When political consultants and consummate insiders Dan Lavey and Kevin Looper agreed to be the public faces of People for Portland—a new nonprofit formed to put pressure on elected officials to take immediate action on Portland's most glaring issues, including the spread of encampments and police reform—they knew they weren’t in for valentines and lollipops from the insular Oregon political establishment of which they’ve long been a part, Lavey from the right and Looper, mostly, from the left.
After all, the optics aren’t good. (They liken themselves to Statler and Waldorf, the cranky Muppet hecklers who lob rotten tomatoes from a safe remove in their trademark balcony.)
Two middle-aged white guys who know their way around the Arlington Club and similar trying to tell the city that it’s time to clean up the trash, move much faster on opening temporary, serviced shelters in place of the homeless encampments that have set up citywide, and equip a beefed-up and reformed police force with body cameras? For a certain vocal, extremely online and hyper-critical segment of the population, that’s DOA—they can show themselves out.
But not everyone feels that way, and Looper and Lavey say they’ve got the data to back it up. Polling firm FM3 research surveyed 802 likely Portland voters in mid-May on behalf of People for Portland and found very broad approval for the objectives they’ve laid out, from expanding a pilot program to send trained caseworkers instead of armed police when mental health calls come into 911 to more support for both peaceful protests and "isolation, arrest and prosecution of small groups inflicting property damage and violence."
People may approve, but that hasn’t translated into action. Instead, the two worry, as they put it in a recent op-ed for The Oregonian, that too many of us—and most dangerously our elected officials—are becoming “comfortably numb” with the status quo in Portland.
“Democracy works best when the voice of the people is being served,” says Looper. “And they are not being served right now.”
For Looper, in particular, this is a risky stance. He’s been an influential consultant to three governors, one congresswoman, two of the five current county commissioners and countless ballot measure campaigns; criticizing the state’s Democratic power structure’s turtling over Portland’s problems is not going to win him any future business. Lavey, a self-dubbed “Republican-in-exile", is a former senior adviser to U.S. Senator Gordon Smith, and is now a partner at Gallatin Public Affairs, the uber-connected downtown firm that helped bring Major League Soccer to town, among other seismic city shifts.
But all the money in the world won’t help you sleep at night. What keeps Looper up is his participation in the most of recent in a series of metro-area ballot measure campaigns to fund affordable housing and supportive services for those transitioning out of homelessness. Voters said yes each time, and paired with federal Covid relief money, “we have more resources than they literally know what to do with at the state and city level,” Looper says. “And I believe that the crisis on the streets that people wake up to every day has gotten worse. To say that we need to use the streets as a waiting room for our reform is not okay with me, it's just not. There are better solutions out there than doing nothing.”
Looper and Lavey talked with Portland Monthly about their new organization, Portland’s future, and what it’s like to talk smack about your political allies.
Portland Monthly: How long has this been in the works? And what prompted it? Because, of course, you are strange bedfellows, given your political views.
Looper: I am desperate enough to save Portland that I will work with Dan Lavey. We were both approached separately, from a whole range of people, and we found each other out of frustration. Our strong sense is that there is a huge gap between where the people are and where the public discussion was. We're used to elected officials coming to us in regular intervals two or four years to ask, ‘What should I say, to get elected?’ But we needed to be saying right now, very publicly, ‘Don't come to us and ask us what to say if you haven't done anything.’ It’s very clear that the timeline for Portland is short, much shorter than the public discussion is allowing for. That doesn't mean the city is going to go away. It does mean, however, that a lot of action will move to the suburbs. And we will lose a lot of the things that make this community and the city special. And these crises that we talk about—housing, homelessness, public safety, are real crises. And in political terms, there’s a lot of talk about crises, and we need more action around them.
Lavey: Kevin operates more in the political and elected ecosystem than I do in Oregon. I care about the city and I care about its role in our region, as an economic, social and cultural driver. I also know that the old-fashioned way (to get things done), is, you know, private meetings with cocktails and coffee with elected officials. Sure, go ahead, knock yourselves out. But what really matters is the voice of the people. Particularly among business people, there is oftentimes an over-reliance on outdated modes. You know, an elected official is just as likely get information now from their own personal Facebook feed, as they are from any other source. And when you engage the public—when you light a fire in the public, and get them engaged—well, politicians deal in the currency of voters and votes.
Looper: And the problem is the political system is broken. It’s partially because of multiple layers of government that don't interact particularly well together. Partially it’s because some of the solutions require novel creative thinking.
Lavey: One of the things that has to occur is that some of our elected officials need to acknowledge uncomfortably that maybe what they've been doing isn't working. And we’ve got to try something new. And it may be outside of their ideological orthodoxy or their bureaucratic comfort. But, you know, the elected officials don't work for the government, they work for the people. And they need to start acting like that.
