Friday, May 12, 2006

Erik Sten Interview: Part Three

[you can check out parts one and two, respectively...]

We still had plenty to talk about--how the tram deal went down and who caved first, how Council should deal with the City schools, and even what he thinks of Vera Katz today. We left off with Erik Sten defending the introduction of public campaign finance, talking about the ways it had changed his tasks and schedule. Obviously the program is working well for him, so I asked for his best defense of why the system should be continued without a vote, hypothetically scheduled for 2010:
It's really changed the whole face of Portland elections already. I'm not saying there aren't genuine people out there saying let's send this thing to a vote, but I've yet to see a letter to the editor or a blog posting who I can't directly trace to the people who are trying to get rid of the system. [What about B!x?--ed] I'm saying in terms of the public. Yeah, that's an exception to what I just said. I'm thinking more of the postings of [other] citizens, and the average Portlander is open to trying things. It's a very standard legislative model to take a new idea and try it out and then sunset it and then have a vote on the actual system.
Frankly I thought Sten kind of stepped in it here, but his ability to not feel too possessive about his ideas leads him to embrace a quicker vote or a different way of deciding.
I don't necessarily see any magic to the 2010 cycle. Given what's happened, maybe we have the vote sooner. I'm open to that question. The Election Commission is now an official body of the City that is made up of very intelligent people who want to obviously want to see campaign finance reform change but don't have political affiliations particularly.

What I think we should do is send the question to them about when should the referral date be, and what changes should be in there, have a little third party debate about it. Maybe we send it out sooner, maybe we wait until 2010. I would not be so sure that either Portlanders dislike having the experiment at this point, or that people are that unclear about the difference between somebody trying to scam it and the real thing.

This is an odd thing--in the citizens' debates it's not coming up much. Not because I think people aren't interested, but it's not the first issue people are worried about. All the opponents of VOE always concede in every one of their diatribes that we need campaign finance reform. And once you concede that, it's like, you need reform but...dadadadadada. I think their argument starts to fall apart, and I think almost all Portlanders agree we need reform.

I asked the next question, and got a surprising answer:
*Dan must have felt the City bore some responsibility for the overages of the tram, even if only for the increase in steel prices. But you voted no--would you have done so if you'd known you'd be the third? What if OHSU hadn't blinked and dragged Portland to court while costs mounted?
They would have blinked. It's a great question, but they would have blinked. Here's a whole story which of course hasn't been fully reported: the week that Dan changed his mind, either myself personally or my staff were pretty much in a negotiation nonstop for four straight days.

The insider belief was that Dan was rock solid, and I was the only one who might move. I basically had put three or four concepts on the table and said I'll move if we do any one of these. I was looking for another 5 million from Homer and OHSU, I didn't care which one, and I was looking to not give as much of a giveback on the housing deal to get there. They were listening to me, because I was their only way out, and we would have gotten to a deal, there's no doubt. You know when you're in something, that "this is headed to an agreement, you're here and I'm there" or "this is irreconcilable." We were going to get to an agreement.

I was doing what some of the blogworld would say [it's] what government should do, which is negotiate a hard bargain. I had sent Margaret Bax who's my person, to talk to Dike Dame, who's Homer's person, and said No, we're not going to do it. This was a Thursday, and I expected by Monday they would move. Maybe not all the way, but I'm sure they would have. I got a call an hour later saying Dan took the deal you said no to.

It's not a hypothetical question like you framed it, I just told them no to their deal, they got their votes, I'm not going to suddenly say I was just bluffing. But I think we would have gotten a better deal, I think Dan gave in too soon. You hear a little bit of moral tone to Randy's criticism of Dan; you don't hear that in mine. I just think we could have gotten a better deal. It was a business deal.
*How should City Council be involved in PPS issues?
Obviously we should be advocating for school funding, which we're doing, that's easy--we should be supporting fixes. From a common sense standpoint, from a public safety standpoint, from an economic development standpoint, there's a level at which if the school funding slips below, our basic mission's gonna hurt more than it costs us to put in cash, and that's the $10 million number we're talking about.

I'm not convinced we should play school board and put a ton of strings on it, because [that's why] you've got a school board. What I've been supporting this budget cycle is OK, here's 10 million to get you to the baseline to where you need to be, and now we're trying to find more money, 3 to 5 million from PDC specifically. And on that I'm willing to say to the school district, OK you don't have to take this money to get your baseline things. I'm willing to support giving you a little more if you slow the closures down a little bit, because I think they're moving too fast.

