Monday, March 27, 2006

City Club Council Debate--the Good, the Bad, the Stepford

Unfortunately I was not able to see the debate in person on Friday, much as I did really want to be in the back with the rabble, straining to see. I would have liked to have seen things like body language and the reaction of the audience, but the mp3 of the event (provided by News4Neighbors) is a pretty darn good substitute. Plus I've been able to listen to it multiple times and draw conclusions from that review. I won't try to give it a full rundown in terms of all the questions asked and the response/rebuttals, but there are points I found telling, and also I have generalized reactions to how each candidate did.

A note about the format: some parts I liked, some not so much. Dave Lister had to beg his way onto the dais, and thus the City Club pleaded circumstance for the way they set up the debate. Aside from the opening and closing statements, each candidate was asked a couple of questions, with the other three getting a chance to "respond," whether related to the question, the answer, or something else. The timing was a little short, but I also didn't like the lack of opportunity for the person being questioned to give a short rebuttal. It allowed some hyperbole or arguable charges to go unargued. But I really did like the Club panel calling BS on answers, asking for a repeat that actually addressed the question if they found the first response wanting.

The opening statements were uneven, to say the least. I have been waiting to hear what Emilie Boyles had to say in her first major appearance as a legitimate candidate. I knew her background, but not anything about her personal style other than a couple of pictures. I'm willing to concede both the point of opening night jitters, and the point that smooth oratory is not a good litmus test for governance. But I can't picture in my mind having Emilie Boyles sit on Council. She was quite rushed, at times folksily irrelevant, a little arch (taking care to list the credentials of her mentors)...the word I want to use is hectoring, because she was fairly shouting, even about her own resume'! There was a sense of nervous agitation and rhetorical looseness that bugged me the entire hour. I'll talk about what Boyles said, too--but on many levels elections are decided on gut feelings, and my gut feeling here--Harlan Ellison as a political advisor?--is that she's not ready.

Ginny Burdick followed alphabetically, and you couldn't have bookended two more different speakers. Where Boyles was nearly pushing the lecturn into the orchestra pit, Burdick spoke in a conference-room monotone that sounded like an 8AM software class led by programmers. She doesn't need to be David Lee Roth ("Hellooooo, Portland! How's the fuckin' veal, people? Who's ready to par-tay? Speaking of partay, I just saw two young creatives getting creative in the cloakroom..."), but it's your coming out lunch for city politics--show a little enthusiasm, eh?

I shouldn't imply that Burdick was listless; far from it. Ditching a possible "morning in Stumptown" vision from the get-go, she lit into Sten for "self-inflicting" the many crises she saw at City Hall. Tram, Water Bureau, PGE, VOE--you name it, she fit it into 180 seconds. I'm sure if she had evidence Sten tipped on the credit receipt at restaurants instead of leaving cash, she'd have mentioned it. She has every right to go after Sten in this fashion, of course, but it has to fit properly in the context of the race, and I'm not sure she's getting the right advice. If you're going to be the kind of candidate who builds a campaign out of directly attacking the incumbent, you have to bring some kind of charm to the table or you will just seem like a complaining downer (cf John Kerry).

Dave Lister seemed the most relaxed, as befits someone with seemingly nothing to lose. He spoke with a fair amount of conviction, and made some logical points--but like Burdick, he was enamored of the attack, declaring as unsustainable the way the City is run, and badly in need of repair. Beyond that, Lister came off to me as overly flip, cheerfully disdainful of any issue he didn't find important, and someone who puts way more faith in the qualifications of "running a business" than typically warrants.

Interestingly, while Lister took shots at the mismanagement by Council ("the sham process of public input;" echoing "who's been minding the store" and adding "who's been tapping the till"), he also laid blame on the one area that everyone except Burdick mentioned: PDC. I'll get into this more in a minute, but while I agree with the focus on PDC as part of a broken culture, doing so tends to only tar the Council incumbent insofar as they can be associated with PDC--and that's going to be a tough sell against Sten.

Speaking of Portland's Happy Elf, the fact that Sten has been doing these kinds of appearances for over a decade now was abundantly clear in front of City Club. Despite being the obvious target of the debate, his tone was measured, friendly and usually substantive. It took fewer than 30 seconds of his time to not only dismiss complaints about Council performance as carping belied by continued migration to Portland, but to make troubles sound like a virtue: "Portland is the place that takes on the problems that other people have given up on."

Rather than admit a failure of focus in trying to take on big projects, Sten managed to make Council's efforts sound like a change in themselves rather than same old, same old: instead of the quest for PGE being a wasteful failure, it's a refusal to let powerful utilities shake down city taxpayers anymore. Rather than "politician welfare" to keep the old guard in power, using city funds for election financing is a bold stroke to take "big money" out of the process. Assuming that Sten considers Burdick his most important foe for the primary, his responses Friday look tailored to make HER seem like the ultimate insider, and himself the gap-toothed maverick trying to change from within the system. If that's indeed what he's doing, it's pretty brilliant strategizing IMO, and Burdick doesn't yet have an answer for it.

