Portland political consultants Dan Lavey and Kevin Looper — usually on opposing sides — joined forces last year to launch a nonprofit, People for Portland. At its core, the idea behind it was simple: to push the city to take concrete steps to solve its most pressing problems, including homelessness and public safety. The organization quickly got the attention of the public and political leaders, and just as quickly it drew controversy. Six months later, the answer to the question of how much progress has been made depends on the person you ask. OPB’s Rebecca Ellis joins us to share what she has found about what impact the organization has had since it launched last year.
Note: This transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer:
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB, I’m Dave Miller. For most of their careers, the Portland political consultants Dan Lavey and Kevin Looper worked on opposing sides. But they joined forces last year to launch a nonprofit called People for Portland. Their idea was to push elected officials to do more to solve what they say the public considers the city’s most pressing problems, like homelessness, public safety and trash. People for Portland raised and spent a lot of money to get the attention of political leaders. The group also drew an immediate backlash. But six months later, what have they accomplished? It depends on who you ask. OPB’s Rebecca Ellis has been digging into this, and she joins us to share what she’s found. Rebecca, welcome back.
Rebecca Ellis: Hey Dave.
Miller: So I want to start with the voice of one of the founders of People for Portland. We talked to Dan Lavey and Kevin Looper back in August when they launched. Here’s Kevin Looper talking about how the group started.
Kevin Looper [recording]: Dan and I actually usually don’t work together. We’ve been on opposite sides of I think the last three gubernatorial campaigns. But we are people who get phone calls when folks don’t know what to do. And elected people tend to be folks who want to be something, at least more so than perhaps having an agenda to do something. So this was the moment when we both got a bunch of phone calls. We reached to each other out of frustration that, as we talked to experts, and we talked to elected officials, and then we decided to do some polling, we discovered that the public actually seems to know a lot more of what needs to be done, and has a greater sense of urgency, than those who we have elected to lead.
Miller: So what did Looper and Lavey say about what that more informed public said should be done?
Ellis: They have really three buckets: it’s trash, it’s public safety, and it’s homelessness. And as for the trash push, it’s pretty simple. They say people want it picked up. Police is a little more controversial. They say people want more police officers, and they want them equipped with body cameras. Both of those are already underway in the city at this point. And then their push on homelessness is probably the most controversial. They say the public wants more shelters, and they want to require people on the streets to use those shelters. So effectively, a ban on outdoor camping. And they say there is wide support for that in the city at this point.
Miller: Lavey and Looper said they were tapping into a very frustrated majority of Portlanders. That’s been one of the key things they’ve talked about, that there’s broad support for everything they’re talking about. But People for Portland also generated an immediate backlash. Can you give us a sense for what detractors said?
Ellis: Yeah. I think the main concern I heard is that these consultants are whipping up a lot of fury and a lot of anger, essentially pouring gasoline on these voters that are already pretty frustrated. And where is that anger going? From the homeless advocates’ perspective, many of them had worked with Looper on the Metro ballot measure in 2020 for homeless services. So there was suspicion about where is this going, and why didn’t you come to us with your concerns about urgency? So there was a lot of speculation that this was going toward a ballot measure to redirect that Metro money towards shelters.
And there was also concern from a lot of different groups that this push they were making, more shelters, a requirement that people move into it, was both inhumane to people living on the streets, and really not going to make a dent in the homeless crisis. It would maybe solve the problem for housed Portlanders of people sleeping in public, but really not address any of the root causes.
Miller: I want to turn to money, because that was one of the flashpoints. People for Portland incorporated as a 501(c)(4), the federal tax designation meaning that they did not have to reveal their donors. And that’s not an unusual group. It’s the same designation as groups like Basic Rights Oregon, or Planned Parenthood. How hard was it for you to find people who are willing to go on the record as donors?
Ellis: For the most part, it was pretty difficult. That was something I set out to do because there has been a lot of speculation at the onset about who was backing this campaign. And I was pretty curious to what extent that was just because these donors had never been contacted. So I ended up reaching out to nine people who I’d heard from different people were early supporters. Three said they weren’t, three didn’t respond. The head of a private equity firm agreed to speak and then went silent. So it was really a mixed bag. It was not super easy, I will say,
Miller: But some donors did choose to identify themselves, including Tim Boyle, the head of Columbia Sportswear. What did you hear from him?
Ellis: Boyle said early on he was supportive of this campaign, but that’s really changed six months later. He said he backed the campaign because he thought it would do two things: A) Help people living on the streets who were in a clear crisis, and B) Pick up the trash. And he says, basically, look around, neither of these things have happened. It’s just making people angry. Here’s what he said:
Tim Boyle: Being angry doesn’t help. What I want to see happen is that the issue around the treatment of homeless individuals in the city is improved, and that the trash is picked up. So that’s my focus. I’ve seen, so far, neither of those things have happened.
Ellis: So he said he no longer sees any light in this effort, and he is done with People for Portland.
Miller: Did any of the funders you talked to say that People for Portland is succeeding?
Ellis: Yes. I spoke with Greg Goodman, who is the head of Downtown Development Group, and he’s one of the largest private property owners downtown, and he said it’s been a success. He sees it giving officials, especially in the city, political cover for things they might not think the public supports, particularly this push for large shelters and a requirement that people move into them. He feels there’s been some movement on that lately in the city, and sees People for Portland’s fingerprints all over it. Here’s what he said.
Greg Goodman: I think it’s been tremendously successful. It’s taken on a life of its own, and I hope it keeps going. Again, the purpose is to create a grassroots army.
Miller: A grassroots army, that reminds me of something that we heard back in August when we had Kevin Looper and Dan Lavey on to talk about their launch of this group, and they talked about their tactics. Let’s listen to part of what Dan Lavey said.
Dan Lavey: Well, if you look at the polling that we’ve put on our website, peopleforportland.org, it’s all accessible and available for people to look at. There is a gale force wind blowing against the current local elected officials, in terms of their job performance on these key areas: public safety, homelessness, cleaning up the garbage, etc. And the best way, based on Kevin’s and my experience, to get elected officials to respond and take action, is to help activate their constituents, their voters. So the purpose of our organization is simply to amplify the voices of everyday Portlanders, and to make it easier to connect themselves to elected officials through a few clicks of a button to send an email, or to download a video to tell your story. And that’s the goal of our group.
Miller: Has that come to pass? Have Portlanders been sending messages to elected officials using the systems or the infrastructure set up by People for Portland?
Ellis: Yes, they have. I do think there’s kind of an open question about how much influence they have on elected officials. Once you’re bombarded with 1000 of the exact same version of an email, I think some officials have started to brush them off, but they are definitely getting sent. I put in a record request for the email from the city council offices, and it looks like some officials have received over 8,000 emails from campaign supporters since the campaign kicked off in August. Six months later, that platform definitely continues to be used.
Miller: What kinds of things are people saying in these messages?
Ellis: There are different topics, public safety and homelessness I think are the most common. And again, they’re all form emails, so people rarely write their own messages. They did in a few instances.
I think one of the most recent ones on homelessness makes a call for leaders to build more shelter and housing and “phase out camping in public areas.” It called outdoor camping inhumane and dangerous. That one was sent to officials over 1,000 times. So again, I think it’s not necessarily about the individual content, but when you’re looking at 1,000 people calling for a phase out of camping in public areas, that may make an impact on city officials.
Miller: So let’s turn to one of the most high profile recent issues regarding a proposed policy, which is connected to what you’re talking about here. In late January, former mayor and now current mayoral aide Sam Adams, he released an idea for a series of massive homeless shelters, three 1,000 person sites, to be staffed by National Guards troops and PSU social work students. It got a ton of pushback from a lot of quarters. What did People for Portland’s say about it?
Ellis: People from Portland put out a statement, I think it was the next day, saying don’t blame us for the mayor’s bad ideas, this is not what we want, we want practical solutions that are within reach. And this 1,000 person militarized shelter is not it.
But interestingly, that was in contrast to what supporters like Greg Goodman said. Goodman said, yes, 1,000 people is probably too big, but this sort of big thinking, in contrast to the status quo, that’s what we want to see more of.
Also, I should point out that Sam Adams, in that memo we all saw, he used polling from People for Portland that showed Portlanders were overwhelmingly fed up with elected leaders’ approach to homelessness. So it did play a role.
Miller: Well, how do you explain that effect? Sam Adams helped to buttress his case for his ideas with poll findings from People for Portland. But then the group itself says “don’t blame us for the Mayor’s incompetence or bad ideas.”
Ellis: I mean, maybe that wasn’t how they wanted it used, but their polling is out there. It’s specific polling that asks questions intended to show Portlanders are fed up with the current approach to the homeless crisis, and are all right with a requirement that people move into the shelters, and are not allowed to camp outside. They don’t necessarily have control over how officials run with that pulling. So yes, they may not like how it’s used, but it’s out there, it’s online.
Miller: If People for Portland says that an enormous shelter that people have to go to is a bad idea, what are they actually pushing for right now?
