Bikes are the new babies in Portland elections, where it seems every candidate gets photographed wearing a helmet and a smile.
It's not just a pose. Local pols, from U.S. Rep. Earl "Bike" Blumenauer (D-Ore.) on down through the Legislature and City Hall, want to stay in the good graces of Portland's bike lobby in the May primary.
Stop laughing. There really is a bike lobby here—in influence, sorta like Big Oil in Dallas or Little Havana in Miami, just without the cash.
"I don't think a candidate can afford to be anti-bicycle," says City Council hopeful Chris Smith, a transportation activist. "Not just because you piss off the bicycle community, but because [the outdoorsy, energy-saving] value set is pretty ingrained in Portland."
Six percent of Portlanders are daily bike commuters, according to a 2007 city auditor's survey—and another 10 percent say they commute by bike occasionally. Portland's ridership is way ahead of other U.S. cities, but behind some European cities like Amsterdam (see Vicious Cycle," WW, Oct. 31, 2007).
Last week, the Washington, D.C.-based League of American Bicyclists gave Portland a "platinum" rating for bike-friendliness (though local boosters such as Jonathan Maus of BikePortland.org concede the award had as much to do with marketing as any infrastructure improvements).
Locally, the bike lobby begins with the Bicycle Transportation Alliance, a nonprofit that claims 5,000 members, including businesses and individuals who pay as little as $10 a month. Tax laws prevent the BTA from endorsing candidates, but not from bending ears.
In the last three months of 2007, BTA reps called or met with city staffers at least 36 times—more often than OHSU and Pacific Power reps combined, according to City Hall lobbying reports. Granted, these numbers may reflect the BTA's amateur status; the best lobbyists keep their influence off the books.
Likewise, Bike Walk Vote—local cyclists' political organ—isn't big-league by conventional measures of donations. It spends less than $2,000 a year, according to its founder, former BTA director Evan Manvel. So far this election cycle, BWV, its members and supporters have contributed $2,057—political chump change—to various candidates.
But its endorsement is highly coveted. Smith shared the BWV endorsement with another candidate, Jeff Bissonnette, in one of the council races.
"Can they swing a citywide election? Maybe not on their own. But…they can play a powerful role," says Bissonnette. "Every bit makes a difference."
It surely helped Smith that he paid BWV board member Carl Larson $1,350 to organize five house parties for his campaign in December and January. (Larson, who began working for the BTA in February, recused himself from the BWV endorsement.)
In the mayor's race, BWV has endorsed Commissioner Sam Adams, and in the other hotly contested council race to replace Commissioner Erik Sten, BWV has backed Sten's former chief of staff, Jim Middaugh.
Though no one claims cyclists are a solid voting bloc, Manvel estimates the "bike vote"—voters who care about bike safety and infrastructure—at 10 to 15 percent of certain districts, particularly on the inner east side.
If the "bike vote" numbers about 5,000—based on BTA memberships and daily visitors to BikePortland.org—it's easy to see how it could swing one of the council primaries in which about 120,000 people voted in 2004.
This time, Manvel has helped campaign for Middaugh by handing out fliers to commuters on the Hawthorne Bridge. And Commissioner Adams has rewarded the bike lobby well in his council term. Not only did he include $24 million for new "bicycle boulevards" in his proposed $464 million transportation package, he passed a $5.5 million plan to "recycle" the old Sauvie Island Bridge as a bike-and-foot path over I-405 at Northwest Flanders Street.
Adams' mayoral opponent, Sho Dozono, opposed the bridge plan—and said, at a recent debate, that he was a "very pro-bicycle candidate." Who isn't?
"Right now our power is more in how the candidates are using our endorsement, rather than the feet on the ground," says Manvel. "We're no labor movement, and we're no environmental movement. Yet."
So far in this election cycle: BTA director Scott Bricker gave Chris Smith $105. The Bike Gallery gave Future PAC $500; owner Jay Graves gave $250 to state legislative candidate Jefferson Smith and $500 to Sam Adams. BWV member Michael Dennis gave Adams $150, and BTA rep Karl Rohde gave Adams $300. BWV gave $252 worth of brochures to state legislative candidate Jules Kopel-Bailey.