Jefferson Smith

An interview with Portland mayoral candidate Jefferson Smith

Just Out: Do you remember how you first learned that some people fall in love with people of their same gender?

Jefferson Smith: Yeah, I do. It became personal for me with two different relationships. One was my older brother, who came out when I was in high school. And the other was one of my childhood best friends, who came out about the same time. I saw through their eyes, to some degree, what they were going through. And this was in the late 80’s, not the 90’s or 00’s. Fortunately, they have loving families.

JO: There are estimates that as many as 40% of homeless youth are LGBT. What role does the City of Portland play in working with this population?

JS: A pretty important one. I think that there will be ongoing discussions with the city and county to make sure that we’re manifesting our values, and doing the best that we can, in a nationally near-tragic context.

There is an additional layer of tragedy and opportunity with the significant reported overlap between homeless youth and youth that are LGBT. There is a chance to bring a meaningful portion of the city together around what being a compassionate city means. How do we manifest our values around that?

Having this conversation at Outside In, and understanding how these stories are usually linked to a family reaction to coming out … and maybe even a community reaction … this amplifies the reality that our city has a duty to serve our people, but also to stand for something, to be a place that is a little more loving, a little more tolerant, that is a little more on the front edge of an arc of history that is bending towards justice. And, so it means we have to find the best services there are.

JO: Do you see any specific opportunities to help homeless LGBT youth?

JS: I am pretty inspired by efforts around youth employment and around summer enrichment programs, which can engage people from all walks to give better opportunities and better tools; doing that can help bridge the gap of some existing services.

With homelessness in general I think there is a need to look at the best wrap-around services, helping people — yes, with housing — yes, with employment — and yes, with drug and alcohol treatment. If we do only one of those things, very often we’re doing none of them. But, if we give more comprehensive service we do a better job not only of helping a whole person, but helping a person at all. Both the county and the city are moving in that direction.

JO: Boston mayor Tom Menino states he will do all he can to oppose discriminatory businesses, such as Chick-fil-A, from operating in his city. What do you think of his actions, and what would your opinions be on Chick-fil-A operating in Portland?

JS: I am no longer eating at Chick-fil-A. I haven’t eaten at Chick-fil-A in a long time. In fact, the last time I ate there was in Cambridge, Massachusetts. And, I will support just about any mayor working so that the operations in their city reflect the values of their city.

My strong impression is that if there’s any city that would spit out a tainted nugget, it is Portland. The best asset the City of Portland has in this is our socially conscious consumer base and activist base, alongside people with microphones who could be helpful in informing the public, so our socially conscious consumer and activist bases could play a role.

JO: You trust Portlanders to take advantage of the teachable moment, so to speak?

JS: Yes.

JO: Mayor Adams has gone to great effort to support transgender inclusion in Portland. Do you see work remaining to be done in how Portland works with transgender people?

JS: I think the city at large still has a way to go, as it relates to medical benefits. The Bus Project (a progressive activist organization founded by Jefferson Smith) last year gave its Policy Pioneer Award to that work. I would ask the transgender community to think of what the best next steps to be taken would be, and to advise the city.

JO: Portland Public Schools is likely to ask Portland homeowners for more tax dollars in the months ahead. Many, many LGBT people have children in public schools. But, far more do not. Historically, LGBT people have not only been discouraged from having and raising children, but have even been told by some to avoid children entirely. Given this particular aspect of anti-gay bigotry, what would you say to an LGBT person when asking them for hundreds more dollars each year to support other people’s children?

JS: I would say “please” and “thank you.” I would also say that it is in all of our interests to have an educated community. If we want a community that is as tolerant and compassionate as our city is at its best, we want to invest in high-quality public education. If we want a socially conscious consumer base and activist base that will spit out tainted nuggets, we want strong public education.

Ultimately, our duty is not only to our children, but to our community. And there may be no more important element of that commitment than support for strong public education.

JO: What training do the Portland Police receive on LGBT culture and concerns? Do you see any needs in this area?

JS: It starts with having a strong commitment, from top to bottom, in a problem-solving, community-oriented police bureau. And that’s from Police Chief appointments, to the criteria by which we elevate staff sergeants, to engaging police officers within the community, to community activities in neighborhoods, schools, coaching teams, all along with training.

We would also use the new training facility as an opportunity to update training practices. Police training is vital. And, that’s not just with the LGBT communities but, for example, in the school district in which I live they speak 73 languages. So, clearly the training of a modern police force needs to reflect the reality of modern policing, which means being able to build relationships with a more and more diverse community.

