Jeff Cogen is the hot favorite to win the race for County Chair in the upcoming May Primary. Indeed, he's likely to take over in the job as interim chair today as long as the vote goes his way. We’ll have interviews with his two opponents here over the coming days, of course, but I wanted to give Blogtown readers a chance to get to know more about Cogen before his coronation.
Why are we at the Lucky Lab?
"I love Lucky Lab. They serve great beer, and I have a special connection. When I ran my pretzel company they were one of my first places that started selling my pretzels."
Tell me about your pretzel company.
"When I first moved to Portland, I was a lawyer in San Francisco, and I figured that was what I was going to do when I got here. But my wife and I noticed there was a tremendous cultural deficit, there was nobody selling pretzels on the street. My wife is a great baker, and our friend David was actually a trained food scientist at MIT. And the two of them spent a month perfecting the recipe, and then started selling them at the Saturday market in 1993. Within two months of living in Portland I was hocking pretzels at Saturday market. People loved them, and by the time I got the results from the bar, we were selling lines round the block. So I have never actually practiced law in Oregon. We ran the pretzel company for six years, and by the time we sold it, our pretzels were sold in 48 states—every state except for Alaska and Hawaii. It was primarily at specialty food stores that cared about the fact that they were really good and made from organic ingredients."
What kind of law were you practicing in San Francisco?
"There’s two different fields—litigations or transactions, and I was doing litigation, mostly for small businesses. But I really lucked out, because the law firm where I worked let me do 25% cases pro bono. I did political asylum work, I got to do a death penalty case. I got to do the things I dreamed about when I thought I’d be a lawyer and save the world. But even doing my dream job, it was unsatisfying—mostly at the end of the day because people were unhappy. I won an asylum case, and in my death penalty case it got reversed. But most law, it’s people fighting the whole time and nobody’s happy. And I enjoyed business a little more, and everything I’ve done since then has been trying to make people happy. Sometimes it doesn’t work, of course. But that’s been the aim."
Have you watched The Wire yet?
"Oh yeah, I’ve seen the entire series, and I actually told my wife that you think I look like Carchetti, and she says you’re wrong, because she says he’s kind of funny looking. But on the other hand he’s a great character, who kind of lost his way toward the end, and I hope I don’t imitate that. The Wire, I have to say, is my favorite TV series I’ve ever seen because it’s so real. I felt like I was in Baltimore. The bad guys are real. It’s morally ambivalent enough that it gets you. And they really took your industry to task in season five."
So what do you think of the press?
"I think this is a tough time to be in the press. But I understand that you guys have to ask tough questions. I wish it were the case that we were in the golden era of journalism where people had the time to really dig into things. I’m public policy wonk-ish, and I really wish that when we did something that was just nice, that that was news too, and it wasn’t just when we were fighting or screwing up. But we all have dreams."
So, you signed the petition to recall Sam Adams. Awkward.
"No I did not. I felt that it would be good for the city at the time just to get the whole thing behind us. At this point, I feel the whole thing is behind us. I’m not focusing on that."
But, seriously. He must have been PISSED about that.
"Well, yeah. He was pissed because he thought I was saying he should be recalled which was not what I was saying. At that point I was saying I thought the whole issue should be resolved. At this point I think we have moved beyond it, and I’m working well with Sam, and we have a lot of things that we’re working on together at this point."
Describe some of the projects you’re going to be working on together.
"Well the very first one is a new mental health crisis and treatment center that the city and the county are going to partner on. This will be a facility so that someone in crisis has a place to go, instead of just to jail or the hospital. And I was meeting with Sam on that today—funded jointly by the city, the county and the state. And it’s something that Tom Potter’s task force identified as the single biggest need we have in our system."
That was back in 2006.
"Yes. And it hasn’t happened yet because nobody had been willing to fund it. But at the end of the day it’s a matter of priorities, and I know that my board and Sam is prioritizing this. So I’m very confident we’re going to make this happen."
I was hearing $1million each from the city and the county.
"I believe at the end of the day it’ll be a little more from the state, and a little less from the county and the city."
What does the state think about this?
"They’re very supportive of this. I’m confident the state’s on board."
Talk about some of your other priorities in your first six months as chair.
