Mary Volm is a former spokesperson for the City of Portland. She's running to restore the city's responsibility for basic services, instead of pet projects. And also, possibly, buy bus tickets for some of our transient kids. Read the Mercury's interview with Mary Volm after the jump!
So how is the campaign going?
“It’s going very well, and I’m having the time of my life, given the fact that I’ve been a communications director for 24 years for government, I’m in my element. I’m learning so much more outside than I did inside about people’s concerns about government, and it’s heartwarming to see how many people have strong emotional feelings about, and understanding of, city government. And that’s a strong place to be starting as a city commissioner—with an engaged public. I remember when city council members would change their vote based on public testimony, and we’re not an accessible government any more. The deals are made behind closed doors, amongst themselves, so the minute they get into council, the vote is sealed.”
“Let’s remember who we’re serving here, and it’s not that you do government by consensus, but if you don’t engage the public, this is their government, and everything can happen at the local level. We can bitch all we want about the federal government and broken promises, but if you really want to hold government accountable, you have to do it at the local level.”
“And that’s why I did support the recall the first time around—when you’re lied to, that creates voter apathy. And I’m just the opposite in terms of leadership. I don’t like to lie to people. I like to bring people together towards a common goal—it’s all about that kind of communication with the people you serve.”
“Memorial Coliseum is a good example of that not working—none of the ideas proposed in the past, they were cost prohibitive. And the spectator facilities fund is set aside for maintenance, and there’s some big ticket items, basic maintenance that needed to happen five years ago. But instead, that’s one of those pots of money that officials like to raid, and the last raid was PGE Park.”
So you seem to be focused on fiscal responsibility? Can you give me some examples of where the city has fallen short on this?
“It seems as if, for the most part, that elected officials like to build things so that they can be legacy projects, and I’m a little tired of building things right now, particularly in the face of a recession. I’m about maintaining what we’ve got. Citizens have invested billions of dollars in their city infrastructure. To walk away from maintenance to extend the life of this infrastructure, to not do the necessary maintenance when it’s needed is irresponsible on the part of city leadership.”
“Another good example is NW23rd. Set for rehabilitation a decade ago—a million dollars to grind the asphalt off, do some limited base repair, crack seal, to keep moisture out of the base, to avoid sink holes and complete destruction of a city street. That was taken from maintenance to build the steel bridge walkway for the Eastbank Esplanade. I’m all for that new facility, but if we don’t take care of what we’re responsible for when it’s most effective, it costs five times as much. So now we’re rebuilding NW23rd at a cost of $6million. That’s your money.”
“I’ve watched this over and over, but maybe it’s because it’s the public money, or basic common sense. You wouldn’t put a new addition on your house if the roof was leaking. And every new project, they go ahead with these projects, and they don’t put any maintenance into it—600 miles of deferred maintenance on our city streets right now, and that deferred maintenance is five to six times more to rebuild. Your pothole repair increases, because potholes are just band-aids on a gushing wound. Those repairs pop off two weeks later.”
“I know that’s a lot of detail, but this is the point. It’s just so much sexier for elected officials to be able to point to something rather than what we’ve been entrusted with. The second issue on that is, when we build something, I’ll be the one on council to ask, where are the maintenance dollars on this ten years from now?”
Do you think there’s going to be a runoff in this election?
“Yes, if I don’t win it outright May 18, yes. I can solidly say yes.”
How can you solidly say yes?
“When you don’t have any money, you canvass, you talk to people, you’re out in the community. And in fact what I’m hearing so many residents say is ‘throw them all out.’ I’ve never heard such disappointment and distrust in the city as I do now, and it’s in the leadership."
Do you mean the mayor, or Dan Saltzman?
"I mean everybody on city council. That’s what they’re telling me. And personally, we have two new commissioners who seem to be voting along with everybody else. We have a voting block of three, much of which is a Mark Wiener block, and people are feeling like they’re not being listened to. And that’s one of the reasons why I didn’t qualify for public financing, because I spent time talking to people and they feel abandoned by city government."
