Friday, January 27, 2006

Interview with Portland City Commissioner, Erik Sten

City Commissioner Erik Sten has been questioned for his positions on the takeover of PGE, public financing, and the 10-year plan to end homelessness. Local media, political adversaries, and traditional business critics have kept Sten on the ropes for most of the last year, but in his nine years at City Hall, foes have never taken him out of the game.

Street Roots recently talked with Sten about the lagging business climate in Portland, homelessness, and what the future holds for the City of Roses.

S.R.: What do you say to those Portlanders who are whispering, "Where is Erik Sten?"

Sten: I didn't expect the amount of backlash I received with all the issues around PGE. I realized this had nothing to do with getting electric rates down, it was all about who is in control of things. PGE is owned by out-of-state interests. You can't even get to the people who own the utilities. Some of our leadership is hiding behind a structure that has been gone for 10 years. I think it's a generational piece, and I'm not sure if some of the longtime players in the community have their pulse on what's happening.

I've felt very good about the work that I do. If you keep doing the same things, you aren't going to get anything done, and we chose to push things. I have been surprised at times, and to be honest, a little hurt by how nasty the backlash has been. But it's so obviously orchestrated by moneyed interest that I'm fighting. What I find from Portlanders is that everyone is engaged and talking about the issues. There are two worlds out there - those who chose to put a spin on everything, and the rest of us, and I love working with the rest of us.

S.R.: What about the left asking, "Where is Erik Sten?"

Sten: Well, the problem with the left is why I love being on the left, and that is you always want more. I love that, and I have that myself. Everyone has his or her own opinion. When people in the progressive community are pushing and prodding I take it for what it is - a desire for a better world, and I share that desire.

It's also why we have horrible leadership in this country up and down the ladder. We don't tolerate failure, and you compare that to the business world where people fail all the time and it's just written off in business models. If you go to any successful business, they're going to tell you that you have to take risks, therefore you have to fail. You just have to succeed more than you fail. In politics, if you try something and it doesn't work, people come after you. The rational thing for politicians to do is to not try anything, so that has led us to where we are. I think we have a great team at City Hall willing to try new things, and that excites me.

S.R.: What are some the biggest challenges for city government in 2006?

Sten: On issues like transportation, parks, and affordable housing, we have a lot of momentum. I think we have some great strategies, it's finding a way to implement them.

I still think we're lacking a shared strategy between business and the community. I don't say city government and business because I think in a lot of ways city government represents the community. We need a shared thesis, and I'm willing to give a little bit, but we need to be on the same page and that continues to be a struggle.

In the next five years we have to have a source of funding for affordable housing. And it's not going to happen if we just show up to work each day, and punch the clock. It's going to take some real leadership, a lot of great organizing, and some luck. It's going to take efforts at all levels.

Housing problems are getting worse with prices going up. For example, with the real estate transfer fee - there's a relatively influential group of real estate agents that has formed a coalition to fight their industries on this issue. That's very hopeful. There's a lot of talk among progressive people that we should only support those real estate agents with our business. If people buy into that kind of thinking we will see some changes in the coming years.

S.R.: In a lot of ways, Portland has gotten off easy with the 10-year plan to end homelessness. Some cities are facing a fight with major providers refusing to take part in the Homeless Management Information System, and advocates crashing planning meetings. The administration and HUD seem to be lost at sea on the issue of homelessness and housing. Are you confident this plan will do what it says it's going to do - end homelessness in 10 years?

S.R.: I always flinch when we say we're going to end homelessness in 10 years, but I don't think we can aspire to anything less. We can't set a goal of anything less than ending homelessness, and we're not going to get to that goal without the greater community helping the homeless reintegrate themselves back into society.

HUD right now is extraordinarily hypocritical. They're requiring us to write 10-year plans at a time when they are cutting resources. A big part of the issue is human. It's being able to build support systems and relationships with people.

One of things I've felt with Portland's strategy is - let's show people better outcomes with existing resources, and build their trust to go for the bigger ideas, such as a (real estate) transfer tax. People's willingness to help on this issue is very high; their confidence that anything is going to change is really low. If we show some results, then more people will step up to the plate.

S.R.: In Seattle and San Francisco there are panhandlers on almost every corner, and those downtowns are swimming in commerce. Why are stakeholders in Portland hell-bent on blaming the city's business woes on panhandlers and homelessness? They're almost fixated on panhandlers and homelessness.

