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March 21st, 2012 NIGEL JAQUISS | Cover Story
 

Bus Boy

Jefferson Smith built a political machine. Now he’s trying to drive it to City Hall.

SEEKING PORTLAND’S LIBERAL BASE: Smith has positioned himself to the left of Charlie Hales and Eileen Brady.

Despite enormous promise, Smith’s law career fizzled.

After his clerkship, he joined Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, Manhattan’s top-paying law firm, in 2000. 

He left a few months later, shortly after passing the New York state bar. Smith says he left because he did not want to represent tobacco companies. Smith says he failed to appreciate how big Wachtell’s role was in defending big tobacco in national litigation.

“I should have come to grips earlier with how I felt about that,” he says.

Smith returned to Portland and joined the city’s largest law firm, Stoel Rives. Stoel lawyers declined to talk about Smith on the record, but his brief tenure there is legendary. 

Smith usually arrived late, slipping in the back door, and never checked his voice mail, which was usually full. Says one former colleague: “He was a very difficult guy to find.”

Instead of tending Stoel assignments, Smith was working on what became the Bus Project.

The idea for the Bus percolated in 2001 among Smith and other friends interested in getting more young people active in politics. John Wykoff says they wanted to capture the spirit of Demo Forum, which operated in the 1970s, and XPAC, which operated in the 1990s.

Meanwhile, Stoel Rives wondered what it was paying Jefferson Smith for. As a law clerk, he had famously pulled all-nighters to write memos. But while at Stoel, he says, the only all-nighters he pulled were for the Bus.

As the Bus got rolling, Stoel Rives and Smith had what he calls a “mutual” parting. “If I begged to stay,” Smith says, “I don’t know that the answer would have been ‘yes.’”

Smith threw his energy into building a organization that over the next decade would claim to register nearly 70,000 voters, hit 300,000 doors and graduate nearly 160 PolitiCorps fellows from a 10-week political boot camp.

GET ON THE BUS: “I am deeply proud of the work the Bus did and continues to do,” Smith says.
The Bus has expanded to three other states, becoming a training ground for political staffers and at least three Democratic lawmakers, including Smith.

(Disclosure: WW co-sponsors with the Bus the election-year revue “Candidates Gone Wild.”)

Smith served as director until 2011. For the first three years, he lived with his dad. He had a modest trust left by his mother and didn’t take a salary until 2005, when he took $2,000. After that, his yearly salary never exceeded $40,000.

Joe Smith recalls sorting through a stack of Smith’s unopened mail and finding an uncashed Stoel Rives paycheck for $4,000 that was two years old.

Smith was disorganized in other ways. He racked up at least seven traffic violations, and in 2004 got his license suspended for failing to appear in court. The Oregon State Bar suspended his law license three times for failing to pay dues. 

“I’ve got weaknesses like anybody else,” Smith says. “If I’m attending to a particular objective and trying to accomplish it, I’ll neglect details in my personal life.”

But his disorganization spilled into work as well.

 

Of the three major mayoral candidates, only Smith has created something that is distinctly his. Hales ran city bureaus and worked in private business. Brady has management and marketing experience but has not run anything.

But the Bus is Smith’s—in its ability to rally young voters, and in its sloppy record-keeping and lack of transparency.

The Oregon Secretary of State Corporation Division canceled the Bus’ business registration three times—in 2002, 2004 and 2006—because it didn’t file paperwork on time. 

Between 2005 and 2011, the Oregon Secretary of State Elections Division fined the Bus at least 10 times, for failing either to disclose its campaign finance activities on time or accurately. In May 2010, the Bus was penalized $632 for filing 107 transactions four to six months late.

The Bus Project calls itself a nonpartisan organization devoted to furthering democracy through engagement in the electoral process. 

In effect, though, the Bus is part of the Democratic Party machine. Documents show it sent volunteers to canvass neighborhoods almost always on behalf of Democratic candidates and causes. (Smith’s stepmother, Meredith Wood Smith, is chair of the Democratic Party of Oregon, as Jefferson Smith’s father once was.)

“I think it’s a wholly owned subsidiary of the Democratic Party of Oregon,” says Rob Kremer, treasurer of the Oregon Republican Party. 

Kremer’s concerns about the Bus are similar to those expressed by U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) in a March 12, 2012, letter to the Internal Revenue Service about Tea Party organizations.

Merkley and other Democratic senators want the IRS to crack down on “groups devoted chiefly to political election activities who operate behind a facade of charity work.”

The Bus is actually three organizations under one umbrella: a charity, a nonprofit corporation and a political action committee. Money flows back and forth among the groups, prompting Kremer and other critics to question whether the charity—which allows donors to write off their gifts—is improperly operating an advocacy group for candidates and causes.

Smith and Baggott insist the Bus has an elaborate time-keeping system that tracks and allocates employee time among the three entities—that there is a strict separation between charitable and political activities and that everything is legal. The organizations have received a clean independent audit in each of the past two years. 