What percentage of the vote do you think you’ll win?
"In May I think I’m going to get 50 plus one vote. And if voter apathy keeps that from happening, then I’d look forward to a summer of campaigning, because it’ll make me a better city commissioner. If I’m allowed to go against Dan Saltzman, it’s pretty clear I know more about the city than he does, and I also know how to inspire people and engage them to be involved in their local government."
What are some other issues you’re campaigning on? You mentioned mental health the other day.
"I’ll lobby on a state and national level to improve funding for the mentally ill. I believe that these are people we’re responsible for, period. That’s it. They can’t take care of themselves, it’s not their fault. Even severe alcoholism is not their fault. They need help: Shelter, food, medication, and community support. And there are some that fall into the category of mentally ill that are productive, and we’re missing a big opportunity there."
Any other campaign issues?
"Yes, and the first one is getting Portlanders back to work. Government doesn’t create jobs, but we sure create the environment. I’m the only candidate in the state with real economic development experience. I worked for the state in the late 1980s, when we were faced with a collapsed timber industry and we ran out of resource, and had communities all through the state completely out of work. At that time the state gave all its lottery dollars to economic development—I’ve been working in every corner of the state to develop the regional strategy. Now that timber’s gone."
Did that work out?
"It did, and it really helped each county, and some got together as three or four counties, working together on a strategy."
What do you think of Mayor Adams’ Economic Development strategy?
"It’s very weak and shortsighted. In an economic downturn we need to be as creative and diverse as we can be, and I find it to be very limiting. Business and the environment aren’t at odds all the time—we have some pretty solid industrial areas in Portland that are becoming warehouses rather than production facilities. The research is available: What are the emerging businesses? And we know that green is, but every municipality is competing for green dollars. And through that research you identify which businesses are likely to expand, looking for a nice new home. Portland has everything to offer, with the exception of our SAT scores. And that’s a big thing. But we have the things that companies look for."
So why aren’t companies coming here?
"We’re not courting them. We haven’t done the research to find out who’s looking, then it takes the effort to court, to say, we’re interested in your business, what does it take? Now the last council, really Erik Sten, took away so much of PDC’s responsibility and ability to do that. And the most important thing on every front is that if you’re employed, you have better self esteem."
Sure, but Sten was looking at homeless people and folks who couldn’t necessarily work.
"Actually a lot of them can, with the right tools and society."
PDC isn’t interested in looking out for those people, though, is it?
"Well it should be. And the business community was courting this business, staying at the Nines. They were saying “we love your airport, we loved the sense of what Porltand is from the window, but the minute we stepped out onto the street, we’ve never seen so many aggressive panhandlers,” and that turned them off. This is simplified, but there are three types of homeless we’re dealing with: The homeless who want a home and be productive. There are transients who want to stay on the street, think this is a cool place to hang out and do whatever they want because they can. And then there are the mentally ill, or severe alcoholics, those people that absolutely need our help. And it’s our responsibility for the first and third categories. But the middle category I’d say get a job, get rid of the pitbull, and if you’re going to a job interview, take your nosering out for a minute. But Portland’s become a magnet, and it’s disturbing to me, because it is interfering with our ability to attract new business. And if you know the community by name, we can start to identify that middle group and help them, whether it’s a nice suitcase, some traveling money and a bus ticket. Now I know that sounds harsh but they’re youth that ran away so that they can hang out on Hawthorne. But they are capable, and anybody including intellectually challenged people can work, and find a sense of purpose. But we have an inordinate amount of that population on Porltand’s back."
What about the work of groups like Outside In, and so on?
"And that’s what I’m talking about. You know who these people are, and I know some of them don’t want to work. But give em a choice, and here’s the choice. We’ll help you become a productive member of this community, let’s get you some housing, some training, help them move towards self-sufficiency."
