The need for strong, independent local journalism
is more urgent than ever. Please support the city we
love by joining Friends of Willamette Week.

Mr. Smith Runs From Salem

Jefferson Smith wants to be a "progressive" mayor. His legislative record isn't helping.

Gunshots were fired at least 11 times in the last two months in the outer-eastside neighborhoods currently represented by state Rep. Jefferson Smith (D-Portland).

"We need more police officers and more eyes on the street," the mayoral candidate told the Portland Police Association in its endorsement questionnaire.

Yet Smith has a clear record on guns: He's for them.

Smith is, for example, the only member of the Portland legislative delegation supported by the Oregon Gun Owners Political Action Committee. That's because he has voted in favor of the gun lobby repeatedly, including a bill to allow convicted felons to petition to regain their gun rights. As recently as March 2, Smith voted to exempt the names of those applying for and receiving concealed handgun licenses from public disclosure.

The mass killing in Aurora, Colo., last week has rekindled the gun-control debate. Portland Green Party treasurer Seth Woolley says Smith's gun votes are at odds with his calls for greater government transparency and his desire for safer streets.

"Maybe he'll change his mind if he's elected mayor," Woolley says.

Not yet. Smith, though saying he is "normally a supporter of gun control," defends the vote in favor of sealing concealed handgun licenses. Disclosure creates "a shopping list for gun theft," he says.

"My record is my record," Smith says. "I'm within the mainstream of Democrats in the Legislature."

To be sure, Smith is not the only mayoral candidate who's taken contradictory positions. His opponent, Charlie Hales, recently flip-flopped on a proposal to give developers millions in fee waivers, and solicited big checks until the day he self-imposed contribution limits.

But while Hales' maneuvers may be in keeping with his self-image as a pragmatist, Smith's inconsistencies fly in the face of his stump-speech persona as Portland's liberal torchbearer.

"We can elect a true, grassroots progressive, Jefferson Smith, as mayor of Portland," his website says.

The image is sticking. Polling before the May primary showed Smith to be the only candidate who won support merely for being "progressive." He led among self-identified liberals. The American Prospect, a national liberal magazine, called Smith "a mayor for the Occupy set."

"It is true," Smith says, "that I'm the only lifelong Democrat in this race."

But Smith's progressive reputation doesn't always check out. In addition to his pro-gun stance, Smith has trumpeted his endorsement by the Portland Police Association, whose rhetoric often conflicts with Smith's progressive pronouncements; he's avoided the endorsement of the state's leading reproductive-choice advocacy group; and he's taken contradictory positions on Oregon's potential role as a trans-shipper of fossil fuels.

"This sounds like someone who was trying to triangulate and make Clintonesque political calculations about a future office," says Jim Moore, a political-science professor at Pacific University.

Smith says he defines being a progressive as "hard-minded and softhearted"—not as passing a series of litmus tests from lefty interest groups.

He didn't mind, however, taking the endorsement of the Portland Police Association—a union best known for aggressively defending officers accused of beating or killing minority and mentally ill Portlanders.

Woolley says Smith's embrace of the police union caused the Green Party to revoke its primary endorsement of Smith.

Dan Handelman of Portland Copwatch says the police association is simply not progressive.

"They are there to protect the 1 percent from the 99 percent," he says.

Smith says the cop union knows he won't roll over on police-involved killings, and that he supports Mayor Sam Adams' refusal to reinstate Officer Ron Frashour, who shot and killed an unarmed man, Aaron Campbell, in 2010.

This year, Smith called for a ban on proposed coal shipments through Portland. He explained his reasoning in a video titled "Coal Ain't Cool."

"Not a whole lot of jobs or economic benefit from moving coal trains through our town," he notes in the video, adding that selling a nonrenewable fossil fuel cheaply to foreign buyers is also a bad idea.

But three years ago, Smith took the other side in another raging fossil-fuel controversy: Bradwood Landing, the site of a planned liquefied natural gas terminal on the lower Columbia River.

Supporters of such projects wanted a so-called "LNG fast-track bill" that would speed the permitting of an LNG pipeline to Bradwood, even if landowners disagreed.

Environmental groups termed LNG fast-tracking a major threat, much as they oppose the coal trains today.

Smith—now opposed to coal for similar reasons—voted "yes" for the fast track.

That bill was defeated. When the LNG issue came up again in 2011, Smith changed his vote, opposing an identical bill that passed anyway.

Smith says he was misled by senior colleagues on the first bill, and changed his mind after learning more. 

Abortion is not an issue Portland's next mayor is likely to confront. But in Salem, it is an ideological shibboleth.

“I fully support a woman’s right to choose,” Smith tells WW.  

Yet in 2010, every Portland lawmaker got an endorsement from Planned Parenthood Advocates—except Smith.

He did not get Planned Parenthood's endorsement in 2008, either.

Moore says that is surprising.

"It makes very little sense to label yourself a progressive and not have that endorsement," Moore says.

Laura Terrill Patten, director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Oregon, says the reason Smith has not gotten her group's nod is simple—in 2008, he did not fully fill out its questionnaire; in 2010, he did not seek the endorsement at all.

Smith says he laid low in 2008 for competitive reasons.

"The biggest risk in my district was a conservative Democrat who ran on an anti-choice, anti-immigrant platform," he told WW via email in March.

But Smith drew no opponent in either the primary or general election.

In 2010, he says, he was too busy to complete the questionnaire.

Roey Thorpe, former Planned Parenthood Advocates executive director, says the sticking point for Smith in 2008 was a commitment to mandatory sex education in public schools (even though Smith later voted for it).

"When Planned Parenthood asked him to take a stand on very basic pro-choice issues, he didn't do it," Thorpe says. "He always voted the right way, but he was far from being a leader.”