"The very first thing I’m going to be doing, unfortunately, is putting a budget together again. This is the 10th year in a row the county is cutting its budget—this year a $9million to $10million cut. But unfortunately there’s not a lot of fat left in the system, so unfortunately the very first task I’m going to have to do is make cuts. At our core we take care of vulnerable people and we provide public safety, so we’re looking at where we’re going to make the cuts in the system."
"I’m also looking at partnerships that can make positive things happen. The crisis center, as I mentioned. And next month we’re going to be opening a domestic violence one-stop center, that Dan Saltzman and I have been working on for five years. In the economy we’ve had, domestic violence has been skyrocketing. The county’s contribution will be a vacant building, which is worth several hundred thousand dollars a year, and coordinating our services, and collectively we’re going to make something really cool happen."
Who on earth would anyone want this job?
"A crazy person like me."
Seriously. You’re cutting budgets year in year out.
So why would you want this job?
"Because, first of all, it’s really important work, and the decisions that are made really matter a lot. I believe I can make good decisions, even though it’s not fun. Secondly, I’ve become very skilled at making cool things happen that don’t cost any money. There’s the DV center, and the farm out in Troutdale, which we’ve turned into a tremendous resource, growing food for hungry people without using government money. I really like the challenge of making cool things happen for the community, even though we’re broke, and we’re staying broke."
Why don’t you just go and get a well paying job as a lawyer?
"I could say that it’s all about being altruistic, and it’s partly that, but the truth of the matter is, this makes me feel better. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I really feel good being in a job where I can make good things happen in the community. I could make good money as a lawyer, but at the end of the day I really feel proud of the job I do here. I feel lucky to have that."
You were being eyed for city government at one point. When’s that going to happen?
"Oh gosh, I don’t know."
So you’re still ambitious for a role at the city?
"I’m really not thinking about that at all right now. I’m very much focused on Multnomah County."
So you step in as chair tomorrow.
"Yes. Assuming that the vote goes my way."
What was Ted Wheeler’s biggest weakness as county chair that you would hope to do differently?
"I actually thought Ted did a great job as county chair. I think he stepped in at a really difficult time and helped turn the county around. What I really want to do is just build on it. We have a lot of the same values. One thing that I’m really passionate about is sustainability, it’s not because Ted was opposed to that, it’s because this is my personal passion."
Tell me about some of the sustainability programs you might get involved with.
"Well one of the sweet spots for this community is renewable energy. So I’ve been really pushing for Multnomah County to take the lead on turning ourselves into a significant leader on renewable energy. We’ve built two solar projects on the top of county buildings that are saving us $10,000 a year on electric bills, without costing taxpayers a nickel. We have 100 buildings, and at the end of the day we should have solar on the roof of each of them."
"Also we just got $150,000 from the federal government to study low-impact hydro-turbines in our bridges, to produce low impact electricity and helping pay their way. Another thing that I’ve been involved in, I was the chair of the governor’s work group on electric vehicles, and we’re now at the stage where we’re ready to put 2000 electric charging stations in the county, and I’m expecting to play a lead role in making that happen."
"Also, making sure that we can recruit companies here. We’ve already recruited a battery manufactuere. But these are areas where it’s a win-win, we get to make the world a better place and also make our economy stronger, and that gets me fired up."
What can you tell me about your opponents in this race?
"I don’t know them well. I spoke with Wes Soderback today and he’s a very nice man. I’ve never spoken with Mike Darger I understand he’s part of the tea party movement. I strongly disagree with the values of the tea party movement. But I’ve never met him, and I only know what I’ve heard. I look forward to the opportunity to debate the Sarah Palinesque values of the tea party movement, because I think that is just not who we are, or who we should be."
Give me an example of a real zinger that you might throw at the tea party movement.
"They make all this reference to the founding of the country and the tea party, but the founding of this county was about no taxation without representation. It was really about representation, and not taxation, and I fundamentally believe that as a community if we invest nothing in ourselves we wind up with nothing. And in a 21st century global economy the only chance we have to thrive is to give our young people the skills to compete. And we’re not going to do that by making believe that government’s the enemy or that education is a mistake."
Are you glad that you’re the favorite in this race?
"I hope I win. I don’t know who handicaps it. I’m going to work hard. I’m not going to take anything for granted at all."
What do you think of the race for your vacant commissioner seat?
