From a distance, Portland looks like an island of liberalism where everybody agrees on everything.
But up close, you get a very different view, as the recent vote on Congress Square Park shows.
There are conservatives in Portland – a lot of them. You just have to know what to look for. The Portland conservatives, for the most part, aren’t the kind who vote for Paul LePage or demand to know more about Benghazi. When they complain about Obamacare, it’s usually because it didn’t go far enough.
They can be seen as conservative only if you go back to William F. Buckley’s definition – as the guy “who stands athwart history yelling ‘Stop!’ ”
It’s not just the opposition to selling part of a neglected downtown park for development. There has been “conservative” opposition to a number of projects in the city, like the reuse of the Williston-West Church, the Federated Cos.’ “midtown” development in Bayside and the St. Lawrence Community Arts Center. This kind of activism is part of the city’s culture, going back to the historic preservation movement and the citizen-initiated working waterfront zoning referendum in the 1980s.
Like the right-wing conservatives, Portland conservatives have a distrust of government, a resistance to change and a lack of interest in compromise.
It’s not a movement yet, so it doesn’t have a leader or a name. Some of the people involved in it are members of the Green Independent Party, but others aren’t. Some of them have been involved in more than one of the above-mentioned battles, but most have not.
But they have enough in common to coalesce as a group, and they should. We are heading into an election season with two open seats on the City Council – a full quarter of the city’s governing body up for grabs at the same time. In 2015, Portland will have a mayoral election. Both campaigns would be the ideal times to articulate the ideas that tie these disparate groups together and apply the concepts to other issues. Is there a conservative agenda that Portlanders will embrace? Now’s the time to find out.
Calling someone a conservative in a liberal city might look like a snub, but that’s not how I mean it.
I like the conservatives and sometimes agree with them. I think that political diversity is a good thing, and that Portland would benefit from a little more of it. Nothing would be better than a real debate over what kind of city Portland should be.
In power now we have a group we can call the “progressives,” and they are led by the mayor, Michael Brennan.
They backed reusing the vacant Williston-West Church as an office, building a high-rise apartment building in Bayside and selling most of Congress Square Park to the owners of the Eastland Hotel. There is a common thread of being open to development that increases the city’s tax base to help pay for services that cost more every year.
Brennan has also been a strong advocate for social services and for education, from early childhood to college. He’s fought with the state over cuts to programs like General Assistance and the politically motivated decision to move the Department of Health and Human Services office from downtown to a suburban office park.
What do we call their opponents? “Neoconservative” is already taken. How about “left-wing conservative”?
Their agenda is harder to summarize. For instance, backers of the Congress Square referendum called for the re-establishment of the Parks Department (it was merged with Public Services in 2008) but didn’t say whether increased taxes or cuts to other programs would pay for it.
The opponents of midtown want “human-scale” development in Bayside, but offer no guidance into how to finance the infrastructure improvements that the former industrial zone needs.
The left-wing conservatives have shown a lack of confidence in representative democracy, preferring the referendum process to a divided council’s vote. Creating the position of elected mayor was supposed to help focus public opinion, but some in Portland seem more comfortable sharing the power broadly, like at a big town meeting.
The challenge for both the progressives and the left-wing conservatives is to come up with a plan to address the city’s most serious problems, none of which is overdevelopment.
These are my top three:
• The school-age population gets poorer every year.
• The city is becoming unaffordable for middle-class families.
• Cars are still the most practical way to get around.
Underlying all of these issues is a tax burden that is becoming too heavy and will likely get worse when a decade of $600,000-a-unit condo conversions gets factored into the next property revaluation.
Are there candidates out there who are ready to articulate a vision for Portland that unites all these pockets of dissent and takes on the bigger issues?
If there are, this could get interesting.
Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or at: