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Regional Interests

New advocacy group wants ‘bold action’ from Portland’s elected leaders

Tents and debris line the sidewalk in front of a building with ‘For Lease’ signs on SW 12th Avenue in Portland, June 24, 2021.
Tents and debris line the sidewalk in front of a building with ‘For Lease’ signs on SW 12th Avenue in Portland, June 24, 2021.

The new People for Portland nonprofit advocacy group was co-founded by two consultants usually on opposite sides of political causes. Dan Lavey and Kevin Looper are calling for “bold action” from the city government to house people living outside, clean up city streets and fund public safety, including non-police response to some emergencies. They say these objectives are not political but practical. Levy and Looper join us to give us more details about these goals and how they want to accomplish them.

The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. If you’ve watched local TV recently or gone on Facebook, there’s a good chance you’ve seen ads put out by a new advocacy group called People for Portland. Politicians, the ad says, are doing too little too slowly to rescue our broken city. The group has laid out some bullet points with what they want those politicians to do. They include more temporary housing for people experiencing homelessness, more police officers for neighborhood patrols and more cleanup of trash and graffiti. The group has also gotten pushback for not divulging its funders and for proposing quick fixes that haven’t worked in the past. I’m joined now by the two co-founders of People for Portland. They are longtime political consultants who have often been on opposite sides of issues. Kevin Looper is a principal at Wheelhouse Northwest and the Executive Director of the Oregon Progressive Alliance. Dan Lavey is a Partner and President of Gallatin Public Affairs. He served as a strategist for the Republican US Senator Gordon Smith. It’s good to have both of you back on the show.

Dan Lavey: Hi there.

Kevin Looper: Good to be here.

Dave Miller: Kevin Looper, first, how did this group come to be?

Kevin Looper: Well, Dan and I actually usually don’t work together. We’ve been on opposite sides of, I think, the last three gubernatorial campaigns, but we are people who get phone calls when folks don’t know what to do and elected people tend to be folks who want to be something, at least more so than perhaps having an agenda to do something. So this was the moment when we both got a bunch of phone calls and we reached to each other out of frustration that, as we talked to experts, and we talked to elected officials and then we decided to do some polling, we discovered that the public actually seems to know a lot more of what needs to be done and has a greater sense of urgency than those who we’ve elected to lead.

Dave Miller: Dan Lavey, what do you mean by that? The public knows more about what needs to be done and a greater sense of urgency than elected leaders?

Dan Lavey: Well, if you look at the polling that we’ve put on our website, https://peopleforportland.org/ (peopleforportland.org), it’s all accessible and available for people to look at. There is a gale force wind blowing against the current local elected officials in terms of their job performance on these key areas: public safety, homelessness, cleaning up the garbage, etcetera. And the best way, based on Kevin’s and my experience, to get elected officials to respond and take action is to help activate their constituents, their voters. So the purpose of our organization is simply to amplify the voices of everyday Portlanders and to make it easier to connect themselves to elected officials, through a few clicks of a button, to send an email or to download a video to tell your story. And that’s where, that’s the goal of our group.

Dave Miller: Do you both currently live in Portland?

Kevin Looper: Yes, I live in Raleigh Hills.

Dan Lavey: I have a Portland address. I’m about, I don’t know, a quarter mile from the Multnomah County, City of Portland line. I’ve lived there my whole life.

Dave Miller: What exactly do you want elected leaders to do about homelessness?

Dan Lavey: Kevin, you want to go or do you want me?

Kevin Looper: Why don’t you go ahead and I’ll come back clean up.

Dan Lavey: So the big debate, the unfortunate debate that Portland and Multnomah County has been high centered on for too long, is this idea of short term versus long term solutions and the current architects, engineers and builders of the policies that we are living under suggests that helping people in the short term is somehow going to jeopardize the ability to assist them in the long term. We disagree with that. We think that the best way to help somebody in the long term is to get them off the streets as quickly as possible, into a safer environment with access to basic human necessities and that it’s a false and failed choice to say that you can’t help people in the short term because it’s somehow will jeopardize the ability to help them in the long term.

