Loretta Smith is the last of the eight candidates I've interviewed over the last few days for these "meet a county candidate" blogs about County Commissioner seat 2. Having worked for Senator Ron Wyden since 1989, Smith's the candidate with the most federal government experience. She wants Multnomah County to market itself as more friendly to business, and supports an inclusive approach to county government—"Portland doesn't end at 82nd Avenue," she says. Read the Mercury's interview with Loretta Smith after the jump.
Mercury:Tell us a little bit about yourself.
"My family background in Portland dates back to 1942. My grandfather, Arthur Smith moved out here from Brooklyn, New York, and he worked in the shipyards. Then he raised six children, and my dad was his son. My grandmother never worked a day in her life, she was definitely the matriarch in our family and kept us all going. My dad was a boxer—he was inducted into the Oregon state hall of fame a few years back. They met in Indiana, where my mother is from, then they separated when I was four years old, and I was raised in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I had a cousin who said why don’t you come out to Oregon State and study with me. I also ran track, too, but I thought, I wanted to be a full-time student. But even if I had wanted to run track, I also got the two schools mixed up, it was the University of Oregon that had the great track team. So I was 17 years old when I came to Oregon—it was a little bit different from what I was used to. My cousin ended up moving back, so I was in Corvallis by myself as a freshman and I had to make new friends, and I did. By Christmas I was calling home, saying it rains too much here, I want to go back home. But it was a great opportunity for me."
And you went to work for Senator Wyden straight away, after graduating?
"Pretty much. I graduated in 1987, and went to work for Senator Wyden in 1989. It’s probably one of the single best decisions I’ve made my entire life. I started at the front desk, and I’ve worked my way through various positions in the office. I told the Senator when he was in town recently, it feels like I’ve been here since yesterday."
Why are you running for county?
"I think everything I’ve done up to this point to help people—constituent services, helping with people, has given me the background to lead the county into the future. I’m going to be a huge supporter of programs that support seniors, trying to encourage job creation while also reducing energy costs for seniors and low-income folks. Jobs are a must. At some point I’d like to see all of Multnomah County be seen as a great, creative, innovative place to be that is pro-business. You’re not going to get out of this economic slump if you’re not going to be a pro-business county. A couple of years ago they put a double tax on venture capitalists in Multnomah County. Now, if we want to help people, we’ve got to keep our businesses in Multnomah County. They’ve since rescinded that double tax. But Multnomah County shouldn’t be so Portland centric. It just doesn’t stop at 82nd street. I come from the school of Ron Wyden—he talks to everybody."
How do you stack up against your competitors?
"What I would be able to tell your readers is I have a 20 year track record of working for the hardest working elected official in the country, and that’s Ron Wyden. I’ve helped people from immigration, to services, to housing, to identifying lots of programs in the county. I have relationships with people at the city, county and state level. I understand how the federal government works, and I think I bring that knowledge. I worked with Ted Wheeler to try to secure funding for the Sellwood Bridge, and so I’m pretty much aware of the issues in Multnomah County, and I think I’m uniquely suited to do this kind of work. This was my dream job, and my plan was to run for this office in four years, not four days ago."
Whose endorsement are you most proud of and why?
"I think I’m proud of anyone who will say they’ll support me. Senator Wyden, City Commissioner Nick Fish, Mayor Kite from Troutdale, The African American Chamber of Commerce, Roy Jay, Tony Hopson,
Ron Herndon, I’ve worked with him on Head Start programs. In fact I think one of the things I’m most proud of is that Ron Herndon called President Obama saying head start kids could really benefit from the stimulus package. I drafted a letter to Senator Kennedy’s office saying that, and that was one of the things that I’ve been proud of—we got it in the stimulus bill not only Oregon, but nationally. I have a track record of working with organizations throughout the county, trying to find ways to make this county grow. Another thing that is going to help create jobs, as you know from the State of Black Oregon report, African American males have 22-24% unemployment rates. It just makes sense to make sure that all of our vulnerable populations can get jobs. And at this point I think everybody’s vulnerable to that—the business owner at Lloyd Center who is one pay check from losing his business, the suppliers, and the families in Alameda who are near to going into foreclosure. So we can talk about endorsements all we want, but at the end of the day my campaign is going to be about going out and meeting with people to talk about jobs."
Whose endorsement would you most like, and why?
"I think that I would probably much rather spend my time going out talking to people than spending precious time in this race. I’m endorsed by Senator Wyden, my family—I have seven aunts over 70, and I care what they think, and they support me."
