Progressives Denounce “People for Portland” Lobbying Campaign at City Hall

“Scapegoating breeds self-righteousness but it will never lead to lasting solutions to gun violence and homelessness.”

Two state representatives—both progressive women of color—have signed an open letter denouncing the advocacy campaign People for Portland for engaging in what the letter characterizes as racist fearmongering that demonizes the poor.

Reps. Andrea Valderrama (D-East Portland) and Khanh Pham (D-Portland) are among more than 300 signatories to the Nov. 17 letter, which asks Mayor Ted Wheeler and City Commissioners Mingus Mapps and Dan Ryan to denounce the campaign, whose funders remain a secret but include business executives Tim Boyle and Jordan Schnitzer.

“It pretends the last 18 months since George Floyd’s murder never happened and expects us to acquiesce to a collective amnesia,” the letter says. “Tens of thousands of us marched shoulder-to-shoulder in the streets, calling for an end to systemic racism and police brutality. Yet People for Portland demands more police, without full accountability.”

The alarm expressed by the progressive signatories to the letter relates to both the spending capacity of the business campaign and its political ambitions.

The People for Portland campaign, orchestrated by political consultants Kevin Looper and Dan Lavey, spent more than $500,000 on lobbying City Hall in the last quarter, city records show. That’s the most ever spent in three months on lobbying—much of it used to broadcast TV ads pressuring the City Council to increase homeless shelter beds and police body cameras. (Internal documents obtained by WW suggest that the backers ultimately seek to compel houseless people to move off the streets and into shelters with a ballot measure.)

The campaign’s two known donors, Boyle and Schnitzer, have also donated more than $200,000 to the gubernatorial campaign of state Sen. Betsy Johnson (D-Scappoose), who is challenging the Democratic Party from the right as an unaffiliated candidate. Her campaign will almost certainly capitalize on deep voter dissatisfaction over homelessness and crime in Portland.

In short, the letter is trying to stall a lurch to the right in an election year where Democrats are hemorrhaging suburban voters.

Valderrama says she signed the letter because she sees People for Portland trying to undermine the anti-racist groundswell that fueled her run for office.

“I have deep concerns about the campaign’s priorities, especially since they’re not data driven, but fear driven,” Valderrama tells WW. “They’re not calling for an end to all homelessness, just the homelessness you can ‘see.’ They’re not calling for reimagining public safety, they’re calling for reinvesting in the same, familiar infrastructure, even though crime rates aren’t determined by officer numbers. Black and Brown women have long been disproportionately impacted by homelessness and housing instability, domestic violence and gun violence, and yet our voices continue to be dismissed.”

Looper says that the letter purposefully mischaracterizes his agenda.

“Their opinions are as severe as they are severely misinformed,” says Looper. “They represent the last gasp of the ‘defund the police’ movement, which has failed and led the left in the wrong direction. Their argument is not with Dan and me. It is with the overwhelming opinion of Portland residents. The No. 1 group most supportive of the agenda we are backing are people of color and poor people.”

He also argues that any connection between People for Portland and the Johnson campaign is spurious.

“People trying to fix Portland and people trying to fix Oregon are two different sets of people dealing with two different sets of problems,” he says. “The only thing they have in common is the abject failure of entrenched leadership.”

The letter argues the campaign is exploiting the frustrations of many Portlanders for the interests of a few.

“When we look to the West Hills of Portland, a neighborhood untouched by gun violence, we don’t see armed police patrols in their cruisers,” the letter says. “We see financial stability, well-resourced schools and access to green space, all of which have been linked to abiding community safety.

“Scapegoating breeds self-righteousness but it will never lead to lasting solutions to gun violence and homelessness. We should be setting our collective sights on the real threat among us: an entrenched social and political system that perpetuates crushing income inequality and racism.”