Dave Miller: I actually, let me interrupt there because that isn’t exactly the way I have read the debate as I’ve seen it. Not that helping somebody in the short term, for example, by putting them into some kind of emergency housing that’s not a tent on the side of the road. It’s not that that would make it harder to help them long term. It’s a question of resources and a dollar you put towards an emergency option is a dollar you cannot put towards permanent housing that seemingly everybody sees as the best long-term solution. So it’s not a question of one kind of help negating another. But how do you spend X number of dollars?

Dan Lavey:  No, that’s just wrong.

Kevin Looper: That’s wrong.

Dan Lavey: Yeah. There’s no question of resources right now. We just spent a quarter of a billion dollars achieving quorum for the Legislature. The city of Portland just spent $200 million from the feds without changing what we’re doing around homelessness or community safety. It’s a question of priorities here. They have the money, they have the power, they just lack the courage of our convictions.

Dave Miller: So, Kevin Looper, what exactly are you saying, so it’s clear you’re saying they’re not doing enough right now to get emergency shelters for people that are better than tents. What exactly do you want to do in terms of numbers? What do you want elected leaders to do?

Kevin Looper: Well, in terms of numbers, it would be nice if we started out actually having some. So we understood the size of the problem that we need to actually address. They have unfortunately gotten way too slow on being able to just inventory this problem as it’s been exploding on us. But setting that aside, the main thing is we need to understand how to get case managers involved and separate those who need a little bit of help, a place to sleep tonight that’s not on the streets, as you mentioned, would be a great place to start for a lot of folks. But other people need a lot more intensive services, they have very serious problems with addiction or with mental health and they’re gonna need different outcomes. So there’s not one solution here and, and that’s one of the things that we are battling is the idea that trying to mandate one solution here is what we’re proposing. It is not. It’s just taking seriously that when we say it’s a humanitarian crisis unfolding on the streets every night, we can’t treat it like a priority that we deal with in terms of annual budget cycles. Six years ago we declared a homeless crisis in this city. Charlie Hales was the mayor and Ted Wheeler was criticizing him for waiting three years into his term to realize that we need to do something now. Well, fast forward to now. We’re still, we have a worse problem.

Dave Miller: Metro says that by the end of the current fiscal year, meaning June of 2022, It will have created new permanent housing units for 2500 people who are either currently experiencing homelessness or are at risk of becoming homeless. And it will build 900 new year-round shelter beds in the region. And that’s just this year. More is going to follow as tax revenues ramp up. So what more are you calling for? I mean if the heart of this is to do more faster and the powers that be say this is what we’re doing currently, what extra do you want them to do? Dan Lavey?

Dan Lavey: Well, if you’re suggesting that the size of the response is equal to the size of the problem, I think you’re wrong. The reality...

Dave Miller: I’m actually trying to get numbers from you saying this is what the elected leaders are saying they’re doing now. You’re saying they’re not doing enough. I’m just trying to pin you down on what you think is the appropriate number.

Dan Lavey: Well then let me just say this, the joint office of homelessness at the last meeting of Home for Everyone said there are 2500 people on the streets of Portland right now. Maybe more. Maybe less. That’s a direct quote. That’s based on a point in time study from 2019. What we know, for sure, is that that is wrong by a factor of 3-5 and I’m glad that they have plans to get a couple thousand people off the street. They also had plans to get temporary shelters up by September and it’s September and they’re not up. So I would love to hold their feet to the fire and make sure that those plans actually get implemented because it’s not about short versus long term. We need to do both. But it is absolutely the case that politicians as a class tend to go low, keep their head low and go slow for a reason. They’re allergic to criticism and patience is not what’s called for here. If they’re in a crisis, then we need to treat it like that. And we need to understand that every night on the street, people are subject to physical threats, to theft, to just the insecurity and, boy, just living on the edge as so many people are. If we’re going to call ourselves advocates, we need to actually be doing something that changes the situation tomorrow, not five years now.

Dave Miller: How much have the two of you been talking to people who are actually experiencing homelessness right now as you’ve been crafting your proposals?