Or what? You said there’s a choice.
"Or where are you from? Let’s help you get back there."
What if their home is abusive?
"If they’re abused, that’s identified. And we need to get them that kind of help. But we’re municipal services. We don’t direct this stuff—we have a role to play, but we’re not the primary agency or organization in the lead, but we assist where we can."
Any other issues?
"Maybe it’s a little social engineering, but to invite people, our citizens who do not think that they are racist, who do not think that they’re responsible for marginalized communities, to learn about those communities. It seems that our paradigm is always looking for the difference between. But when it comes down to Portland, we all care about the same things. And I’d invited Portlanders to start, if they aren’t already, start thinking differently about their fellow community members, and encourage them to volunteer, go to an African American church and see how welcomed they are, understand their culture a little bit better, and a greater understanding, and a greater responsibility to each other. Now let me take this a step further. 80% of Portland’s businesses are small businesses, and say I’m Cambodian, or say I have a nose ring, or purple hair, the first thing I want that employer to think is, okay, I bet we have a lot in common, rather than they’re so different from me, I’m afraid. But because of whatever, language, accent, culture, belief systems, everybody wants to hire people like themselves. So guess what happens—we have these marginalized communities and they can’t get into the mainstream in Portland. And people aren’t even aware of that—it’s cultural competency, becoming a little broader ourselves. And that’s a philosophy—there’s nothing I can do to govern that."
Any of your competitors said anything ridiculous that you’ve disagreed with?
"Yes, of course. And not to cast aspersions, but I started the buy local a long time ago, because it was about keeping from people from traveling to the Big Box, but rather get to know your business community, and it really helps a whole bunch of things. But when I hear buy local from Jesse Cornett, and I look at his Orestar on a regular basis, and I see that he has three different contracts, one in Seattle that’s $3500 a month, one was for $13,000 for a poll in California, and the other one is a printer in Washington, that is, it’s doubly offensive to me. It’s not only not buying local, it’s using public money and taking it outside the state. And being a public servant who’s had to exist with a megaphone and a box of crayons, for most of my career—the public penny is so precious. I’ve watched the scarce resources we have diminish, and if that’s any indication of how he’ll govern, then I’m very concerned. And you know as well as I do that there are plenty of printers, consultants, and pollsters in Portland, Oregon."
Are there that many political consultants? Good ones?
"Yes. Lisa Grove, there’s a bunch."
"I’m sorry. I didn’t get to hire a consultant, but consultants can take on two clients. Seattle doesn’t have a consultant haven."
You mentioned Mark Wiener earlier.
He’s the dominant consultant here and he represents Saltzman.
"Yes he does."
So what do you think of him?
"I’ve only met him once, but I have a concern with a consultant approaching any race with the philosophy of “win at any cost.” The personal damage that I have seen Winning Mark do to other candidates running against his client is not in line with Porltanders’ values."
Can you be a little more specific about personal damage?
"Sho Dozono was a good example. That was all orchestrated first by winning Mark. It’s both the poll, and the Bush Garden incident. And what’s funny about that is after the race, they paid back the rent payments because they wanted to honor the agreement that was already in place, because right outside Bush garden is a public urinal. And the redevlopment was supposed to happen four years before the race, and it came to blows where Bush Garden said we’re not going to pay unless you do it. And it was my boss who helped Sam go after his opponent, and it’s unfortunate. And you just don’t treat people that way. Win at any cost, and take out your opponent with honesty, experience and true disagreements between how you’d approach an issue. That’s what makes a good race—you get to hear about the issues."
"And look what Wiener did with Bob Ball—throw him under the bus. You don’t think that Sam and Randy were the only ones behind that, do you? And that’s in the attorney general’s report. We need every great mind in this city, and we need to work together, not against each other. Yeah, I have differences with Dan, but I don’t want to personally destroy him. Or Jesse, either. And it doesn’t do any service to the voting public. We deserve more."
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