Portland Mayor Charlie Hales offered a very unexpected admonition during an informal, invite-only meeting yesterday. It was a veiled criticism of Portland’s transportation advocates — and bike advocates in particular. Yes, you read that right, bike advocates: the group many Portlanders (mistakenly) assume wields unlimited power in City Hall.
Hales’ comments came at the end of a brief speech he gave while standing in the new Ankeny Plaza on SW 3rd in front of about two dozen advocates, city staffers, and other local leaders. His remarks were mostly about his support for Better Naito, the importance of great public spaces and the city’s new “livable streets strategy.” But then he ended with a plea for more support from advocates — many of whom were standing right in front of him.
I happened to have my recorder on. Here’s the transcript (with my emphasis added):
“Let me make a brief political announcement for those of you who are advocates. And that is, when you have a progressive city government with progressive city bureaus, that doesn’t mean that the good things will always happen on auto-pilot. Advocacy is still necessary. The enemy of this kind of progress generally is not loud opposition. I mean, everything we do has some backlash; we do get some phone calls to my office complaining about Better Naito. But that will happen whether we do something or we don’t do something. So the problem isn’t opposition, the problem is just inertia and taking things for granted. So for those of you who are advocates, even though this is Portland, remember that a lot of the success we’ve had as a city is because bike advocates have been loud and clear about where we should go.
So my political advice to all of you as bike advocates is keep being loud and keep being clear because that will empower a council that already wants to do the right thing, to do so. And don’t just assume it will happen without advocacy because drift is the enemy. That’s my political admonition and good advice to my friends.”
I caught up with Hales afterward and asked for clarification. He offered affordable housing advocates as a model to follow:
“Complacency is the enemy. Just because we’re Portland, just because we have a progressive city council and progressive transportation bureau doesn’t mean we’ll go at the pace that we should. So advocates need to advocate.
And if you need an example of how spectacularly successful that can be, take a look at our housing agenda. We just committed 45 percent of all available urban renewal money to afforable housing. We did that because we do have a housing crisis and everyone recognizes it; but the housing advocacy coalition has been very loud and very clear about what the city needs to do and that has helped advance that agenda. And I think the transportation advocacy community needs to be similarly vocal.”
And have you seen this playing out during your time in office? I asked.
“Yes. Again, I don’t want to be critical of my friends and allies; but it’s easy to get complacent… ‘Oh it’s Portland, of course they’ll do the right thing.’ Well, we should [do the right thing].”
He said that last part as we walked away, smiling, as if to say council will do the wrong thing unless advocates step up and speak up. And in my book, when someone says, “I don’t want to be critical of…” that means they do in fact want to be critical and they’re just trying to soften the blow.
“I don’t want to be critical of my friends and allies; but it’s easy to get complacent.”
— Charlie Hales, Portland mayor
It was a fascinating glimpse into the mind of Portland’s most powerful elected official. Three and-a-half years into his four-year term he’s imploring transportation reformers to do better so he and his council colleagues can move more quickly in their efforts to remake Portland’s streets.
Hales’ comments reminded me of similar remarks made by his predecessor Sam Adams. In June 2010 at the annual fundraising event for the Bicycle Transportation Alliance, Adams also tried to light a fire under bike advocates’ feet after not feeling enough love when he needed it. “What got us to the dance, won’t keep us dancing,” he told the crowd, who surely expected to hear nothing but effusive praise for the BTA on their big night. “Our success has not come without pushback,” he added.
Adams asked bike advocates to be louder and more supportive of city council, who were getting clobbered with negative feedback about the mayor’s proposal to spend $20 million from the city’s water bureau to help jump-start the Bike Master Plan. The BTA had just hired a new leader (Rob Sadowsky), and Adams sensed the time was right for a bit of prodding. “The new leadership of this organization combined with the existing advocacy can take us there,” he said. “City government cannot do it on our own.”
There was a similar context to both remarks. So, do they have a point? Or are they just scapegoating advocates for their own mistakes and lack of accomplishments in the area of bike infrastructure and innovative street designs?
I often think of a chicken-and-egg scenario as I watch this interplay between electeds and advocates:
ADVOCATE: Please do more!
POLITICIAN: No, you do more first, then we’ll do more!
ADVOCATE: No, you do more first then we’ll do more!
POLITICIAN: Ugh. I’ll go work a different issue then.
In the end, this might be a case of unrealistic expecations — on both sides of the equation.
As citizens (and especially as passionate activists) we want everything right away and we expect politicians to make it happen. That’s not a realistic expectation, but some of us still get frustrated with the pace of change. And mayors probably have unrealistic expecations of advocates — especially in a city like Portland where the reputation of a “bike lobby” is much more myth than reality. If I had a nickel for every time I heard a politician say, “We are really going to need the bike community’s support on this!” I wouldn’t have to worry about paying the bills.
From my experience, absent a major tragedy or funding/project opportunity to rally around, it’s very rare for advocates (regardless of the issue) to coalesce around a single demand. This is especially true in today’s world where community activism has become disintermediated and democratized away from the traditional, institutional advocacy groups and toward individuals and the grassroots. In other words, if you wait around for unanimity from “the bike community,” you’ll never get anything done.
I’ve been very critical of Hales in the past, but I’m glad he spoke up about this. It’s an important discussion to have, especially as we welcome a new mayor to town, PBOT seems to have gotten its groove back, and the BTA is in the midst of a major re-structuring.
Stay tuned for details about an upcoming Wonk Night where we’ll discuss how we can all work together to move forward faster.
— Jonathan Maus, (503) 706-8804 – firstname.lastname@example.org
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