This is why Burdick steered clear of mentioning her Gard&Gerber credentials, the links to OHSU/South Waterfront/Tram/PGE, and the quasi-autonomous partnership of PDC and their methods of driving development in Portland. Because her clients benefit from the status quo that allows PDC to favor them and generously enrich their investment in the city, Sten may be the incumbent, but Burdick is really the representative of the oligarchy the other three want to rid Portland of. Ironic, isn't it?

So that's the overview of the candidates; following are somewhat random takes on what specifically was said:

**When you're asked why something isn't being done or is being done wrong, and there are other parties at fault to share the blame, don't bluntly blame them just to let yourself off the hook. When asked why the state legislature was unable to fix school funding problems (thus necessitating her drive to make City Council pick up the slack), Burdick raised a fair point: voter initiatives in the 90s and generalized anti-tax sentiment in the last few years have hamstrung the state's ability to seek creative solutions for funding schools. But how did she express her point? By blaming the voters, essentially saying she'd have things fixed by now if not for those meddling citizens.

On the other hand, the first question to Sten reflected the worry of downtown business that the overlap of too many construction projects (Naito, Burnside/Couch, Transit Mall) happening at one time would force the area into gridlock. His answer was roughly patterned after Burdick's--hey, the downtown biz assocation not only asked for the main project, they're helping pay for it, so why are they complaining?--but he did not simply blame the DBA and leave it at that. The rest of the answer (we did planning; we'll pay for citizen education; we'll all get through it eventually) was not necessarily a response to why gridlock has to happen, but he'd already taken the teeth out of the allegation by subtly saying, "Whaddya want for nuthin, DBA?" and then finished the trick by pledging to work together with them anyway, turning the problem into a virtue of private/public cooperation.

**Boyles lost points with me by not being particularly accurate or relevant in her attempt to paint Council as needing a change. She called for abandoning the Transit Mall plan on the basis of poor safety for the disabled, which does not square with the involvement and approval of disabled rights groups (via the Citzens' Advisory Council) for the final Mall plan. Her false choice of "funding schools or funding the tram" was patently ridiculous. Her response to whether the City should involve itself more heavily in school affairs--PPS is failing academically, spends too much and should model itself after suburban districts--was wholly unsupported (OK, she only got 30 seconds) and frankly dead wrong IMO. And really, it didn't even speak to whether PPS problems should be part of the City's bailiwick. She claimed that the space formerly used by Powell's Travel in Pioneer Square remains empty because of high business taxes and license fees, not because, well, it's a crappy location. You get the idea. I don't mind stridency, but being strident, wrong and tangential is not a good combo.

**Dave Lister is about as touchy-feely as Haystack Rock. That's who he is, OK, and he certainly provides a visible counterpoint to the attitudes generally proclaimed publicly by Portland politicians. His response on the problem of homelessness? After hearing Sten crow that over 600 chronically homeless people had been successfully relocated, Lister's response was first that homelessness wasn't really that big a deal because his teenagers taught him some homeless people like it that way--and then when called back for nonresponsiveness, he shrugged and admitted he had no plan. We can debate his point, and maybe it's refreshing that a politician is willing to say he doesn't have an answer for everything--but Lister gave the impression that he didn't know, and he didn't care.

'Not caring' is a dangerous strategy in this town, IMO--and using the phrase "choosing that lifestyle" reminds me too much of the debate over the origins of homosexuality. That's a highly visceral reaction; I certainly don't think he was talking about being gay in the slightest. But it's the same kind of "let the exception decide the rule" calculus, where the actions of a subset determine whether we should care about the group as a whole. I'm probably more enamored of statistics, probability and objective analysis than 95% of the country--but there's a limit to what you can do with quantitative decision making. At some point you reach the granularity needed to see the numbers as human beings needing compassion at a minimum. I get the sense Dave doesn't see it that close most of the time. Do you want that quality in a Commissioner? Doubtless some of you do; not me.

**Listening to Burdick talk about the virtue of small businesses and how much they mean to this town was kind of like listening to Sam Walton wax rhapsodic on the local True Value hardware franchise. She did take on big money in one fashion, though--she said downtown's seamy side is in part a reflection of "Lake Oswego teenagers who think panhandling is fun." Avaricious bastards, squeezing out the small-homeless community!

**Best "don't blame me" moment: Lister disassociating himself from the tram completely by saying, "I didn't vote for it, I didn't advocate for the company that wanted it, and I'm afraid of heights so I won't ride it."

**Most ignorable response: Burdick, on whether the purchase of PGE would have been a good idea.

**Tiny grab-bag of ideas award: Boyles, who suggested for nearly every problem the acquisition of federal grant money and services as a solution. Certainly something to look into and integrate into current funding plans, but not exactly panacea in an RFP.

**Sten is a pro at this, and it's going to take a much smarter effort than what the others gave in order to knock him off his perch. Each of the other three made rational, valid points for which Sten could receive blame, but each time he was able to shake it off and even turn it into a plus for his style of governance. Until they can wipe that goofy smile off Erik's face, this is his race to lose.