JO: Many Portland minorities have neighborhoods historically associated with them. But, arguably Black and LGBT neighborhoods in Portland, such Northeast Albina and Southwest Stark, have been largely eliminated by gentrification over the past decade. Do you see the city as having a role in addressing the impact of gentrification on minority cultures?

JS: Yes. I believe the city plays an important role. And, this city should work to make a commitment to seeing the whole picture of the city, and to recognizing economic diversity.

The city should be investing in improving neighborhoods. It’s a good thing. And, it’s a bad thing if we under-prioritize addressing displacement, which will always be hard.

I’ll give you an example where we could have done better over the last 20 years in seeing the whole picture. Take three seemingly isolated decisions. Decision one: After annexing East Portland, pushing in a bunch of infill housing there in the 1990’s. Decision two: Investing in improving inner North and Northeast Portland. Decision three: Failing to invest in basics like sidewalks, roads, and parks in East Portland.

Each of those decisions in isolation has an argument. As for decision one, housing needs to go somewhere, how about East Portland, it’s cheaper there. As for number two, in inner North and Northeast Portland there are community advocates who want to get a reasonable share of Portland Development Commission investments, and want to get foot traffic. As for number three, well, investing in infrastructure is expensive. Where are you going to find the money?

Take all these decisions together, and you have 12,000 members of our minority communities moving from inner North and Northeast Portland to East Portland over the past 15 years, and commuting to North Portland to go to church, which impacts everybody. So, you can see we need to see the whole picture of Portland a little better.

Another thing is looking for Community Benefit Agreements. Making sure we have and preserve and set-aside for affordable housing in communities which are receiving public investment. Make sure there are places for people in a neighborhood to have a job in the neighborhood, and have a chance to live in the neighborhood. And, working with community partners in neighborhoods so that we’re looking to support culturally relevant institutions and businesses that will strengthen instead of bleach out and homogenize diverse areas of our city. There is strength in having pockets of diversity in our city.

JO: Portland has affirmative action policies to encourage hiring women and ethnic minorities as employees and contractors for the city. While sexual and gender minorities are included in Portland’s equal employment opportunity policies, they are not included in the affirmative action policies. Should they be?

JS: My view would be informed by the facts. If the facts suggest employment discrimination and a track record of inequality of opportunity within LGBT communities, then it seems that with respect to groups that have received such discrimination, we’ve passed rules to address that discrimination. I am always open to facts that say we have to apply those principles in other areas.

JO: As mayor, would you commission any study or do any proactive investigation to determine whether sexual and gender minorities do undergo employment discrimination?

JS: I think there’s a conversation that needs to be had on what the ambit of the Office of Equity will be in the administration of the next mayor, and what should be the rank order of priority in the tasks they take on. What I would look for is hearing from the community indications of whether we should spend public money on that investigation. If it looks like there are indications that we should, then we should.

JO: Have you ever known anyone who died of AIDS?

JS: Yes, I have.

JO: Do you know people who are living with HIV now?

JS: Yes, I do.

JO: Do you see a role for the city in addressing these health concerns, or is that outside the role of city government?

JS: We have been involved in needle exchange and condom distribution. Public education also, I think. Every branch of government should bear some responsibility to address prevention. We should look at the tools that we have to see how we can strengthen prevention.

JO: Have you ever worn drag?

JS: Yes.

JO: Are there pictures?

JS: None that are public (grin). Well, maybe. I don’t know … the first time was when I was pretty young. I had fun.

JO: Why should LGBT Portlanders vote for Jefferson Smith?

JS: At the deeper and broader level, I think I will have the deepest commitment to getting the city working better for more people. The team I think we can put together will work pretty hard to see the big picture; will work hard in engaging the community in solving problems in our community and, will look ahead to the future of this century, and better address modern challenges and chances.

In a more specific sense, I have spent the last ten years of my life strengthening progressive interaction and democracy. Communities can trust not just what I say but what I have done. And not just in context of this race or being a politician, but as an advocate and as a human being.

I was marching in Portland’s Pride Parade well before I ever needed a vote. LGBT equity alongside economic equity are the civil right battles of our generation. While a mayor is not in a perfect position to resolve those battles, a mayor can have an important spokesperson’s role and an important podium and open microphone from which to communicate community values. I recognize that, and I will use that opportunity as best that I can, to advocate and convene for basic justice, basic fairness, for as long as I participate in the public process.


Leo Schuman

About Leo Schuman

Leo Schuman is Just Out's political writer. He's also a recovering lawyer, software developer, and self-admitted politcal junkie. While not an Oregon native - he left Montana to come out in a "big city" (cough) - nearly 30 years in Portland have grown him a fine mossy layer. He and his husb ... er, "domestic partner", Michael, live in St Johns.

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