This is the first time you’ve run for elected office? What are the challenges?
"This is the first time I’ve run for elected office, I mean a real campaign election. I think the time frame is going to be a real challenge for us to get our message out."
Talk to me about some other ideas for job creation.
"I’m not going to be able to build Rome overnight, but we should not be putting up barriers to people doing business here."
The county recently raised the car rental tax. Was that a good idea?
"The jury’s still out on that. I think everything needs to be explored and we need to figure out how to keep small and medium businesses in Multnomah County."
Measures 66/67. What did you think of those?
"I think those were important, and it’s going to bring an influx of cash into the state, but if you’re talking about helping vulnerable populations, you’ve got to maintain a certain number of businesses to support those services."
Is this race all about getting through the primary?
"There’s two candidates that have to get to May. If you know anything about me I’m very competitive. I have a 20 year old son who was a three sport athlete in high school, I’m a single parent, and I’m just as competitive as he is. I want to win. I want 50 percent plus 1 in the primary, and that’s what my goal is. I think he’d be disappointed in me if I was to do anything less than that. I understand about the challenges it takes to run a family and a budget, and I know that a lot of families are hurting. In this environment, people are hurting, and they just want to get their jobs back."
Are there any ideas being proposed by Multnomah County right now that might discourage small businesses staying in Portland?
"Perception and reality is always a juggling act, and I think the perception of Multnomah County is that they’re not pro-business. So I think the first thing we need to do is market Multnomah County."
One of the big reasons businesses cite for leaving Portland is that the City of Portland has high business license fees. What would you do about that?
"Well if you talk to those folks in East County, they’ll tell you they want it, because without it, they can’t run the services they need. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I’m going to explore all the options out there to ensure we’re doing smart, intelligent, common sense things at the county."
Do you agree that there are some favorites in the race at the moment, and are you among them?
"I think that there are 8 people in the race with just as much opportunity to win as the others. It depends on how hard you work. I’m working hard, and I’m planning to win."
How much money are you hoping to raise?
"I have about $5,000 in the bank, and $15,000 in commitments that are waiting to come in. I’m not sure how much it’s going to cost to run this race, to get my message out in a short time. It’s going to be a grass roots campaign, I’m going to be knocking on doors, and I’m going to have as many people with my name on the tip of their tongues as I can, to try to get my name out."
Do you support an elected or appointed sheriff?
"I think we need to explore both ways, because someone asked me about this before, but just in terms of sheer accountability, if it’s an elected position, then I think the kind of reforms you need in the sheriff’s office, you’ll take it into consideration. I think the accountability that the voters give to an elected sheriff is in place, and you can’t fool the voters, as long as they have an election, and they can say I don’t like what you’re doing, we might want is want to keep."
What about former Sheriff Bernie Giusto—many people in the county were shocked at the way he ran that office. But they felt that the voters weren’t paying attention.
"You’ll have the same issues if someone is accountable to one person versus thousands of people. And I think voters are smart, and you’re not fooling voters. You don’t want to get caught in the politics of what a sheriff should be, or not, and the accountability is with the people."
What do you think of Wapato?
"We need to identify some ways in which we can better use that space, and it may come in the form of the Oregon State prison system, drug rehabilitation, but I think we need to explore all ideas and put that facility into full use."
How would you bring in more revenue at the county?
"Again, we need to be a pro-business county. I don’t know how much clearer I can say this—we need to support small and medium sized businesses if we want to pay for libraries, mental health, and those kind of things. It’s driven by business."
But county revenue also comes from other sources.
"It comes from property taxes—but with the current climate you can’t up the property taxes by more than 3% a year. So we need to go on the other side and push for businesses. And the other thing that’s happened in Multnomah County is, incomes in Multnomah County on average have dropped by 10%, according to something I’ve read from Jeff Cogen’s office. So, if you have a thriving business community, you’re going to have competition for wages and drive them up."
Are there any other issues you’d like to bring up?
The county and the city needs to work in partnership on public safety. It’s also important for kids to have something to do between 3 o’clock and 6 o’clock in the afternoon—so between this Boys and Girls club here on MLK, and going to Self Enhancement Inc, my son was very blessed to have things to do. And that’s something that the county should be supporting. I know that there are some concerns about sun schools, but these are budgets that we need to continue to meet, because if those kids go into the justice system, it’s going to cost us a whole lot more.