But the complex way the Bus operates means its work on behalf of political candidates isn’t always transparent.

In 2010, WW questioned why the Bus’ political action committee wasn’t disclosing money it spent to send volunteers to help candidates. 

Only after that inquiry did the organization’s PAC disclose it had spent $28,000 on 28 canvassing trips—25 for Democrats, three in a nonpartisan race and one for a Republican. 

In terms of Smith’s mayoral hopes, a more pressing question for Portlanders may be whether the organization Smith built is effective.

“There were legitimate concerns about whether the Bus was just a place for the cool kids to have fun,” says Josh Kardon, former chief of staff to U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and an Eileen Brady supporter. “But Jefferson created something that works and has proved its value over time.”

Other political pros say the Bus provides scant benefit.

“My experience was, the results weren’t great,” says Patton Price, who ran the campaign for Rep. Jean Cowan (D-Newport) in 2006. “I didn’t get reliable information back from the volunteers…many of them didn’t record the level of interest or didn’t do so reliably.” 

Political organizer Kaufman says the Bus may work in Portland, but its volunteers are a cultural mismatch in other areas. “Shoving Portlanders down the throats of rural Oregonians,” she says, “is fundamentally naive, lazy and ineffective.”

Smith says political pros have long unfairly dissed the bus. “We went to districts that wanted us,” he says. “And I think the volunteers made a difference.”


Smith used the Bus Project to launch his own political career, winning a seat in the Oregon House in 2008. 

After living most of his life in Irvington, Smith and his now-wife, Katy Lesowski, a Bus co-founder, moved into the East Portland legislative district then-House Speaker Jeff Merkley vacated. (Merkley that year defeated then-U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith.)

Smith’s performance as a legislator has been uneven. 

WW’s 2009 legislative rating of Portland-area lawmakers scored Smith “bad.” 

“Truly scattered,” one lobbyist told WW. “Much better campaigner than legislator,” said another.

His legislative focus raised suspicions he was already angling for statewide office. (He’s told friends he’d like to be governor someday, and twice during the campaign said “governor” when he meant “mayor.”) 

Despite sponsoring bills aimed at reducing crime on the MAX in East Portland, Smith voted with rural legislators to keep gun records secret and is the only Portland lawmaker supported by the Oregon Gun Owners PAC.

In what he refers to as his biggest legislative achievement, Smith teamed with Rep. Bob Jenson (R-Pendleton) to make more Columbia River water available for Eastern Oregon agriculture. 

Smith’s rural focus amplified fears he was a carpetbagger.

“My concern,” says Guy Crawford, an influential Smith constituent, “was that he was an opportunist and was taking advantage of a majority Democratic district as a steppingstone to higher office.”

In his second term in the House, Smith improved. “I’d give myself an A-minus,” he says.

Although classmates Rep. Jules Bailey (D-Portland) and Rep. Chris Garrett (D-Lake Oswego) got meatier committee assignments, Smith rated “good” in WW’s 2011 survey. (He helped his marks by lobbying lobbyists.) Smith passed bills to improve voter access and do energy retrofits for schools. But he got more attention for his staunch opposition to the Columbia River Crossing Project.

Crawford and other constituents say Smith has become a strong voice for East Portland.

“He has been a really outspoken advocate for a community that doesn’t really have a spokesman,” Crawford says. “And he’s everywhere.”

But now, Smith is doing exactly what Crawford initially feared—using his district as a political steppingstone. 

Yet Crawford is knocking on doors for Smith. 

“He’ll do a hell of a job and is not going to forget where he’s from,” Crawford says. “He’s from here now.”


THE BIG SHAKE: Jefferson Smith talks with a potential voter, Tim Gross, while canvassing the Hawthorne neighborhood March 17.
Although Smith’s late entry into the mayoral race surprised City Hall watchers, House Democrats weren’t surprised to see him ditching the Legislature.

“He’s shown an ability to dig in and find an issue and actually get a bill moved,” one says. “I think he sees himself as being limited here. Not caucus leader or speaker, because he’s a big personality and has a rep for talking too much and being on the edge of doing something a little weird.”

Smith says his legislative constituents convinced him he can do more for East Portland from City Hall than from the Capitol.

“It was serving my district that focused me on city issues,” he says. 

Smith is undeterred by critics such as former Mayor Vera Katz, who says he’s not ready to be mayor. He sees a generational issue.

“We’re no younger than they were when they came into power,” Smith says.

Now, he just has to convince voters, using his inimitable style.

At campaign fundraiser at Bossanova Ballroom in late January, he gave hundreds of supporters a taste of what he gives voters on their doorsteps. 

“I will make a prediction in this race,” Smith said. “We will not raise the most money. So give nothing! Get the hell out of here!” 

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