A 38-year-old blue collar worker--an asbestos removal expert--Smith has no experience in politics or in speaking to audiences. He arrives an hour early, before the pews fill with people, to read through the speech. He practices it five or six times, reading from his cue cards to the janitors and the women filling coffee pots in the back of the hall. He has never spoken to a group this large.
Now, a half-step from the podium, he stops cold. The cue cards he left there are gone. The crowd hushes. All eyes are fixed on him.
His eyes dart from side to side. Speaking from memory, his words come at a gallup. He pokes his finger at the empty space in front of him. And then, about five minutes into his speech, when he begins talking about police accountability, the audience breaks into wild applause. Smith stops and stands there stunned.
Later, watching a video tape of the event at Smith's tidy trailer home, he smiles. "See? I didn't know what to do with my hands." He says that Ralph Nader shuffles papers while the crowd claps. For another 10 seconds, the crowd continues to cat-call and applaud. A few are on their feet. Smith takes a step back, holds up his arms and pumps his fists in the air. It is an expression of pure joy. It is a moment that veteran politicians like Al Gore practice; but this is unscripted euphoria. When the crowd quiets, Smith begins working through his speech again, only to be interrupted three more times by clapping, howling, and foot-stomping, before he reaches the conclusion. It is his first step out of obscurity.
Should our politicians be better than us? This very dichotomy drives American politics and voters: We want our candidates unblemished by the normal flaws of mortals--lust, greed, fatigue--but at the same time, we ruthlessly try to bring them down to our level. Moreover, we want candidates who are like us--indeed, who represent our very thinking and morals--but, at the same time, when a candidate like Smith makes a run for state senator, he is all but dismissed as an interloper to the political game. Is it him or is it us?
Certainly, at first glance, Smith is an unlikely candidate for state senator. He lives in a trailer park located at the dark northern fringes of Portland. He is self-admittedly part of the "working poor." He did not finish high school (although he later earned a GED). He has never held a leadership position in his life. Compared to his opponent--long-time politician Margaret Carter, three-time state representative and current President of Portland Urban League--he does not have a staff, a public reputation, or for that matter, letterhead or a fax to send communications to the media. The thrust of his campaign has been handing out fliers, four or five nights a week after work, in the Fred Meyer parking lot along North Lombard.
He first contacted the Mercury in early July with a hand-typed letter announcing his candidacy. He had carefully chosen a race, he explained in his letter, where he would not be a "spoiler"--someone who might take away votes from a Democrat and hand the election to a Republican. When he entered the race, the only other candidate was Thomas Wilde. Shortly thereafter, Wilde dropped out and Carter quietly stepped into his place.
Six weeks prior to the election, we meet face to face for the first time. By the time I reach his trailer home, it is dark and quiet. An older model Toyota Corolla parked outside is plastered with bumper stickers. One reads, "If People Lead, Eventually The Leaders Will Follow."
Inside his trailer, Smith shows me a list of about 20 names carefully written in pencil with phone numbers alongside. He is wearing a green "Nader 2000" button. Next to the names are hash marks, noting the number of times he has called the person and the occasions someone has helped hand out leaflets. Only one name has more than two hash marks.
"Most only show up once," he laments. Yet, despite his nearly lone crusade, he remains optimistic. "If I can get out 17,000 fliers," he explains to me, "I think I have an outside chance." Smith needs an estimated 17,000 votes to win and he believes, perhaps naively, that each flier will translate to one vote.
Like other Pacific Green Party candidates, Smith's campaign has been funded by donations from friends and kindly strangers. A nearby Kinko's donated printing services. After handing a flier to one woman at Fred Meyer, she returned 10 minutes later with a check for $150. It's his largest donation to date, accounting for roughly 10% of his entire budget. With such paltry funds, Smith has only been able to purchase enough paper to stock his boxes of fliers and buy two ads--one in The Observer and a second in the St. Johns Review. He can't even afford the postage to mail his platform statements to interested voters.
"In one mailing Margaret Carter could reach more voters than everyone I've handed fliers to," he notes.
Since early July, Smith has spent more than 200 hours, most of the time alone, handing out fliers. He complains about his back pain from standing. "I'm too old to be burning the candle at both ends," he says.
To borrow a phrase, he really does know your pain. To devote time to his campaign, he has trimmed his work hours removing asbestos from various public buildings around the city. Although worried about making ends meet, he hasn't considered quitting.
"I'm pouring my heart into this," he says. "If I lose, it won't be because I haven't tried."
Yet, even though his opponent has barely lifted a finger in her campaign--Carter didn't even bother to file a Voter Pamphlet statement--she remains, by and far, the front runner.
In 1994, Smith's legally blind, 70-year-old mother was hit by an unlicensed and uninsured driver. At the last minute, before the car rammed into his mother's body, her guide dog actually jumped in front of her, absorbing the brunt of the force.
"They're trained to do that," Smith tells me, speaking about guide dogs. Although severely injured, his mother lived; the dog died.
It's the type of story that television news stations and newspapers cover on a slow day. Within a week, the story had gained fleeting notoriety. Sympathy notes and donations trickled in from around the state. Smith used that money to buy a plaque for his mother's guide dog, Larita. It's still on the corner of Woolsey Court.
"It was the first thing I did as an activist," says Smith. "But, they misspelled the name of the dog," he adds, laughing. The remaining money went into a slush fund that Smith doled out to other victims. He gave $800 to a young boy who was struck by lightning and to the family of Richard ("Dickie") Dow, a mentally disabled teen who died in custody, allegedly a victim of police brutality.
In 1996, when Nader spoke at Benton High School, Smith attended.
