Knocking Himself Out

Despite his background in politics, Jefferson Smith has ignored a basic rule.

Jefferson Smith

The 37-year-old woman opened the front door of her Portland home at 8 am on Oct. 1 to see Jefferson Smith standing in front of her.

She knew immediately who he was—not just from news coverage of Smith's campaign for mayor, but from the night 19 years ago when he had punched her in the face, sending her to the hospital in need of stitches.

Smith was there on a damage-control mission. Reporters were chasing rumors he had assaulted a woman in college, and Smith wanted to talk to her before the story broke.  

She told him to leave. Later, he stuck an apologetic note on her door.

"I know it's been a long time and that you're busy," Smith wrote, "but I would be more than happy to talk…and listen."

"I had been wanting to get her permission to talk about this issue unilaterally," Smith says now of his surprise visit. "If I had known she didn't want me to contact her, I wouldn't have contacted her."

Of the hundreds of doors Smith has knocked on since entering the mayor's race 13 months ago, none better symbolizes the implosion of his campaign.

Smith's visit backfired. In an interview six days later, the woman told WW that Smith lied about what happened between them that led to a 1993 misdemeanor assault charge against Smith.

She says his statements—and his decision to come to her home—motivated her to speak to WW and release a copy of a police report that no longer existed in official files.

"It was a painful experience and now I have to deal with it again," the woman told WW. "I want it to be over."

For years, Smith, a two-term state representative from East Portland, has been a rising star in Oregon politics, known for his speaking skills and admired for his ability to inspire others. In 2010, Smith warmed up the crowd when President Obama came to stump for Gov. John Kitzhaber.

As a founder of the Oregon Bus Project, a voter engagement group, Smith, 39, entered the race for mayor with formidable organizing skills and a potent volunteer base. 

Political experts who've run major races in Oregon—but are not involved  in the mayoral contest—say Smith has demonstrated a shortcoming that could cost him the race: an inability to come clean about past troubles.

The decision to drop in on his victim unannounced was only the latest of Smith's tactical mistakes.

"It was really stupid," says Rachel Gorlin, a Washington, D.C., political consultant who has worked for Kitzhaber, U.S. Rep. Les AuCoin (D-Ore.) and U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). "It was clearly something he was doing out of desperation.” 

Earlier in the campaign, voters learned from news reports—not from Smith, who'd made transparency a hallmark of his political career—that he'd had his driver's license suspended seven times, failed to pay dues to the Oregon State Bar, punched another player in a pick-up basketball game and been tossed out of a coed soccer league for roughness. 

Political consultants often insist candidates disclose potential problems early. 

"The best time to have this discussion is when somebody is considering running," Gorlin says.

But Smith never got out in front of embarrassing news; he's been simply reacting to it. 

Josh Kardon, Wyden's former chief of staff, says Smith's failure to voluntarily and fully disclose information about his past was a major error.

"The story is he isn't trustworthy on sharing information with the public when it obviously needs to be addressed," Kardon says. "The inescapable conclusion for voters is that this person hasn't been straight with me and isn't going to be straight with me if elected."

On Oct. 1, WW broke the news about Smith's 1993 assault citation. Eugene police said last week its copy of the report no longer existed, so Smith's version of events became the narrative. 

He told WW a woman he had never met before attacked him without provocation, and that he had to defend himself. "She was injured," Smith said.

He merely pushed the woman away, Smith said, and couldn't recall how seriously the woman was hurt. Police cited him for assault.

Smith, then 20, signed a criminal diversion agreement in 1994 that allowed him to avoid prosecution. In the document, which he later released to WW, Smith admitted his conduct was "wrongful," and agreed to pay the woman's medical bills and "refrain from having any contact" with her.

The no-contact provision did not specify an end date. Smith was asked last week if he had spoken to the woman since the incident. He replied he'd had "no meaningful contact" with her. (He had actually been on her doorstep only hours earlier.)

Smith's story held up until WW contacted his victim last weekend, and she agreed to release the police report. WW decided not to name her because she says she fears retribution. She says she believes Smith violated the diversion agreement by showing up unannounced at her home. (Smith says his interpretation of the report is that the "no contact" stipulation applied for only six months.)

The Oct. 17, 1993, police report and the woman's statement differ from Smith's account in important ways. 

Smith says he didn't know the woman before she attacked him. In her 1993 statement, the woman said she had rejected Smith's sexual advances at a fraternity party earlier that evening. She says Smith told her to drink a 40-ounce beer and reconsider his offer, and then called her a "snobby bitch."

The woman says at a subsequent off-campus party she got angry at Smith, who she believed was bothering her. She says she did nothing more than touch his chest. (Smith claimed last week the woman, who is a foot shorter than he is, had him pinned against a wall.)

Rather than the push Smith recalled to reporters, he told police in 1993 he "tagged her, striking her with his fist." The police report says it took five or six stitches to close the wound.

WW interviewed six other partygoers from that evening. Some characterized the woman as out of control, and said Smith did nothing wrong. Others contradicted Smith's account—one saying the woman was seated when Smith hit her. 

After the police report became public, Smith told WW he has no recollection of encountering the woman earlier in the evening.

"My memory is my memory, and it's backed up by other people," he says.

"But I am happy to apologize for the worst version of events that anybody offers."

Both Gorlin and Kardon say the incident would have been damaging to Smith at any time during the campaign. But both think he erred in not disclosing it fully earlier—especially when an official document, such as a police report, existed.

"You have to discuss your vulnerabilities with your senior staff," Kardon says. "Based on what I'm hearing, I don't believe Jefferson did that."

Smith acknowledges he did not tell his staff about the incident. 

"I wrestled pretty hard with saying, 'Here's everything, every mistake I've ever made," Smith says. "The sticking point on that was partly that that's scary, and partly that it involved other folks."

In retrospect, Smith says, he wishes he had laid everything on the table. 

Gorlin notes that in 2004, when Mayor Sam Adams first ran for Portland City Council, he pre-emptively revealed a history of financial problems, including a bankruptcy. 

"Sam got out in front and characterized his financial problems in a way that made sense to people, and gave his opponent no chance to characterize them in any other way," Gorlin says. (Adams, however, lied during the campaign about his relationship with a legislative intern.)

Kardon says voters are often willing to forgive a lot, but not when it appears the candidate is being evasive.

"People understand there are youthful indiscretions, and they have the intelligence and context to reach their own conclusions," says Kardon, who last month gave Smith a $1,000 contribution but now says he will vote for a write-in candidate.

"But when you withhold information and it's divulged at the end of the race, voters aren’t going to go out their way to put things in perspective.” 

Staff writer Aaron Mesh contributed to this story.

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