Sten: I think we've wasted a lot of time on the homeless merry-go-round on discussions about downtown crackdowns. My feeling is that there are some bad actors on the streets, and we should be more careful in enforcing the laws. We're always looking for an easy out. There's an idea out there that if you outlaw something such as sitting you will solve the problem, and there's no evidence of this. I don't support some of these laws philosophically, and even if you did, it doesn't mean it's an effective approach. I think we're missing the point in these discussions.

S.R.: It's interesting to me to see business think tanks in other cities on the West Coast talking about how do we boost trade and build relationships with Hanoi and Hong Kong, but in Portland business lobbyists seem almost fixated with the idea that panhandlers are the problem.

Sten: It is an excuse to worry about the wrong things. I agree that there is some other conversation that's being avoided by continuing to talk about these issues, but I also think really aggressive people who cross the line do hurt the homeless plight and you have to go after the criminal element.

S.R.: Will six police officers chasing junkies around Portland, a half-million dollars, some jail beds, and a curfew on the south Park Blocks bring Portland's economy back to life?

Sten: I think there are two issues that are in play. One is economic, and the other is that there is a perception that things have gotten out of hand. I've heard this from progressive people who I don't consider reactionary - so I support the mayor on what he's doing, but I'm not all that optimistic that it's going to solve the issue. Again, we need to take care of the bad apples, but I'm not optimistic that busting panhandlers or someone selling marijuana in the Park Blocks is going to turn the business climate downtown around.

S.R.: Looking into the future, what do you think the city will become in the next 25 years?

Sten: I think we have the opportunity to be one of the more interesting cities in the world. Twenty years from now we are going to have to be much more diverse and international in our thinking, incorporating a much more local business climate. We have to be able to support our local agriculture. People are working now on bringing local agriculture into the schools.

In a way, that's symbolic of Portland, because it would help our economy, our health and the quality of life. We could really be a place that gives residents a place to be a part of a global atmosphere while working in a local economy with a sense of place and community. To me that's the goal. There's no doubt the world is getting smaller every day. Our business partners are going to be on an international stage. On the other hand, what's killing our community is the lack of production. We can't have an economy where we just have all these things imported without living-wage jobs. We have to find that balance.

This whole thing about buying PGE is a great example. There's this whole idea that it's the government versus the private sector, and that's completely wrong. The electric company is a citizen-granted monopoly, and some of the richest people in the world, such as Warren Buffet, are trying to buy PGE to pull Portlanders' money out of your pocketbook to send straight into his bank account.

The public ownership is a way to keep a couple hundred million dollars in the Oregon economy. We need to keep more money here because that leads to better wages for workers.

S.R.: The lack of diversity in Portland is alarming. Are there think tanks in Portland looking at the idea of how do we attract people of color from around the country and the world?

Sten: What you have to do is create a sense of tolerance in community. Once you do that, other things will happen. I'll be honest - it's troubling. The success of a city is a reflection of diversity, and that's something we have to strive toward. We have to create an economy that all kinds of people from all cultures want to be a part of.

S.R.: Are the traditional business communities and the young entrepreneurial business community, which almost seems like its own engine, working together?

Sten: More so than ever, there's not one business community in Portland, which is great in the sense that we have more creative voices. It's very different than 20 years ago, especially with some of the issues we've been talking about. The Portland Business Alliance tends to get caught in these more dogmatic positions.

One of the things that happens in bigger cities, like a Seattle with Starbucks and Microsoft, is they can make things happen quickly. Businesses can expand, hire, take political position and give a lot of money to the community.

We don't have a strong enough business community to move strongly when they need to. Most of the business leaders are baby boomers who are in the second half of their careers. Most of them came up in the '70s when things where booming, and think if we continue to do the same things it will work. That's just not the case.

S.R.: What your favorite way to relieve stress?

Sten: Right now I love hanging out with my toddler. He's 21 months, and he doesn't think about any of these things, so that's fun. I play a lot of basketball and I have a love for novels.

S.R.: Will the Trailblazers make the playoffs this year?

Sten: I'm going to say yes, but that feels like a false campaign promise. You have to keep in mind, I grew up in Portland - I've never stopped rooting for them. I'm a big Telfair fan. As a short guy, I really like the short guys (laughs).

S.R.: Mayoral ambitions?

Sten: Yes. You know, I'm really happy with Mayor Potter. Working the last few years in politics, it's a bit unpredictable, so yes, down the road, it's a possibility.

Published in November of 2005, Street Roots, Portland, Oregon.

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