Portland Politics Are As Quirky As The City Itself

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A neon sign at the Voodoo Doughnut.  (credit: George Rose/GettyImages)

A neon sign at the Voodoo Doughnut. (credit: George Rose/GettyImages)

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Portland is famously weird and fiercely proud of it, so things can get a little bizarre when it comes time to pick a mayor.

In one local tradition, candidates try to outdo each other in an eating contest at a doughnut shop known nationally for oddities such as oversized, maple-frosted doughnuts topped with strips of crispy bacon.

That’s politics in a city where the main attraction is culture as opposed to commerce or landmarks.

Food carts, fixed-gear bicycles, pot shops and craft beer make Portland a magnet for the young, hip and liberal. But it’s still a major city with all the attendant dilemmas.

Leaders have to contend with tight budgets, high unemployment and crumbling roads. Minorities face economic and social disenfranchisement and are being pushed to the outskirts of town.

Voters will weigh in Tuesday on which brand of liberal is best equipped to run the city while obeying the command posted in bright yellow letters on brick walls, car bumpers, T-shirts and concert fliers, “Keep Portland weird!”

One contender, state Rep. Jefferson Smith, says he finished off three cream-filled treats at Voodoo Doughnut, which has gained national fame on food-themed cable TV shows such as Travel Channel’s “No Reservations” and “Man v. Food.”

Another front-runner, Eileen Brady, the gluten-averse co-founder of a popular organic grocery chain, used a surrogate eater to avoid the deep-fried flour. She apparently preferred the stand-in over bringing steamed kale to the doughnut shop, an option she’d considered.

The other high-profile candidate, Charlie Hales, skipped the tradition.

All told, there are nearly two-dozen contenders pursuing the city’s top job, a field that includes an Occupy Portland leader and a reformed radical environmentalist.

The winner will replace Sam Adams, whose election in 2008 made Portland the largest American city at the time to elect an openly gay mayor.

Recent polling shows the race is very close, and many voters are still making up their minds.

Smith, Brady and Hales, the candidates with the most organized and well-funded campaigns, are all Democrats. The primary race is expected to whittle the field down to two candidates who will then face off in November.

Each represents the quirks of Portland in their own way.

Smith, 38, became something of a rock star among liberal political activists when he co-founded The Bus Project, a nonprofit that tries to take the stuffiness out of politics and make activism fun for young people.

He started the organization in 2001 after a walking away from a brief legal career that included working at top firms in New York City and Portland.

In 2008, he was elected to the state Legislature representing far-east Portland, a working-class enclave that’s home to a rising number of low-income and minority households displaced by rising home values in the city’s trendy urban core.

Smith says Portland needs to “be ready for the 21st century with a city that isn’t as white, isn’t as small, isn’t as provincial, but hopefully maintains its neighborhood feel.”

Brady, 50, more than her two main rivals, embodies the version of the city so often depicted in popular culture, such as on the cable TV comedy skits of IFC network’s “Portlandia,” which pokes fun at Portland’s many eccentricities — and has no shortage of material.

It’s a reputation she embraces.

“They make fun of me because I’m a vegetarian, and I love eating leafy greens, love kale,” she said. “I’m probably classic ‘Portlandia.’ Organic garden. Chickens in my backyard. Ride my bike to work.”

Brady’s family helped launch New Seasons Market, a Portland-area grocery-store chain that features organic and locally grown food, and she has made her business experience a key component of her campaign.

Hales, 56, the only candidate with experience in city government, is positioned as a policy expert, whose work includes bringing electric streetcars to the city.

Hales says Portland never set out to build landmarks to attract attention, such as Seattle’s Space Needle or St. Louis’ Gateway Arch. He says the city instead focused on amenities intended to enhance living standards.

“We built light rail for us,” he said. “We built the streetcar for us. We built Pioneer Courthouse Square, and we’re about to build a Portland public market downtown for us.

“Then other people notice these things in the rest of the country and say, ‘Wow, Portland sure is cool.’”

The candidates have spent some time talking about predictably Portland issues such as green technology and sustainability. But the race has largely been dominated by discussions of nuts-and-bolts government issues that challenge even normal cities — potholes, parks, jobs and schools.

With 585,000 residents and counting, the city’s next leader will ultimately face the challenge of helping Portland learn to grow — without growing up.

“Portland has a bigger international brand than it did when I was a kid,” said Smith, the only front-runner who’s an area native. “As I left Portland, it was sort of the town in between Seattle and San Francisco. And, heck, now they’ve got a TV show.”

(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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