Podcast: Get to know Portland mayoral candidate Keith Wilson

Keith Wilson, a candidate for Portland mayor, speaking at Bike Happy Hour on February 14th. (Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

As I listened to Keith Wilson give a speech at Bike Happy Hour last night it occurred to me his life has been sort of like Forrest Gump. He’s got an interesting and diverse background and set of life experiences you’d never expect from a trucking company CEO. If you knew that his company, Titan Freight Systems, runs and all-electric fleet and that just before coming to the event last night he gave invited testimony on decarbonization in the freight industry to the State of Washington Transportation Commission, or that he was once so poor he spent nights in LaGuardia Airport, or that he takes 12 at-risk Black youth camping once a year, you might begin to understand what I mean.

Wilson spoke to a rapt crowd last night about growing up poor in north Portland and being the first person in his family to go to college (Portland Community College), then moving from home to take a job as a sales intern at NBC in Manhattan. When he didn’t land a job, he ran out of money and spent nights in LaGuardia Airport. “I thought to myself, if you’re homeless, where do you go? You go to the place with carpet, because Newark Airport had tile.”

These days Wilson divides his time between his company and his nonprofit, Shelter Now PDX. He said he found himself pulled toward the homelessness problem because — despite building Titan Freight into a success and being named national “Innovator of the Year” two years in a row — “Six, seven years ago, I started looking around and I didn’t recognize my city anymore,” he shared last night. “If I’m operating in the backdrop of a community where my neighbors can’t live, where livability is compromised, we’ve got a problem.”

Wilson dove head-first into getting people off the street. He shared the story of how he called TriMet GM Doug Kelsey to ask if he could make a shelter at Gateway Transit Center. “They let me borrow the parking garage, ’cause I said to them: ‘If we can shelter cars better than people, what sort of humanity are we?'” (That line got a big applause.) The idea didn’t work though (it was way too cold and volunteers nearly froze), so Wilson started to use churches and community centers. He says his organization is currently sheltering about 45 people in a church near I-205 and Powell Blvd at a cost of $16.36 per person per night. “A [city of Portland-run] Safe Rest Village tonight is going to cost us as a community $189 dollars per person,” Wilson boasted. “I can shelter Portlanders for a 10th of the cost our city is currently doing it.”

Throughout the night, Wilson referred to his objections to handing out tents to homeless Portlanders like Multnomah County and others do. “What sort of community are we when we allow our neighbors to live and die on the street and we’re handing out tents instead of providing the basic need of a shelter?” he asked rhetorically. When I asked if he supported Commissioner Rene Gonzalez’s move to end tent dispersal by Portland Street Response, he said, “That was all politics.”

“What was ‘all politics?’, Gonzalez’s move or the policy of handing out tents?” I responded. He answered:

“You have a city elected leader saying, ‘I’m going to take away tents’; but what else? I mean they, we, still need to provide care… We shouldn’t have people camping on the street. Why would you give out tents? Which means that you’re supporting the behavior, you’re enabling the behavior — when we should just be supplying basic shelter for that person. It was a half-measure. It was all politics. But the reality, if you peel that away, Jonathan, it showed we’re failing our community.”

Why were we [giving out tents] in the first place? We shouldn’t be. And if I were Rene Gonzalez, I’d be saying, ‘I want shelter available for every single person because nobody should be on the streets.’ … I would come out and say, I’m not gonna hand out tents, but I am going to set up enough shelters to care for my neighbors.”

Another person in the audience pushed back on that answer and he explained it further. Then someone asked how he’d deliver services to people in shelters (and not just put a roof over their head). It was a good conversation and I recommend listening to it for yourself. The audio of that exchange is below:

Here are a few other excerpts…

Wilson is a nationally-recognized high speed rail advocate and is working to bring a line to Oregon. Here’s a clip where he describes what he experienced riding HSR in Europe:

Wilson garnered recognition in the trucking industry for installing AI-assisted anti-distracted driving tech in his vehicles. Listen to him share the story of how he fought pushback from drivers, weighed their concerns with his commitment to safety, and ultimately won them over:

Listen to the full episode above, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)

Founder of BikePortland (in 2005). Father of three. North Portlander. Basketball lover. Car owner and driver. If you have questions or feedback about this site or my work, feel free to contact me at @jonathan_maus on Twitter, via email at maus.jonathan@gmail.com, or phone/text at 503-706-8804. Also, if you read and appreciate this site, please become a supporter.

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Surly Ogre
Joe Bicycles
2 months ago

Keith was really great at Bicycle Happy Hour on Wednesday night.
He seems to have a good understanding of how to solve problems.
He understands the need to prioritize safety over profits.
His company prioritizes Quality, Safety and Sustainability.
Now he needs support to be elected Mayor and a budget once he is sworn in.

MarkM
MarkM
2 months ago

Thanks, Jonathan. I listened to your full podcast last night. I appreciate you hosting Keith. I found his practical approach to solving problems and his let’s-get-this-done perspective refreshing.

Among other positions, I agree with his comments about providing shelter to those who are living on our streets and the need for high-speed rail (hopefully in my lifetime). I think someone with his experience is needed in Portland right now. He’s now on my short list of mayoral candidates.

Finally, as the son of a long-haul trucker, I was impressed to learn about the innovative safety measures Titan Freight Systems is taking. And I think my dad (RIP) would agree.

MarkM
MarkM
19 days ago
Reply to  MarkM

I met Keith in person last night at a campaign event. I had the opportunity to talk to him at length one-on-one. In short, he moved up on my list.

David Raboin
David Raboin
2 months ago

His answer to the tent question needs some polishing, but outside of that, he seems like a good candidate. He sounds like he genuinely cares about the homeless and he’s realistic when he expresses that we can best help the homeless by controlling costs and stretching the funding as far as possible. His language and ideas could appeal to people on the left and the right. I’d vote for Wilson over Rene or Mapps. I haven’t heard enough from Rubio to make a decision.

dan
dan
2 months ago

I’ve been connected with Keith on LinkedIn ever since I bought a campaign sign for his city council run and he came to deliver it in person. I’ve been really impressed at the breadth and depth of the commitment that I’ve seen there to his core focus areas: transportation and transportation safety, the homeless crisis, and the Word is Bond non-profit. Combine that with his proven executive / management experience, and I think he’s the most appealing mayoral candidate we’ve had in a long time.

Serenity
Serenity
2 months ago

Sounds like I missed a great happy hour this week! ☺️

Serenity
Serenity
2 months ago

Pretty sure Doug Kelsey thought I was crazy, too.

Lisa Caballero (Assistant Editor)
Editor

Thank you Jonathan and Keith, that was good to listen to.