First off, and pretty bluntly, Smith repeatedly confronted the obvious notion that he was a politician trying to court votes and spark discussion among a group of activists who pretty roundly distrust his kind. He also explained why he accepted the Portland Police Association's endorsement, even though some of his supporters told him he should refuse it. And he touched on a handful of other touchy subjects, like foreclosure resistance, water rates, and bailouts for local schools.
Smith's finest moment came in the middle of the thing, when he told a story about how, at a recent Occupy-inflected house party, someone came up to him and said, "So you're the politician who isn't full of shit." Smith said he corrected the guy by noting, "I'm a politician who's partially full of shit." That got laughs, and Smith went on to say that "the fact I'm willing to admit that," should count in his favor, for those "grading on a scale."
But Smith spent the largest chunk of his time talking up his philosophy on policing and accountability—and why he's convinced embracing the PPA is the right thing to do. He flatly said turning down the union's support would've been "so destructive."
Why? Because Smith says the union and bureau command staff will be more receptive to his goal of changing how cops are trained—getting them to focus more on "problem-solving" and community policing—if he takes office without swinging his fists. He pointed to his skepticism of the Columbia River Crossing, a project high on organized labor's wish list in the mayoral race, as proof he can buck his allies.
"If, as mayor, I say to the police bureau, 'screw you!' and then say, 'follow me,' it's going to be hard," he said.
Smith also hinted that the PPA endorsement was less about policy issues (he said he supports Mayor Sam Adams' effort to avoid reinstating Ron Frashour, for instance: "We're not going to agree on every policy issue.") and more about pocketbook issues. Like finding room in the city's strapped budget to not only keep from laying off cops but also grow the bureau's ranks of sworn officers.
A more robust, less-stressed police force, he says, will make it easier to avoid police violence and let cops get of their cars to walk their beats and get to know actual citizens.
"I say this," acknowledging the crowd gathered with him, "knowing it's provocative."
On that note, he also made a sly jab at his rival, Charlie Hales, who also has called for a police bureau that's bigger and prioritizes "de-escalation" and community face-time. Smith has accused Hales of looking to cut deals with developers by waiving fees that help the city pay for infrastructure and other needs, and without naming Hales, he said he would avoid "tax breaks and giveaways" that force the city to lay off cops.
Smith still managed to delight the crowd on a couple of other points. In response to a question on how he'd support activists' efforts to fight foreclosures, he made sure everyone realized the guy most responsible for enforcing foreclosures was Multnomah County Sheriff Dan Staton, who's independently elected. But, Smith said, "I'm interested in a discussion about what 'more foreclosure resistance' would look like. I'm not much interested in spending a bunch of public money enforcing illegal behavior [by banks]."
Right after, he got a round of finger twinkles by saying "Having a protest culture in this town is very important."
After the event was over, I asked its organizer, Miriam German, if a similar offer had been made to Hales' campaign. She said his team didn't seem as motivated, but that she also hasn't formally invited him to speak.
"He just doesn't seem that hip," she confessed.
Get the best of the Mercury each week in your inbox!