It had all the trappings of a lighthearted moment on the campaign trail: At a forum last week to celebrate the arts, Portland City Council candidate Jo Ann Hardesty got up to dance the Electric Slide.
But Hardesty's choice of dance partners turned a routine event into a flash point with her opponent, Multnomah County Commissioner Loretta Smith—one that brings the national conversation about sexual harassment to the fore and renews questions about the personalities of both candidates.
One of Hardesty's dance partners was Baruti Artharee—a former City Hall staffer who, five years earlier, publicly made sexually suggestive remarks about Smith.
The prospect of gender and racial progress has been a backdrop for the campaign: No black woman has ever served on the Portland City Council. With two black women competing for the seat Commissioner Dan Saltzman is vacating, the November runoff election held the possibility for a monthslong discussion about how Portland's traditionally marginalized communities could be better served. (Hardesty bested Smith in a six-candidate primary by 25 percentage points but failed to get a majority of the votes cast.)
But of late, the conversation has devolved into a bitter and toxic contest.
Smith pounced on Hardesty's dance gaffe, blasting out a press release and cellphone video of the event.
For Hardesty, a fiery activist, the episode raised further questions about her judgment. Artharee's inappropriate comments about Smith were widely publicized in 2013—the front-runner had every reason to know that making him part of her campaign would pose a problem.
"It's reigniting the pain that [Smith] so publicly had to deal with," says former state Sen. Margaret Carter (D-Portland), a Smith supporter. "That was bad decision-making. Women have to look out for women."
Smith says she was traumatized.
"This was a re-victimizing of Loretta Smith to throw me off my game," Smith told WW in an Oct. 3 endorsement interview. "It was almost like they were taunting me, just like Donald Trump, just taunting me to see how they can get me off my game. That's what I felt like. And I knew how I felt when I went home, and I just kept crying."
For Hardesty, it raised questions about whether Smith was promoting herself as a victim for political gain.
"The reaction to him participating in this three-minute dance did seem over the top to me," Hardesty says. "My response was to immediately call her to find out how she has been harmed, and she chose not to respond."
Later, the Smith campaign doubled down, saying Hardesty "has now become a perpetrator herself."
In the past year, with the arrival of the #MeToo movement, it's become received wisdom among Democrats that sexual harassment is unacceptable and disqualifying for public office.
But five years ago, Artharee introduced Smith at an event organized by The Skanner newspaper.
In his own account to WW at the time, Artharee introduced Smith by saying, "Here's our beautiful commissioner, Loretta Smith. Mmm, mmm, mmm, she looks good tonight." (He'd also commented on her appearance at previous events.)
It was only after a massive public outcry that Mayor Charlie Hales agreed to a city investigation and then a one-week suspension for Artharee. Artharee resigned soon after and said the city's power structure was trying to keep him out of Portland politics. He repeatedly returned to the issue on local public access television. (Smith said at the time black leaders criticized her for bringing down a prominent black official.)
Now Artharee is a supporter of Hardesty's campaign. He has come to several events and sat in the front row.
Smith expressed her displeasure about Artharee's behavior, most recently during a recent endorsement interview at the Portland Tribune, where Smith challenged the paper's judgment for using a quote from Artharee in reporting on the race.
Hardesty said last week she apologized immediately when Smith informed her—via press release—of her hurt.
But Smith refused to let the subject drop. She drew parallels between sexual assault and the verbal humiliation she experienced.
"I don't want anyone to suggest that what happened to me is anything less than has happened to people who have had violent kinds of sexual harassment," she told WW last week.
Hardesty says she doesn't take issue with how Smith characterizes the incident.
"I won't tell anyone their harm was less," says Hardesty. "No one woman deserves to be harassed, humiliated or assaulted."
But Jim Moore, director of the Tom McCall Center for Policy Innovation at Pacific University, says Smith is using Hardesty's mistake to gain ground in the contest.
"It's one blowup after another," Moore says. "Smith is looking for things she can use to show Jo Ann as being unfit. It's a classic strategy."
Smith has cast herself as the offended party under less credible circumstances.
Nearly two years ago, Smith faced accusations of mistreatment from two former staffers, both women of color. MeeSeon Kwon and Saba Saleem accused Smith of bullying them. Smith asked the county to conduct an investigation.
But then, when the county hired an outside investigator to look at the issue,
Smith claimed it was racism on the part of county officials. She also threatened to sue the county for conducting an investigation of her—an investigation she'd requested.
"Were Commissioner Smith white, it is unlikely that the Chair would insist on continuing an investigation of a complaint that the County already resolved," reads the tort claim she filed in April 2017.
Smith's claim generated an outpouring of support for her from black leaders.
While Smith continues to vociferously deny mistreating staffers, that reversal and threat to sue while accusing the county of racism has raised questions about her credibility.
Moore says Hardesty's gaffe isn't the first time Smith has used this type of strategy for political effect. "Many of them were overstated," he says, adding that the tactic could prove politically effective.
State Sen. Lew Frederick (D-Portland), a supporter of Smith's, says that's a fundamental misunderstanding of Smith's style. "She lets people know she's not pleased," says Frederick. "It creates a problem for people who would rather let it slide."
But Smith isn't wrong that Hardesty messed up. When Hardesty told WW at the endorsement interview her dance partner was just a guy who happened to be on hand, Smith said Hardesty could have danced with her.
"I would have danced with her in the Electric Slide," Smith said. "We probably would have been on beat."