Monday night's arts debate for a Portland City Council position held a lot of firsts. Not every event finds candidates reciting Maya Angelou and leading a dance-off. It also saw a new level of animosity reached in Portland’s most contested race of the political season.
Held at the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization, the event brought together candidates for Portland City Council position 3 — community activist and former NAACP chair Jo Ann Hardesty and former Multnomah County Commissioner Loretta Smith.
About halfway through the event, what initially seemed a softball question led to the latest flashpoint in the campaign.
At a pause amid questions about arts policy and creative space, moderator Namita Gupta Wiggers asked both candidates to share some creative work or performance — organizers asked in advance that the candidates have something prepared.
Smith read Maya Angelou’s ode to resilience, "Still I Rise," which Smith pointed out should be heard in the context of Angelou’s status as a survivor of sexual abuse.
"You may write me down in history / With your bitter, twisted lies, / You may trod me in the very dirt / But still, like dust, I’ll rise."
Hardesty took a more populist approach, calling up two supporters — who she addressed as "my crew" — she turned on a prepared music track and led a 60-second version of the Electric Slide that brought most of the audience to their feet.
But one member of Hardesty's crew got Smith’s attention. It was Baruti Artharee.
If Hardesty wanted to get her opponent riled, there were few other dance partners she could have chosen. Five years ago, when Smith was serving on the Multnomah County Commission, Artharee was working as a policy aide for then-Mayor Charlie Hales. At a public event, Artharee introduced Smith and made an inappropriate comment about her appearance. Some people in the room described him as having swiveled his hips suggestively as he said it.
Hales suspended Artharee for a week. Several months later, Artharee resigned.
Smith said she was frozen in her seat when at Monday's forum Hardesty called Artharee up to help her get the crowd moving.
“They were laughing and joking,” Smith said in a phone interview. “I had nowhere to go. I was forced to watch him move his hips, like he did when he originally was so very inappropriate toward me five years ago.”
Smith said Hardesty may consider it political theater, but she considered it egregious to make Artharee a presence at campaign events.
“I’ve seen him several times during this campaign. I put on blinders. I was focused on what I was there to do," she said, “Last night was a bit different.”
The incident was a flashpoint in an otherwise non-eventful debate. Smith and Hardesty both told compelling stories about their own love for the arts. Hardesty talked about her years married to a professional musician and the appearance of jazz legends like Janice Scroggins and Mel Brown in her living room. Smith shared the story of arriving at Oregon State University as one of the school’s few black students and playing the role of Ruth in a campus production of Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” calling it a catalytic experience.
But the candidates failed to dazzle most of the artists, administrators and advocates present, declining to engage on the city’s relationship with the Regional Arts and Culture Council (targeted in a recent auditor’s report) or the city’s arts tax.
But the appearance of Artharee opened a new front in the battle. Hardesty has racked up endorsements from several emerging leaders such as Commissioner Chloe Eudaly and state Representative Diego Hernandez. Smith, meanwhile, has endorsements from eminent names such as her former boss, Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, and Clackamas County Commission Chair Jim Bernard.
While the rivals stuck to their stump speeches at the event, it appears they’re spending the final weeks before Nov. 6th in a sharp duel over character issues.
Smith declined to suggest outright whether Hardesty should exile Artharee from her campaign.
“She has to come up with it,” she said.
By Tuesday afternoon, Hardesty issued an apology to Smith.
“Many in our community are collectively reliving traumas experienced by sexual assault. In yesterday’s forum, Commissioner Smith experienced trauma in a triggering moment during the event. I acknowledge that harm, and my part in creating the situation that provoked it," Hardesty in a statement.
"I called Commissioner Smith this morning. I have not had the chance to talk with her directly, but asked for a one-on-one conversation. I apologize for creating a painful and uncomfortable situation for her, which regardless of my intention to build community in the moment, was the impact."