with underprivileged kids in Washington, D.C. 

That year, a friend suggested that Smith’s erratic behavior was a sign of a bigger problem. Smith was examined and began taking medication for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. 

“Medication helped,” Smith says. “More importantly, I learned coping mechanisms.”

Years of unambiguous success followed. Smith excelled during the rest of his time at UO. At Harvard Law School, he landed prestigious summer associate positions at three of the nation’s leading law firms—Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher in Los Angeles; Covington & Burling in Washington, D.C.; and Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati in Silicon Valley—finished in the top 10 percent of his class, and won a coveted clerkship with Judge Alfred Goodwin of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

RALLYING THE TROOPS: Jefferson Smith, at his campaign headquarters, prepares volunteers to canvass March 3.

Steve Calandrillo clerked with Smith and recalls his focus and extraordinary work ethic. 

“He pulled several all-nighters,” says Calandrillo, a professor at the University of Washington School of Law. “[He] put together really impressive memos for the judges.” 

One day in the basement of the federal courthouse in Pasadena, Calif., Smith and Calandrillo discovered a tiny elevator, its car about 3 feet tall. Smith folded his lanky frame and climbed in. 

Calandrillo hit the “door close” button and suddenly realized he had no idea where the elevator went or whether Smith could breathe. He ran upstairs and found the shaft led to the law library; the elevator was for hauling books. 

“He was fun-loving,” Calandrillo says, “and he was taking this ride even though he never knew where it would come out.”

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