The celebrated '79 film Being There featured Peter Sellers as "Chance," a quiet man who lives the life of a gardener, unfettered by the outside world until he becomes a prophet of sorts to those he meets beyond his garden walls.
Raised in the well-tended gardens of the elite Dunthorpe neighborhood, Ramsey McPhillips, 50, might be compared to Chance. Then again, this gardener who splits his time among Portland, New York, L.A. and Europe' and always sports a beat-up-looking Pendleton hat high above his distinct schnozz and handlebar 'stache, more closely resembles the complicated, passionate characters portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis.
He's a self-appointed "hortivangelist," who, for now, is dipping his green thumb into the thorny thicket that is politics.
McPhillips is part of an influential Portland creative crowd, including filmmaker Todd Haynes, that supports the pistol-sized candidate gunning for Congress, Democrat Steve Novick. Considering his ancestors have always been progressives, that's not a surprise. The blue-blooded McPhillips clan arrived here pre-statehood to start one of Oregon's first banks. His grandfather, B.A. McPhillips Sr., was a member the Environmental Quality Commission for more than 30 years under nine governors, heading it for the last eight. He himself grew up next door to Bob Packwood's house. He even hung out with George W.'s sis, Dorothy "Doro" Bush Koch, during their college days. "I voted for her father [George Sr.] because I believed he was pro-choice. It was the first time I was hoodwinked by a flip-flopping politician," says McPhillips, who excised the Bushes out of his life and became an independent. That is, until Novick came along.
Before the garden season kicks into full bloom, McPhillips wants to do what he can to change the political landscape. A feisty fundraiser, he's often seen next to Novick at social and political events. They make a political odd couple.
"Novick is Oregon's Rosa Parks," says McPhillips, who is gay. "She was picked by a group of gutsy civil-rights advocates to be the persona of righting the injustices of '55. The other candidates [in Novick's race], as good as they may be, are still sitting in the middle of the bus, hoping to move forward seat by seat, whispering to the driver, 'Mother, may I?' Steve's the real thing. He will promote the foundations of this country, not just the upper crust who sucked this country dry for their own political gain."
This isn't the first time McPhillips has felt passionately about someone prominent he believes in. "Anne Kerr McDonald was by far the most influential person in my youth," says McPhillips. Lady McDonald (she was married to James McDonald, the British consul) was McPhillips' elder by 50 years when he met her in Portland in his teens. "She spent her entire life living on the same street, served lunch on a silver tray, grew pot like it was a science experiment and taught me everything I know about plant propagation. I owe my gardening life to this woman."
And as for his unique tag? "I made up the moniker hortivangelist because I consider myself religious," says McPhillips. "I'm peripatetic in the classic sense of the word. I've been told my entire life I should take up the pulpit, [because] I preach about the good things in life. Gardening is a pious physical act that grounds a person to their immediate moment. It is sinless, unless you're using pesticides, and then it becomes the sport of the anti-Christ!" Amen.