"It looks like it’s going to be a very strong race. There’s a lot of good people that got into the race, and I think that’s a good thing. I’m supporting Karol Collymore, I think she’s a phenomenal leader, but I think it’s a good thing for all of us that there’s so many good people in the race."
Have you endorsed in any other races?
"No, except for Dan Saltzman."
You used to work for him.
"Yeah, I worked for him for five years and I think he’s a phenomenal guy. I know you’ve given him a hard time but I think he’s a good leader. He’s gotten more done in his own quiet, unassuming way than anyone else I’ve seen in local government since I’ve been in this town. And more than anyone he’s taught me the power of persistence."
Saltzman has said he won’t push for officers to live in Portland in the negotiations with the police union. Does that show his persistence?
"I honestly don’t know the upside and downside of that. I think in terms of the things I’ve seen him accomplish in terms of the domestic violence one stop center, the children’s levy, children’s services. I don’t know of anyone who has been able to start with an idea and make it a reality in spite of the nay-sayers. But I haven’t been tracking the ins and outs of that specific issue."
Why do you think the city is taking so long to settle the James Chasse lawsuit?
"I really don’t know the answer to that. I’m happy that the county settled its part of it, but it’s impossible to know what their lawyers are telling them and what the facts are. So it’s really hard to comment on something like that."
Wheeler said the Chasse case was the biggest focus in his time as chair. Do you agree with that?
"I think it really did do a great job of showing the crisis we have right now in mental health care and the way we deal with mentally ill people. The crisis in mental illness is broader than just the police officers involved in the Chasse case. At some time, I guess in the 1980s we made this decision to stop institutionalizing people, but instead we put them in the street and stopped providing resources. At the end of the day I think one of the biggest crises we have as a community is how are we going to face this huge challenge?"
Do you think we can meet this challenge?
"I think we can make it better, I feel like we’re making progress. It wasn’t that long ago that the biggest issue we had was the stigma, which made it really impossible to address the issue. Recently, the state has required parity of treatment for mental illness. The city and the county have now identified providing those services as a high priority. The truth of the matter is that as a community, as a country, we’ve been cutting for years the amount of money we invest in people. And fundamentally if we’re not ready to acknowledge that we have a community obligation, and that there are values we share as a community, to invest in, then we’re never going to address that problem. I really do believe it’s a fundamental values debate that’s going on. But the whole tea-party movement is the modern day incarnation of the stuff Ronald Reagan was pushing—that caring about your neighbors and investing in people is a sign of weakness."
Why do you think the Tea Party has achieved so much resonance?
"They appeal to peoples’ lesser instincts. They want people to believe that you can have it all. You don’t have to pay taxes, the real problem is government—others, people that are different from you, and if it wasn’t for them, we’d be back in some kind of father knows best utopia that never existed and really is not viable. But it’s appealing, and people would like to think that it’s true."
You ever read any Ayn Rand?
"When I was in college I read Atlas Shrugged. It appealed to me at that point, but it pissed me off. I don’t agree that it’s a good thing to be selfish. I think it’s a good thing to be compassionate, at the end of the day."
Any ideas for raising revenue at the county?
"Well, the big picture, and one thing that Ted was working on, was trying to reform Measure 5. But the problem with that is it requires statewide action. I think it’s important for the county to work with the state. But we can’t just wait for them to do it. One thing I strongly supported was Deborah Kafoury’s push to get rid of the preemption on tobacco taxes. I think that’s viable."
Any other ideas?
"No but I’m open."
Gary Hansen says taxing tobacco would be elitist in Multnomah County alone.
"Okay. I don’t agree with that. I think on the one hand it’s appropriate to use tax policy to provide a disincentive to something that we think is a social harm. And at the same time tobacco causes huge harm to the community and I think it’s appropriate for people who use it to help pay for the costs."
Even if they tend to be poor?
"I think it’s a voluntary act. And it’s unfortunate that tobacco companies market so heavily to poor people. My hope would be that raising tobacco taxes, people will smoke less. That would be even better than raising revenue."
Did you ever smoke?
"I never smoked regularly, but when I was in college I smoked because it was cool. But both of my parents smoked and I watched them spend years trying to quit. I learned the lesson from them and I never got myself hooked."
Is there anything you would like to add that we haven’t covered?
"No I think you’ve covered everything and more."
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