Like an ailing operating system, American democracy has crashed, according to the young progressives who make up the Oregon Bus Project.
And rebooting that democracy this election year in Oregon was the underlying metaphor for last weekend's three-day power lunch organized by the 4-year-old project.
So what came of the "Rebooting Democracy" gabfest attended by more than 300 mostly Democratic movers and shakers at a Welches resort?
At least three young activists who cut their teeth in the Bus Project are expected to run for the state Legislature this year. With control of the House perhaps coming down to a seat or two, any victory by Democrats Ben Cannon in District 46 (East Portland), Tobias Read in District 27 (Raleigh Hills) or Sal Peralta in District 24 (McMinnville) could be pivotal.
The project aims to get progressive volunteers—especially young people—to ride a bus out to suburban swing districts and spend a day door-knocking to help elect Democratic legislative candidates. There is a core group of 300 members, but about 10,000 people get email updates.
The Bus network is modeled after past state political incubators like X-PAC and Demo Forum. Like its ancestors, the Bus Project is an open-door fraternity-sorority of political junkies bound for bigger things. It shares DNA with both groups: Founders Jefferson Smith and John Wykoff Jr. are sons of Demo Forum alumni, and X-PAC Chair Kari Chisholm served as attending midwife for the Bus Project's birth.
The Bus does have detractors, who say it's too quick to take credit for others' victories, is too cliquish and is too transparently a personal vehicle for Smith, who, at 32, has the looks, intelligence and charm of a born politician. He is a longtime admirer of Goldschmidt's political legacy, and his evident ambitions have led many to assume the Bus is a stalking horse for him to become the next generation's Goldschmidt.
Smith admits to wrestling two years ago with a state House run but has decided for now to stick with building the Bus.
"I started believing my own bullshit," Smith says. "We don't need a candidate. We need 100 candidates."
Demo Forum helped launch former Gov. Neil Goldschmidt, U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, ex-Portland mayor and -Oregon House Speaker Vera Katz, and former City Commissioner Gretchen Kafoury. X-PAC got the ball rolling for City Commissioner Erik Sten, Multnomah County Commissioner Serena Cruz, former State Rep. Deb Kafoury and Metro Council President David Bragdon.Evidence of how well networked the current project has become was clear at the Welches retreat. Scores of older-generation politicos came to educate, hobnob or court the new Young Turks. Ex-Gov. John Kitzhaber, who christened the bus four years ago, was back for a keynote speech. And top figures in the labor, trial lawyer and environmental communities also showed up, as did dozens of electeds and would-bes.