Kevin Looper: Well, I’ll take that one. Today, we’re releasing four new television ads that all feature, actually features five people that have experienced or have points of view on the issues we’re talking about from different perspectives. One mother and son, Debbie and Josh, I interviewed in the Winco parking lot out near Lents about three or four weeks ago. They’ve been homeless, living in their minivan for quite some time. And I would encourage people to go watch the 3-4 minute video that we have on our website. They were incredibly articulate, wise, passionate and caring, not just about themselves and the predicament they find themselves in, but they’re concerned for their community and the city that is their hometown that they love. And so what’s remarkable about the work we’ve been doing is the unanimity or how people from different perspectives, economic, social, cultural, geographic, age, all have a common message and a common story and that’s also reflected in our polling so that this is not a narrow set of people. So I would encourage people to go to our website, listen to the video from Debbie and Josh and amplify that story to our elected officials.

Dave Miller: What is the timeline or what are the actions that you would see from Metro or the county or the City of Portland or frankly in the other two counties in the Portland metro region that would lead you to believe that elected officials are acting with the appropriate level of urgency?

Dan Lavey: The test on this is literally what you see when you walk around, that we’ve got probably two years according to the experts to be able to keep Portland being what it was before we had multiple crises unfold and I do understand it’s multiple-layered here. This is a complicated set of circumstances, but the actions with which we respond have a short timetable if we’re going to keep Portland from being excoriated like many other large cities have been in all the action moving to the suburbs, for festivals, for dinners, for businesses relocating. And if we’re going to do that, there’s some very simple things that really aren’t all that hard that need to be done. The trash needs to be cleaned up and the graffiti done. That’s a bureaucratic problem. And we do have the resources. We just don’t have the will to bring together the agencies and act on it. Public safety needs a whole bunch of responses. We need body cams so that both people breaking the law and those enforcing it are held accountable. But we also need to use the resources better of the police we have. It’s not just more police. It’s that we need to have non-violent street response where appropriate rather than having people with guns dealing with that. People with guns need to deal with people with guns and we’re doing a bad job on that too. So there’s a lot to be done. But mostly what we need to do is spur action and the problem that we have is actually not even the politicians. It’s about people having the hope to believe that we shouldn’t succumb to being numb to the changes in the world around us as Portland slips away.

Dave Miller: I’m curious, because I actually, from reading your website and talking to the two of you now, the sense I got was that the problem is politicians. At heart, it is, as you’ve put it, or at least as you’ve alluded to, timid or apprehensive politicians who are more afraid of making some mistake than of taking a stand. Did I read you wrong?

Dan Lavey: No. You’re just oversimplifying. The solution space is around those who have the power and the money. Politicians have to act. So they are, in that sense, a problem. But what we’re trying to do is provide a platform for the public to speak out. Because what we do know is, those voices are being ignored by those in elected office, as they pay more attention to those on the inside and try to keep their heads down and avoid criticism. But those voices are critical and when they do speak up, they will be listened to. The mayor just announced yesterday, finally, that his response to the Antifa and Proud Boys announced street-fight of saying, we need to ‘Choose Love’ on his Zoom call was the wrong response. And he did that because of public outcry. We need more public outcry. We need an election every day to hold all these people accountable.

Dave Miller: If you’ve just arrived, folks, I’m talking right now with the two co-founders of the advocacy group, People for Portland, Kevin Looper and Dan Lavey. Go ahead.

Kevin Looper: Cities are fragile things. They’re not a foregone conclusion. The success and livability and wonderful things that people love about Portland are not a foregone conclusion. And unless we take action, and I think what community members, whether they be a resident, whether they have someone in school, whether they’re a business person, someone who enjoys a cultural event, they want to be able to see that the city is being governed and can be governed. And the city is not exclusively the responsibility of the City Council. You’ve got the Multnomah County Commission, you’ve got the elected DA, the elected sheriff, you’ve got metro counselors, you’ve got the state of Oregon, you’ve got 16 or 17 legislators who all touch the city of Portland. All of those people have a responsibility to nurture and restore and rescue the city. And how goes Portland has a huge impact on how goes the region and how goes the state. And so we just want to provide an opportunity for lots of fed up and frustrated Portlanders to be able to express themselves. And the first step, we’ve delivered over 80,000 emails so far in just three weeks to 36 elected officials. We have thousands of people visiting our website and following us on social media and other things. And we will be putting out more specific things as time goes on, as it relates to proposals that would be before elected bodies over the course of the next few months.