Ellis: They say they just want a practical solution. So yes, they want larger shelters, larger than ones being built by the city, but not 1,000 people. They’ve been talking recently about using the former Federal Post Office and the Expo Center as shelters. So those are two things they say they want action on.
Miller: What did people you talked to say about what they’ve seen that the organization has accomplished already?
Ellis: I think the most interesting conversation I had about this was with John Horvick, who is a pollster with DHM Research, and he was just really confused about the effort. He basically said, for all the attention they’re getting and all the mind space it’s taking up for elected officials and constituents, and all the money they’re spending, they’re really not accomplishing all that much. Here’s what he said:
John Horvick: It seems like their policy requests are really insignificant, and they’re not taking actions to really change what matters, which is who our representatives are for making these decisions. They’re not running ballot measures. I don’t know, I just find it odd. I find it confusing.
Ellis: I heard that from a few people. Yes, they are harnessing people’s frustration and they are doing a good job of that, but look around, the city really hasn’t changed all that much in the last six months and therefore, you really can’t say that they have had success with what they intended to do.
Miller: One of the theories I’ve heard is that, whether this is intentional or not, the deep strategy or not, that what People for Portland has effectively done is shift the conversation in terms of what’s potentially on the table. So if a 1,000 person mass shelter that people have to go to is not in the cards, maybe a new 200 or 300 person shelter is more likely. What do you think about that theory?
Ellis: I think that’s interesting and I think it’s possible. We have seen that a little bit from the mayor’s office. They threw out that plan for 1,000 persons shelters and, and now the mayor’s talking about smaller shelters, but still bigger than what Commissioner Dan Ryan is proposing with his safe rest villages, which would be max 60 people. So it does feel like the Overton window is sort of shifting, in some circles.
Miller: The window of possible debate about some certain topic is shifting that Overton window.
I want to turn to the broader picture right now, because we’ve been focusing on Portland, but what’s happening in terms of an increase in visible homelessness is clearly not just a Portland story, it’s all over the west coast, and other cities as well. And the change in tone among elected leaders is not just happening in Portland as well. Can you give us a sense for what’s been happening recently in places like Seattle and San Francisco?
Ellis: Yeah, a lot of places are cracking down. Like Portland, there’s been a rise in camps over the pandemic, and officials are largely reacting to angry housed constituents. I learned about one Seattle suburb that made it a crime recently to sleep on public land, if there was available shelter. Another suburb just banned public camping outright. In San Francisco, the mayor recently, I think in December, declared a state of emergency in the city’s Tenderloin, which is an area where outdoor camping is really common and there’s been a rise in overdose deaths. So what we’re seeing in Portland, it’s happening also north and south of the city.
Miller: And then there’s Austin, which you argue is a city that some Portland officials are paying attention to right now. Why?
Ellis: There’s a campaign there that has a lot in common with People for Portland. I’d never heard of it until I started reporting. It’s called Save Austin Now, and it’s overseen by a county GOP chair and a Democrat activist. So it has that same kind of bipartisan label as People for Portland, but it formed a little earlier, 2020, and they circumvented the city council they viewed as out of touch, and they got a measure on the ballot to reinstate a ban on outdoor camping. It would also fine people who didn’t go to shelter. This was opposed by homeless advocates, the mayor, ice cream brand Ben and Jerry’s got involved. But still, this really progressive city passed it easily. And so there are officials I spoke with at city hall who say, look, if we continue on this path, we are going to get that sort of ballot measure from constituents, which is much cruder and harsher than anything we as a city would have come up with.
Miller: Well, that brings us back to People for Portland, because early on, as you’ve noted, there was a lot of speculation that the folks behind People for Portland were perhaps going to use the money that they raised for a ballot measure, or perhaps to support independent gubernatorial candidate Betsy Johnson. What have you heard about that speculation more recently?
Ellis: Well, the ballot measure, at least for May, is not going to happen. I think the deadline just passed. As for candidate Betsy Johnson, to an extent that did come to fruition. Lavey and Looper work for her, and they work for People for Portland, and that has been the case since October. But they say that work is separate, even though the campaigns are similar in that they’re both very critical of the state of Portland right now. But they say two different lanes.
Miller: So what’s next for People for Portland?
Ellis: They say they’re focusing on trash. Lavey said they are currently considering a lawsuit against both the city and the state for failing to remove garbage on roadway quarters in the city. So that includes Interstate 405, Lombard Street, Powell Boulevard. And they say they are currently sifting their way through 300 potential plaintiffs, and to look out for that.
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