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Lesser-knowns relish forums' spotlight

Candidates often find a soapbox, support at small campaign events


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Portland businesswoman Sharon Maxwell speaks at an East Side Democratic Club meeting. She is running against City Commissioner Mick Fish.Despite its name, the Eastside Democratic Club is not associated with the Democratic Party. In fact, its members are adamantly against politics as usual.

Several dozen members and supporters of the club — who mostly belong to minor left wing political parties — made that clear during their recent candidate’s fair. Moderated with an even hand by David Delk, a retiree who is active in the progressive Alliance for Democracy, it attracted only one incumbent and few candidates with a realistic chance of winning.

And it ended with a number of unusual endorsements and one surprising non-endorsement.

The 20 or so voting members endorsed businesswoman Sharon Maxwell in her longshot race against City Commissioner Nick Fish. But the endorsement only came after some of the members criticizing her for reading from the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights during her presentation. One member dismissed them as “18th century documents.”

Members agonized about who to endorse against Commissioner Dan Saltzman: activist Concordia University professor Nicholas Caleb or KBOO reporter Joe Meyer. They finally chose Caleb because his campaign was better organized, giving him the best shot of throwing a scare into City Hall by forcing Saltzman into a runoff election in November.

And they refused to endorse state Rep. Jules Bailey for the Multnomah County Commission in the May primary election. Although Bailey is widely regarded as one of the most progressive members of the Legislature, one member criticized him as an “insider” who can’t be trusted because he is endorsed by such political heavy hitters as Oregon U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden and former Gov. Barbara Roberts.

But they did not endorse his appointment, Portland businessman Brian Wilson, either. He appeared to alienate many of them by saying county-funded social service agencies should work with the city to limit aggressive panhandlers, especially the young homeless men and woman who come to town every summer known as Road Warriors.

“What do you want to do, shoot them?” one member asked, drawing guffaws from much of the crowd.

Little attention

Welcome to the world of small candidate fairs, forums and debates held all over town in the weeks leading up to the primary election. Although an appearance before such an established organization as the Portland City Club might generate headlines, dozens of organizations hold their own events, largely outside the public eye. They range from neighborhood associations to such nonpartisan groups as the League of Woman Voters.

Smaller events are just about the only opportunities the lesser-known candidates have of being heard. Most are not invited to large forums or interviewed much by the local media, because they are not perceived as having a chance of being elected.

Perennial candidate Wes Soderback admitted as much during his brief presentation before the club, which held its fair at the Grace Presbyterian Church, 6125 N.E. Prescott St.

“I don’t even know why I’m here. The news says the race is between two other people,” said Soderback, referring to local coverage about the race that has focused on the frontrunners, former Multnomah County Commissioner Deborah Kafoury and former City Commissioner Jim Francesconi. Five other candidates in the race, including Soderback, have received little attention.

Because of that, club members heard ideas from the largely unknown candidates that are not being raised at many of the other forums. For example, Bruce Broussard, one of three candidates running against incumbent Loretta Smith in the Multnomah County Commission District 2 race, said the commission should be reorganized along the lines of the Portland City Council, where each member is in charge of bureaus assigned by the mayor. County commissioners are not assigned bureaus. Instead, the chair oversees all of them.

“You never hear anything about the county. Nobody knows who to talk to if you have a problem with a bureau,” said Broussard, a perennial candidate who operates a restaurant in the Jantzen Beach area.

Caleb said neighborhood associations should have the power to veto infill projects within their boundaries. Meyer, who said he is a nuclear physicist by training, promised to bring the “scientific method” to City Hall to counter the decision-making process, which he compared to the advertising company on the “Mad Men” TV show. And John Sweeney, one of six candidates in the House District 42 race, said he wanted current laws taught in the public schools so young students would understand the consequences of risky behavior.

“It used to be, if you ran away from the police, you got a fine. Now it’s a felony,” Sweeney cautioned.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - KBOO reporter Joe Meyer chats with members of the Eastside Democratic Club after a speech supporting his campaign against Portland City Commissioner Dan Saltzman.

Challenge from outsiders

As much as anything, the lesser-known candidates portrayed themselves as outsiders challenging a corrupt political system that favors the haves and ignores the have-nots. Caleb told the crowd, “I’m continuously astounded about what I learn about the city, and not in a positive way.” Maxwell said she would hold the council “accountable to restore prosperity.” And Meyer accused Saltzman — the only incumbent who showed up — of “back room deal-making.”

For his part, Saltzman ignored the attacks when he spoke and instead talked about his commitment to families, including voter approval of the Portland Children’s Levy, which he sponsored. He stayed until the event ended, leaving with the other candidates when the club showed them the door before debating their endorsements.