Dave Miller: Let me turn to funding. This is a question you’ve been asked a number of times recently, based on the way you’ve set up this advocacy nonprofit and essentially you’ve said, hey, we’re no different than Planned Parenthood or Basic Rights Oregon or plenty of other advocacy groups where people who fund those organizations, those contributions can be anonymous. I’m curious, I mean, if one of your larger points is that you essentially represent the majority of Portland, is what you’re saying is what I suppose perhaps a previously silent majority believes and feels, then why are you worried about a backlash if funders would become public?

Kevin Looper: I wish more people would become public like Tim Boyle, the head of Columbia Sportswear has on this, but it is the case that like Planned Parenthood, there are issues that make people not want to come forward. The coffee shop owner we interviewed, her interview is on the website, people should look at it for appearing on that video. Her coffee shop got vandalized. Dan was out there literally scraping rotten egg off of her coffee shop. She was punished for stepping forward and in this environment right now, politically, it is so charged, there’s a reason why people would seek to have an advocacy issue advocacy group speak with one voice rather than being held accountable individually and the interest of disclosure is really about disclosing who benefits, but nobody benefits individually from the common good. This is about trying to get the larger voice of the people heard by politicians. And we are going to put on our platform individual videos, individual voices and we’re urging people to speak individually. But the idea of disclosing everybody is one that comes from the folks that would rather silence the entire thing.

Dave Miller: Do you have intentions right now or can you see a future where your group would bring a measure or measures directly to voters at the ballot box?

Dan Lavey: Possibly, But we have certain limitations as a c-4 of what we can do. But our initial focus is to advocate to and amplify the voices of our local elected officials who have the responsibility and the power to do things much more quickly, if they choose to, then something that would require a ballot measure or something like that, many, many months or years down the line. So, for the time being, there are people in office who have the power and the resources to be able to make change and we want to amplify the voices of their constituents and their voters to drive those policy changes.

Dave Miller: Kevin, briefly before I say goodbye, because we’re almost out of time. But another theory I’ve heard is that your group is actually that part of the impetus behind this is to maybe take the wind out of the sails of Portland area gubernatorial candidates for 2022, like House Speaker Tina Kotek or perhaps Multnomah County Commissioner Deborah Kafoury. And the theory goes, to build momentum for an independent candidate such as Senator Betsy Johnson. What is your response to this theory?

Kevin Looper: Oh my God, the degree of cynicism here from elected officials who are afraid that we’re either recruiting candidates against them or there’s a cynical plan behind it. We’re putting forth an opportunity for public discussion when they’re ignoring the public. The problems of the state, I promise you, lie far beyond what we’re trying to do in Portland. And this is hard enough and we got a short period of time. Dan and I haven’t agreed on a candidate for governor in the last three cycles and you don’t have the time on your show to debate our theories on how to fix the state. But we should, we should be working together to try to fix the city we love. I’ve got a seven-year old I’d like to raise in this place. And it’s hard when we can’t even have a public discussion, when the elected officials are ignoring 91% of people. We’ve got a more fundamental problem than looking for some cynical background Machiavellian plan. This is what it is. It’s demanding that people get hurt and giving them the opportunity to speak.

Dave Miller: Kevin Looper and Dan Lavy, thanks very much for joining us today. I appreciate it.

Dan Lavey: You got it!

Dave Miller: Kevin Looper and Dan Lavey, they are the co-founders of the advocacy group People for Portland.

If you’d like to comment on any of the topics in this show or suggest a topic of your own, please get in touch with us on Facebook or Twitter, send an email to thinkoutloud@opb.org, or you can leave a voicemail for us at 503-293-1983. The call-in phone number during the noon hour is 888-665-5865.

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