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Jefferson Smith: A Favorite Speaker But Can He Get The Votes For Mayor?

This week, the candidates for Mayor of Portland continue a breakneck tour of debates, community meetings, fundraising events, and door-knocking.

Voters will choose among 23 contenders in May’s primary. But three leading candidates have emerged: former-commissioner Charlie Hales, businesswoman Eileen Brady, and the subject of this profile, State Representative Jefferson Smith. April Baer has our story.

Every year around this time, an edgy program of high-concept speakers convenes. The event’s an offshoot of the TEDTalks movement, called TedxConcordiaUPortland. Last year Jefferson Smith made a big splash.

This year, Smith was back onstage in front of two massive video projection screens.

John Rosman / OPB
Jefferson Smith

“TED inspires through being committed through  ideas, to making sure power would be the servant to ideas, rather than ideas being servants to power….”

Smith presented a series of speakers on the theme of “Being More Extraordinary” - from Rock Camp for Girls to a Native American community organizer, to former Governor Barbara Roberts, to his own father.

Bringing people together for progressive causes has formed the basis of Smith’s professional career. Shortly after graduating from Harvard law school, he came back to Oregon and founded the Oregon Bus Project. It’s a non-profit that organizes campaign events like voter registration and canvassing, mostly in swing districts, mostly in support of Democratic candidates.

“It was called the Bus Project, because we thought it would be a project, and last a little while.”

But Smith says it felt like there was something there that could imprint on Oregon’s political culture. He led it for ten years, and says the group registering nearly 70,000 voters.

Joe Baessler was part of the core group of founders.

“I think what doesn’t come off is how much he prepares. The guy - I don’t know anyone who works harder than him, and I know a lot of people who work really effing hard. He’ll be at a 4th of July barbecue, and he’ll start talking about, ‘I have this idea,’ and he’ll just get ripped into. but that’s how he works.”

While the Bus’s formal mission statement is mostly about engaging new people in democracy, alums have fanned out to leadership roles in the Governor’s office, the legislature, and incumbent Mayor Sam Adams’ staff.

Baessler himself is political director at AFSCME Council 75, one of the most politically active unions in the state.

Smith says he wasn’t taking inspiration from Portland’s hipster culture, which, he points out, didn’t even exist yet when he was attending Portland’s Grant High in the late 80s and starting to think about public service.

“I hadn’t ever really thought about the Bus Project as part of hipster Portland. I certainly hadn’t thought of myself as part of hipster Portland. I mean, have you met me?”

Jefferson Smith looks on as Governor Kitzhaber signs a bill. - Photo by Lucy Palmersheim

At the same time, he says he was keenly aware of the decisions being made in city and state government - decisions that ultimately put Portland on the map as an environmental and planning leader.

Smith’s colleague in the legislature is Katie Eyre, a Republican from Hillsboro.

“Jefferson Smith and I actually sit next to each other on the same sub-Ways & Means committee for general government. That’s exactly how we started to know each other professionally,” Eyre says.

Eyre says they don’t see eye to eye all the time. The Bus Project actually campaigned for Eyre’s opponent during her first election cycle. But she says as she got to know Smith, she became impressed.

 Katie Eyre “He is extremely bright and really gets to the heart of the matter, not digging down on the numbers like I might,b ut all the dynamics of a situation causing those numbers. he brings a very 360 degree view of what’s happening with the numbers. I found it very interesting to sit next to him and see what’s in his head.”

Eyre even made a $500 donation last month to Smith’s campaign fund.

But the more time Jefferson Smith spent in the legislature, he says, the more he noticed problems outside Salem’s control.

“I started thinking more about city stuff generally when the Portland Tribune reported that although  27% of the population was living East of 82nd Avenue, only 1.5% of the stimulus dollars were spent there. I wasn’t convinced there was a candidate I could get excited about who could address that.”

And that, he says, is why he decided to run for mayor. Jefferson Smith isn’t the youngest candidate in the race, but he’s the youngest person to break the $100,000 fundraising mark.

He knows about campaigning from his father, Joe, a former DA for Umatilla County and state Democratic party chair. His step-mother leads the state party now.

But this race that pits him against older, more experienced candidates like Charlie Hales, who spent ten years on council.

Back at TEDx, Portlander Jolie Gillebeau mentioned seeing Smith speak two years in a row.

“He’s the most ‘favorited’ speaker of that TED session.”

Gillebeau says she always enjoys hearing what Smith has to say, but as for her vote in the mayoral race, he hasn’t closed the sale yet.

“I’m really stumped. We’ve got three great candidates. I’m pretty much torn between Charlie Hales and Jefferson. It’s still very much up in the air for me.”

And he’s occasionally dogged by questions about his work style. Last week Smith was scheduled to attend a short ceremony, as the Governor signed a bill Smith sponsored to help victims of human trafficking.

Amid the crowd of legislators, lobbyists and citizens smiling and eager to see their projects completed, Smith was nowhere to be seen.

Forty-five minutes later, Smith took some ribbing from Governor Kitzhaber for his late arrival.

“What? Did you get stuck in traffic?” Kitzhaber asked.

But in the end, the bill was signed.