"I went because I've written his name in for every election since I could vote." When Smith was first eligible to vote in 1980, he didn't like the choice between President Jimmy Carter and the Republican challenger, Ronald Reagan. But Smith remembered his Consumer Education teacher at Roosevelt High School had spoken highly of Ralph Nader, so he wrote that name in the blank--he has voted for him five times since.
Listening to Nader speak four years ago, Smith almost cried. Nader was calling for the audience to be responsible private as well as public citizens. "I can't do this," Smith remembers thinking, "I'm a wage slave."
After the speech, he went home and planted a lawn sign. He began attending Pacific Green Party meetings. After Nader lost to Clinton, he suggested the button slogan, "Don't Blame Me, I Voted For Nader," and gave the party advice on expanding their platform beyond environmental issues.
"Like a lot of people who don't vote, I've lost almost all faith," Whitney explains, "but I still participate." Then he adds, "But rather than just giving advice this year, I'm throwing my hat in the ring."
Admittedly, sometimes the simplicity and humility of Smith's candidacy are slightly off-putting. But perhaps this speaks more about what we have come to believe our politicians should be, rather than any awkwardness on Smith's behalf. Even though Smith has detailed a platform in unflinching terms--campaign reform, minimum wage increases, a detailed tax relief plan for low-income workers--he has failed to gain a single endorsement. Meanwhile, Carter has failed to put forward any specific platform. Still, the well-respected Oregon League of Conservation Voters endorsed Carter, even though she did not respond to their questionnaire, like Smith did. Ironically, he has been locked out of a political game that bemoans the lack of real people running for political office.
When Al Gore arrived in Portland 15 days prior to the elections, he made his way to Marsee Bakery along the oak-lined and trendy NW 23rd Ave. There, he chatted with construction workers from a nearby site and to the 32-year-old founder of Oregon Chai about small business loans. He was wearing black cowboy boots and a blue dress shirt, unbuttoned at the top. Starting back in May, on the advice of Gloria Steinem (a paid consultant for the Gore campaign), he toned down his wonky look with cowboy boots and casual dress shirts. Gore's visit to Portland was a continuation of the casual glad-handing and mingling with middle-America that's been the overbearing tenor of this year's presidential campaign--from appearances on The Late Show with David Letterman to George W. Bush barnstorming the day-time talk shows.
It's an approach to campaigning that dates back to 1992, when then-Governor Bill Clinton blew his saxophone on The Arsenio Hall Show, told a 19-year-old college student that he preferred boxers to briefs, and, subsequently, watched his ratings soar. Even though Bush and Gore's attempts to gain "regular guy status" have been awkward, it's still noteworthy that they are trying to be everything that Whitney Smith actually is--just a regular guy. But perhaps, for all of our rhetoric and polling, we don't really want regular guys.
Five minutes into an endorsement interview at the Willamette Week, with both Smith and his opponent Carter in the room, interviewer Patty Wentz turned to Smith and allegedly dismissed his candidacy. According to Smith and another witness in the room, she told him he didn't have a chance and would spend her time asking questions of Carter. The Willamette Week's subsequent endorsement of Carter oddly applauds Smith's tax-plan, yet is unable to identify a single issue for which Carter stands. Their endorsement rests on the fact that Carter is a veteran politician, while Smith is a greenhorn.
Until the Willamette Week interview, Smith had not been able to meet face to face with Carter. He repeatedly tried to contact her, but she has not returned his phone calls or letters.
"If I could get her to agree to introduce legislation on my agenda, I'd be satisfied," Smith says. "But, I can't even get that."
In spite of the alienation, his aching back and long-shot candidacy, Smith has trudged along, handing out fliers in the Fred Meyer parking lot. He estimates he needs 17,000 votes to win the seat, but at six weeks before the election, he's distributed only 8,500 leaflets. "At the rate I'm going, I'll top out at 15,000," Smith says, adding, "if my back doesn't give out on me first."
If elected, Smith would be the highest-ranking Green Party official in Oregon, and possibly, the country. But with only three weeks to Election Day, about the same time voter ballots were being mailed throughout the state, the party had provided little ground support for Smith. He stood alone, handing out fliers. Granted, Smith had been invited to speak at the Memorial Coliseum and roused the crowd with his detailed platform calling for tax breaks for working class poor. But even then, standing on the platform alongside Nader, the message was clear: Smith and other Green Party candidates were there to ride coattails.
Members of the party, including Smith, speak of Nader in terms of an apostle, as someone who can deliver them into the political game. Odd, especially considering that a candidate like Smith actually has a chance of winning. Even stranger considering the power-to-the-people rhetoric of the party. Instead of building a political party from the bottom up--by placing candidates in county offices and the state senate--the party has focused its energy on securing the top of the pyramid, printing buttons and lawn signs for the doomed candidacy of Nader. As Smith hits the final stretch of his campaign, desperately handing out fliers to shoppers and, with each one, slowly pulling closer to his opponent, the question lingers: What if the Green Party had thrown their weight behind Smith? What if they had helped with campaign buttons and lawn signs? Perhaps they could have evened his chances of winning a state senate seat and, moreover, built a legitimate cornerstone for their political party.
Fourteen days before the election, Smith sent an e-mail to relay that during the previous week the Nader campaign crew had finally joined him. With their help, he accelerated the distribution of his fliers, handing out an additional 5,000 and passing the coveted 17,000 mark.
But the extra help may have come too late. Smith says that a lot of people in the past week have turned down his fliers and campaign information; they had already mailed in their ballots. And, perhaps any help from the Mercury comes a bit late as well. But, we'll say it anyway: Vote for Smith! For this election he is the Green Party's best hope of starting the long process of building a viable party. He has a platform. He has some decent ideas to bring relief to the working poor. He has more passion than his opponent--and that should count for something. And, what's more, he's just a regular guy.