Portland Monthly: Kevin, this seems a little dangerous for your career, no? You’ve helped get a lot of these people elected.
Looper: I am absolutely dealing on a daily basis with people who are furious with me. I was informed by close friends of mine, working directly in this space, that what I just needed to get my head around is that these are difficult problems. And it took us decades to get into this spot. And it's going to take us years to get out of it. And I said, ‘Wow, that's your elevator speech? Because I know that's not where the people are.’ I know elected officials are lost and confused. But I also know most of them want to comfort themselves with discussions about how hard it is, and have a cup of tea with the cat on their lap. We don't have time for that. If you approach this from the right, you hear a lot about how people don't have the right to sleep in public spaces and parks, and they should be swept out. And if you approach it from the from the left —and we saw this in our polling—there's an appreciable number of people in Portland who think we don't have the right to tell people where or how to live. But behind that is 85 percent of people who believe that people should have a safe, sanitary place to sleep. They're not okay, just sweeping people and moving them around. That is important to them. But it is also the case that they'd like to feel safe walking around downtown, and they'd like to feel not embarrassed to be a Portlander. And they'd like to think that they're actually part of doing something to help the homeless situation.
Portland Monthly: Did you think twice about being the spokespeople for this, and have you been surprised by some of the backlash you’ve gotten, and the characterization of People for Portland as a “dark money” group (in a recent headline in The Oregonian)?
Looper: It is only out of desperation that I agreed to be out here speaking on this. There’s an amazing array of people who are very supportive of what we're doing and who have enabled us to launch this. It is frustrating to me that I can't provide the list to you of who all they are. But it is a reality of our politics, that those people don't want to have people on their porch, and they don't deserve to be targeted. And it’s the same reason that Planned Parenthood and Basic Rights Oregon don't disclose their donors, because they're folks who want to be able to speak with one voice and don't want to be personally targeted for doing so. Dan and I are not naive people. We knew that we were going to get a hit for keeping the donors anonymous. But first, we had to show that it was possible to speak out. And we had to be the ones to take the slings and arrows and we are taking them and they're real. They are affecting my business, they are affecting my personal life, especially. But that's the cost of being a grown up in this world. But I do think that (there was) cynicism with that headline. I spoke directly to the (politics and government) editor when I first saw it. I mean, (dark money is) a pejorative term. And it comes from trying to hide money trying to influence elections. That's the context of dark money. And this is not about an election, it's about 501 (c) 4s, (nonprofits) that are given the constitutional protection of assembly speech.
Portland Monthly: Do you both think we need new leadership?
Lavey: The first thing I think we need is more action and results from the people who are now in office. You know, the state legislators that represent Portland, I think it's about 16 different House and Senate districts. Each of the state senators got $4 million each and each of the state house members got $2 million to distribute (in federal Covid funds). The Speaker of the House, who's now a candidate for governor, has represented Portland for 15 years. The majority leader represents Portland, the governor is from Portland. Those legislators could have pooled those resources together, aggregated at $50 million, and said we want to commit these to a specific set of priorities related to homeless villages, for example. Just pick something! Where are the people that represent Portland beyond the mayor? I think most of them are hiding.
Portland Monthly: How do you keep up the momentum after the initial splash of your launch?
Looper: We need put the focus back where it belongs on actual decision makers. Deborah (Kafoury, the Multnomah County Chair) and Ted (Wheeler, the Mayor of Portland) — sorry, first names, but I'm familiar with these folks—they'd rather blame each other than figure out how to change the process. I'm telling you right now, I just showed you 85 percent of people want to see safe, sanitary places for people to put their heads at night. And yes, any particular neighborhood might have issues about it. So, don't make it dependent on any particular neighborhood. You've got public lands. I think the problem is people want to hide behind process and we don't have time to hide behind process.
Lavey: Let's be honest, for a lot of them, it's very, very convenient to have Ted Wheeler have political Velcro on.
Looper: Oh, if Ted Wheeler didn't exist, they'd have to invent him to have somebody to blame it on.
Lavey: Everything sticks to Ted. And that's a whole different subject. But the reality is, this governor has been remarkably quiet on the problems in her hometown and the biggest city in the state.
Looper: I can tell you from having conversations with the people around all of these elected leaders at great length, that every one of their staff is mortified at the idea of saying something about a problem that is so firmly stuck to Ted Wheeler. It's ‘How do we do this in a way that doesn't get us to own this.’ But the problem is, that's exactly what you were elected to do, to take responsibility for the situation of the people who voted for you.