I've supported over $100 million to schools in the time I've been on the Council and mostly I tend to think we should do it as funders rather than policymakers, but I think there are times when you insert yourself a little bit. Trying to take over the maintenance department--obviously that has to be done on mutually beneficial terms. I think the leadership of the school district is really pretty good right now with Vicki Phillips. I think she's probably moving faster than Portland is capable of moving.

My fear on the process is just if you move too fast I see a subset of parents--they're the ones who email me. I know they're not representative of everybody but they're important. The ones who you're going to lose by moving too fast are the same ones that are going to become mega activists to fix things--if you buy them in. I'm talking nuance but I think it's very important nuance. She's basically said we're not really closing anything extra, one school. I think they kinda jumped from we gotta be decisive to well, we can't just have a kumbaya process, we've got to make a decision. OK, make decisions, but make them revocable if you weren't exactly right.

On the the K-8s theory, Rieke gets closed up by Wilson and I can't see that one closing. That elementary school is so central to that neighborhood, and the other ones are kinda long car rides away. I'm not buying that one, but I'm buying the model, and I think intellectually you can do that.

*Where's your favorite place in Portland?
That's a good question. Probably Forest Park. Close second these days is the Children's Place Bookstore on Fremont. That's my son's favorite place.

*You and Vera shared a good long time on Council. Not to say anything about Potter, but do you miss her?
I do. They're totally different styles. I's so funny, they have REALLY different styles. I wouldn't argue hugely different political values, but very different values in how they do things, process wise very different. I do miss, even though it drove me crazy and I think in the long run I prefer Tom's style and approach on this, I do miss Vera's willingness to push something through and make sure it got done. You could never imagine the March 16th Council hearing with three of us grandstanding against the tram...the hearing wouldn't have happened with Vera. She would have kept working until she had something people could agree to before she aired it out on TV. In some ways I miss that, on the other hand I think Tom's right to do it that way.

When I first ran in '96, I was asked by Willamette Week what grade do you give the mayor. She was first elected in '93...three years of pure antagonism with her working as Gretchen [Kafoury's] chief of staff. Pure antagonism. So they asked me what do you think of the mayor, what grade would you give her, and I said C-. So you go back to the '96 election endorsement cover, they have a sort of collage where it says, "How do you rate the mayor, Sten: C-." Cover of it. I walk into the mayor's office first day on the job to discuss bureaus. She looks and me and she says, "C-. You gave me a C-." The only thing you can do... I defended it. I said I gave you an F on some things and an A on others.

She kind of laughed and moved on, but we really did not get along the first couple years. Really did not get along, and I think that's well documented. But I think over time we really grew to respect each other. And that eventually led to a friendship, and I have actually grown quite fond of her and admire her a lot. I can disagree with her on a lot of things, her priorities are very different at times. She's a....y'know, really...kind of...interesting, smart person who put the city's interest way ahead...and fought hard for a lot of stuff that mattered. She's a good person.
"Pure antagonism. Pure antagonism. Really did not get along. Really did not get along." Think he remembers those years fondly? I wondered if she would become a notable part of Portland history, remembered 20 and 30 years on like Bud Clark. Again, a somewhat surprising answer:
Probably not, because the population's going to be so different. One of the things that's been most amazing to me, is that I'm finding a lot of people are undecided in this race. Reading the blogs for example, I seem to be a very controversial figure. People tend to like me or not like me. When I started to have a sense a lot of people were undecided in the race, I assumed that was because they weren't really sure they liked me...politically. What I'm finding out there on the stump and campaigning is actually most people... there's a huge number of people relatively new to town, people aren't tracking the issues, they generally like our city but like all of us see big problems, and city government isn't the first thing on their minds. It's a much more neutral undecided than you would think with those of us who sort of debate the stuff a lot.
For a moment I marveled at Sten's ability to turn a question about another politician's legacy into a reply about his own candidacy, but then he finished answering the question:
I'm not sure where Vera will stand in 10-20 years. For me I think she probably will be a mayor that helped us turned the corner into what I consider a major city. Which is a lot of what bugs some of the folks on the blogs, and that's their perogative. Bogdanski's whole thing is that he's lived in Irvington since 1978, well I've lived here longer than he has...and I like the city. [laughs] I think she turned the corner into a more international kind of....happening if you will city, while keeping Portland's values intact, and I think that's a hell of a legacy.
We'll get a major clue into the potential legacy of Erik Sten on City politics Tuesday, when votes are counted and we gird for potential runoffs.