After defeat, mayoral candidate seeks new challenges, opportunities

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Jefferson Smith is doing a lot of self-reflection before he decides what to do next in his career, after a painful loss in the mayor's race.Charismatic. Whip smart.


Flaky. Prone to putting foot in mouth.

Portland voters gleaned those conflicting images of Jefferson Smith in the 2012 mayor’s race, when he rocketed from underdog to solid contender before flaming out in the closing weeks of the campaign.

Smith, once a rising star in Oregon politics, is now trying to pick up the pieces of his personal life and career and re-evaluate his future.

“Losing the race, and losing the way I lost, something you spent 14 months at, anybody who doesn’t acknowledge that it’s painful is not being candid,” Smith says, in his first extensive media interview since losing to Charlie Hales two months ago.

Smith is undergoing counseling and doing extensive soul-searching and fence-mending before jumping into something new.

“What I’m trying to do is take a purposeful pause,” he says. “I’ve been doing (50- to 60-hour weeks) for 11 years with very little taking stock, very little looking around. What I want to do now is not rush.”

Smith, 39, made his name a decade ago as cofounder of The Bus Project, which made it cool for young adults to get active in politics. Then he moved to East Portland, where he was elected to serve two terms in the Oregon House of Representatives.

Smith joined the mayor’s race late but surprised many by edging out businesswoman Eileen Brady to earn a runoff with Hales. Smith finished with the best momentum, attracting 33 percent of the primary vote to Hales’ 37 percent.

But in a general election race marked by bruising media portrayals of both candidates’ warts and past missteps, Smith lost steam and his idealistic image. He was pummeled by continuing coverage of his driving record — which included repeated instances of driving with a suspended license — and a college-days incident when he injured a young woman in an altercation at a party.

“They came out in the worst possible way, and at a pretty bad point in the timing of the campaign,” Hales observed this week when asked to reflect on his opponent.

Political officeholders “have to have the moral authority to govern,” Hales says. “It would be hard to have those things come out on you as a candidate, and still feel you have that.”

Hales handily beat Smith 61 percent to 31 percent, meaning Smith got a lower share of the vote than he did in the crowded primary.

Rebuilding a young life

Since his defeat, Smith says he’s going “brick by brick to do the things that need to be done.” He’s apologizing to friends and supporters for letting them down, and “accepting responsibility for my own stupidities, my own blunders, my own mistakes.”

He’s also thanking his supporters, making about 300 phone calls and visiting with about 60 people. He’s in the middle of hand-delivering about 80 gifts of chocolates, wine and other items.

Smith recently went on a weekend men’s retreat. “I’m sort of a Jack (lapsed) Christian,” he says, “but I did some praying.”

Smith is alternately angry at himself for failing to adequately address past controversies in his personal life, and at the media for dwelling on such matters instead of public policy issues germane to the mayor’s job. He says that left voters with a “caricature” of himself.

He realized in the campaign that he’s good at talking, but not about himself. “I had a lousy driving record and I had an altercation while I was in college,” Smith says. “I did a lousy job talking about both of those.”

Smith believes, with some justification, that he won the most important campaign debates with Hales. And, in contrast to revelations of flaky personal behavior in his past, Smith reckons he performed well at some 90 campaign forums and 221 house parties.

“I think I was embarrassingly late to one,” he says.

Jim Moore, political science professor at Pacific University in Forest Grove, says he was shocked that Smith appeared to have no contingency plan ready for dealing with those controversies in his past. Then Smith allowed the negative accounts to “dribble out” when he wasn’t forthcoming with the media, Moore says.

“My sense is his campaign went downhill because of the reaction to the accusations, rather than the accusations themselves,” he says.

Forgiving voters

Smith, who graduated from Harvard Law School but didn’t last long during stints at top New York and Portland law firms, says he wants to be “of use” in whatever he takes on next, whether it’s positions in government, the private sector or nonprofits.

He has committed to join the board of directors of a software company, whose name he couldn’t divulge because it is preparing a public stock offering. And he’s a founding board member of The Bus Federation, a national version of The Bus Project that is incorporating as a newly independent entity.

Smith recently met with Gov. John Kitzhaber in Salem, though he says no specific opportunities were sought or offered by either party. He’s also exploring consulting contracts, and is checking with the state ethics commission to understand limits imposed on lawmakers after they leave office.

Smith says he doesn’t know if he’d ever consider running again for public office.

“There’s a bunch of questions I need to answer, and that’s not the first, second or third,” he says.

As for his personal life, Smith and his wife Katy Lesowski plan to remain in their East Portland home, where some accused him of moving as a “carpetbagger” to run for the House seat.

“Katy and I would like to have kids,” Smith says. “This might be an opportunity to do that.”

In the closing days of the mayor’s race, several organizations that endorsed Smith and gave him money retracted their endorsements. That fostered an image that it was considered radioactive to be associated with him.

Moore thinks Smith can rehabilitate his image if he plays his cards right — just look at Mayor Sam Adams, who was tainted by scandal from the beginning of his term but went on to earn respect for some of his City Hall work.

“Voters are pretty forgiving,” Moore says.