PORTLAND — Ralph Carmona made a career out of lobbying and an interest in public policy. He spent five years as chief lobbyist for the California division of Bank of America.
In Sacramento, he lobbied and advocated for the sixth-largest utility district in the country.
He has worked with governors, mayors, presidential candidates and congressmen. So if the mayor elected by Portland voters Nov. 8 is expected to lobby for the city in Augusta and Washington, D.C. — one of the 15 or so duties outlined in the city charter — Carmona said no one will do it better than he.
“I’m comfortable in that position,” he said. “I’ve done it before. There’s a difference between my experience and the other candidates’ experience.”
Carmona, 60, grew up in a rough barrio in East Los Angeles. He said his alcoholic father routinely beat him, his siblings and his mother. His family lived in such poverty that he thought the dirt covering his arms was part of his skin.
But in high school, he got involved with the Chicano pride movement that swept certain parts of Los Angeles. He participated in student walkouts and became politically active.
Despite being a mediocre student, an affirmative action-type program helped him get into the University of Southern California. There, he struggled “but worked my butt off,” and earned several political internships, including one with U.S. Rep. Edward Roybal.
At 21, he was elected as a California delegate to the 1972 Democratic National Convention. A photo above Carmona’s desk at his home on North Street shows him, sporting a mop of thick black hair and sideburns, shaking hands with presidential candidate George McGovern.
Carmona eventually earned a doctorate from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and later was named a UC regent. He parlayed his political interests into lobbying jobs in the public and private sectors.
“He’s got really diverse experience, and a wealth of it,” said Joan Sheedy, a Carmona supporter and fellow board member of the Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Association. “I just think at 60, and with his career, he has a lot more experience under his belt than the others. And I think that’s important.”
As mayor, Carmona said he would use that experience to lobby for more state and federal funds for public transportation, alternative energy, schools and emerging technologies — 21st century issues that the federal and state governments will continue to fund until America catches up with the rest of the world.
“We need to prepare Portland for the shift in economic focus,” he said. “That will be one of my top goals.”
Carmona is new to Portland. He moved here in February 2010, after falling in love with and marrying a Portland woman. His wife, Vana, was a high-end travel agent in California and took him on a tour of Portland several years ago. Carmona was struck by the “joyfulness” of the city.
Residents seemed to enjoy walking and biking and taking in the city. They participated in art, community events and public policy, he said. He also liked the city’s proximity to the ocean — much like California — and the changing seasons.
When they moved here, Carmona had no intention of running for political office, but he soon got involved in city and state politics.
In conjunction with the League of Young Voters, he led a campaign in Portland to give legal immigrants the right to vote. The ballot question lost, 51 percent to 49 percent.
He also lobbied for the Dream Act, became vice chair of the Portland Democratic Committee, joined the Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Organization, began teaching Portland politics at the Maine Senior College and started a chapter for the League of United Latin American Citizens.
Others took notice. Neighbors, students and friends, including Larry Gilbert, the mayor of Lewiston, urged him to run.
“He’s got integrity, character and accomplishments,” Gilbert said. “He gets things done.”
Carmona is a long shot to win Nov. 8, say observers who are watching the race closely. He has received no endorsements from any major groups. He has sometimes struggled to stand out during mayoral forums. And his lack of connections in the city puts him at a major disadvantage to his competitors.
But Carmona believes he’s a dark horse worth betting on. He has knocked on about 3,000 doors, he said, and likes what he has seen and heard.
“Don’t count me out,” Carmona said during a recent interview at Hot Suppa!. “Every voter I meet responds to me positively. It’s just a matter of how many I can reach before Nov. 8.”
Staff Writer Jason Singer can be contacted at 791-6437 or at: [email protected]