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Monday, October 1, 2012

Jefferson Smith on Dropped Assault Charge: "You Never Know What Happens When You Go to a Jury"

Posted by Denis C. Theriault on Mon, Oct 1, 2012 at 4:14 PM

With a couple dozen of his supporters (including his wife) standing as a silent backdrop, mayoral candidate Jefferson Smith struggled to clearly answer questions today about WW report that he settled a charge of misdemeanor assault in 1993. He declined to identify the woman who almost took him to court, he declined to detail the injuries he caused, and he lashed out instead about a campaign season dominated by "rumors" and a ratio of stories tilted more to the "salacious."

Smith worked hard to keep upbeat in front of reporters at a hastily convened press conference in Terry Schrunk Plaza, but sometimes struggled in the face of queries like why he waited 20 years for this to emerge, whether he thought he would have lost if the case went to court, and how and where he injured the woman in the incident.

"It happened pretty fast," he said, replying "I don't know" when asked if the woman had received stitches and explaining, when asked wither he'd release his settlement agreement with the woman, that a storage-unit fire when he was in law school destroyed most of his old records (including, he said, baseball cards and comics.)

Smith did confirm the general details of WW's reporting, which was based on witnesses. To recap: He was at a college party between his sophomore and junior years when someone he knew a little bit, he said, tipped over a couch holding a woman he didn't know at all. The woman, intoxicated, woke up and blamed Smith and came at him.

"I tried to stop her," Smith said. "She just kept coming at me. I shoved her."

Later he talked of the Bible's admonition to turn the other cheek and also said, "If I had to do it over again, I'd just let her keep coming at me."

That was about as specific as Smith got, though. He said he didn't proceed to court because he was reluctant to involve other people in the incident and received advice along the lines of "you never know what happens when you go to a jury."

He did bring a high school friend, Lara Larson, who was at the party that night who offered her take on what happened and said she never expected she'd ever be talking about it publicly.

Smith did "what any of us would have done in that situation," said Larson, who says she's not been involved in Smith's campaign previously. "This has no bearing on his ability to run the city, and I don't know what to say."

Repeatedly, Smith was given a chance to go beyond his talk of "rumors" and criticize his rival in the race, Charlie Hales, for engaging in a smear campaign. But Smith wouldn't quite take the bait and get specific—though he did mention the Hales campaign getting busted leaking to the media a tape recording of their endorsement interviews with the Oregon League of Conservation Voters.

"There are powerful interests wanting to take me down," he said. "What I don't know about is any involvement of any campaign."

Much of what he said to reporters was echoed in a long email also sent to supporters after news of the dropped charge broke, including a charge during the beginning of his press conference that he heard from a friend that reporters were knocking on friends' doors asking about the incident.

Smith also was asked whether his campaign had been coaching witnesses in the event that the incident, despite not being on record with the Lane County DA's office, ever came to light. He denied that. Bue he did cop to a few other unreported blemishes on his record.

When he was a high school student, he said, he was taken into custody for possessing alcohol. And, he said, he shoplifted lollipops as a young teenager.

This marks another in a bad run of stories for Smith that, especially when voters consider them quickly and without nuance, have begun to fit like a pattern. Reports are out about his tardiness paying his Bar dues and other paperwork, his incredibly checkered driving record. His hotheaded play during sports games. And now comes word of this incident, in which he chose not to go to trial to clear himself—which would have been a clearer refutation of what happened.

Hales also has had some dirty laundry—but Smith's has been way more in the news. Whether that's because there's really just more of it, or because the digging has been one-sided since Smith has decided not to do opposition research, remains unclear.

Hales does have Mark Wiener on his side, and Hales' allies and supporters are powerfully aware of how to work media behind the scenes to dump on and embarrass a candidate they don't like.

Smith probably should have been ahead of this a lot sooner. Like, years ago. When he was running for the Legislature. But when he first ran in 2008, for an open seat, there weren't million of dollars and the future of a city at stake.

All the same, I can't help but think Smith should still be even more forthcoming. Have we heard all there is to hear about this? Is it really just an accident at a crazy college party that cascaded into something serious? He could easily call his attorney, storage fire notwithstanding, and produce a copy of the settlement agreement.

"It's a bad night, the worst night of my life," he said, defending why he didn't speak up sooner.

In the last few months there have been rumors and whispers that someone has been planning a negative independent expenditure campaign against me. Our campaign has taken no polls, run no negative campaigning, and done no opposition research. I think that’s an important way to act as a candidate, and as a mayor.

I’ve heard untrue rumors and lies that seek to make this campaign about innuendo and personal smears rather than on our ideas and vision for the city.

Reporters have been knocking on my friends’ doors. I want everyone to know that when you have questions, you can just ask me. There’s something that happened to me in college that I think is the source of a rumor I’ve been hearing. I’m telling you the story now, so we can stop with the rumors and get on with our campaign to get Portland working, working better, and working for more people.

In college I was at a party, and there was a woman there that I didn’t know. She had had some drinks and fallen asleep on a couch with several people around. Someone pushed her off the couch, and she mistakenly thought it was me. She came at me, punching me. I held her wrists so she would stop, and when I let her arms go, she started hitting me again. Again trying to get her to stop, I pushed her away. She was coming at me at the same moment, and she was injured.

It was 19 years ago; I was a 20-year-old in college. It remains the worst night of my life, and it’s painful for me to write about. What happened was accidental. I immediately made sure she got to the hospital, and then reached an agreement with her to pay her medical bills and do community service. She’s a private citizen who didn’t choose to become a public figure like I did, and I was hoping that she wouldn’t have to be dragged into this campaign.

The city’s been through a lot and deserves a mayor who will tell the hard truths, even about ourselves. I want people to cast their vote with all the information they need to make the right choice. And I want my supporters to know that I will tell you the truth, even if it makes us all uncomfortable.

When I got into this race, I knew I’d lived an imperfect life, and I knew that my wife was a pretty private person. I knew this race could be hard. I did it because there’s so much at stake. I did it because there are people in my neighborhood who face much deeper challenges than anything I’ve had to face.

From the start, I’ve said this race is not about me. My greatest concern is not what happens to me, but that people get distracted from the critical needs of our city. We need to be talking about families struggling to make rent and hoping to stay off the street, folks out of work and worried about going hungry, kids falling further and further behind in school every summer, and the thousands of other hardships Portlanders go through every day. I’m not perfect, but we should be focused on doing our small part to fix problems for the 580,000 people in this city.

Now more than ever, I’m grateful for your support. And your friendship.

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