Christian Gunther wants Portland to be a world-class city. He talks about Vancouver, B.C. and Austin, Texas, and how over the past fifteen years, these cities have blossomed as meccas for art and music. In the same way some politicians talk about using the biotech industry to pull Portland up by its bootstraps, Gunther talks about arts and culture.
One of 16 candidates vying for a vacant seat on Portland's City Council--and currently one of the four front-runners--Gunther invariably dresses in all-black, even in the summertime. His background is in concert promoting and marketing for the Artists Repertory Theatre. Although he has a scant political background, Gunther has what most agree is needed in city council--a heartbeat, yes, but also an earnest compassion to jump-start Portland. (Between September 1-17, local residents have an opportunity to fill a vacant seat on city council; if no one candidate wins a majority, the field will be narrowed to the two candidates who gather the largest shares of votes for a run-off in November.)
Currently, local leadership falls somewhere between lethargic and lackluster. For the past year, Portland has led the nation in unemployment--maintaining a rate around seven percent. So far, city council's most definitive motion to push down this rate has been appointing a Blue Ribbon Commission to study the problem.
"One of the most fundamental problems with city council members is that they're living off the legacy of predecessors--Bud Clark, Tom McCall," says Gunther.
Other efforts city council has taken toward economic revival have focused on increasing commerce around the downtown area--the new "sit/lie" ordinance, a unanimous endorsement for a $12 million ice rink in Pioneer Square.
Choosing not to comment on the legitimacy of these particular ideas, Gunther labels the city's plan for economic growth as a "mini-vision." He believes that city council needs to put together a comprehensive--not piecemeal--approach to the city's economic revival.
"Where do you think Austin came from?" he asks, referring to the transformation from a sleepy Texas town to a perennial host for revenue-generating events like "Austin City Limits" and SXSW. "It came from a vision," he concludes.
At times, Gunther's "vision" seems a bit too wide-eyed, especially for a council more responsible for managing the city's bureaus than for setting pie-in-the-sky policies. (Unlike most major cities, Portland has a city government where council members serve as the managers for everything from the police department to the water bureau.) Gunther seems more concerned about dreaming up grandiose policy than dealing with nitty-gritty details. If he truly wants to help the city, he will promptly need to learn how to sweat the small stuff, as well as reach for the stars.
In addition to Gunther's determination to think up creative solutions to the city's economic woes, his most viable contribution would be representing a voice not currently heard in City Hall. At his best, current council member Erik Sten has championed open-door policies, responding to citizen complaints with what appears to be true, heartfelt compassion. Sten has done a good job representing interests from environmentalists to homeless. But the voices of activists and artists have not received much--if any--consideration from City Hall.
A large part of the problem with current city council is a lack of leadership--or leadership in a democratic, we-feel-your-pain kind of way. At council meetings, Mayor Katz has shouted down opposition and threatened to boot dissenters from the chambers. She seems out of touch with large swathes of the city's population--the young, the homeless, the poor, the activists.
Within a day after the scuffle between demonstrators and police during President Bush's recent visit to Portland, Katz voiced her opinion that the police had acted justifiably. These statements were issued before any opportunity for public comments and appeared based exclusively on her interviews with police officers. Little, if any, weight seemed to be given to pedestrians' complaints. However, Gunther attended the demonstrations, standing close enough to the front lines to be pepper-sprayed; he has publicly condemned the police response as overly aggressive.
A latecomer to the city council race, Gunther has moved quickly toward the front of the pack. Still leading, however, is former Multnomah County Commissioner Serena Cruz. While she boasts an accomplished track record, she's also emerged as a slick politician who's well entrenched with the city's big business interests. It is unclear whether she would add a new voice or perspective that Katz doesn't already represent.
It should also be noted that she oddly claimed that Peter Alexander, Pacific Green Party activist, has endorsed her. Alexander has categorically denied any such endorsement. After demanding a retraction from her, Alexander forwarded the following email to the Mercury: "Serena just called and tried to convince me that I had, in fact, endorsed her, which of course I had not. She apologized and said she would withdraw my name from her website, but that she would do nothing further in the way of a retraction... it still disturbs me that she would put my name in printed material without asking for my specific permission to do so." Instead, Alexander says that he endorses Gunther. So does the Mercury. Now get out and vote, dammit!
On Thursday, September 5, Gunther will co-host with the Pacific Green Party and Copwatch a forum challending Mayor Katz' social policies. It will be held at noon on City Hall's steps.