"YOU CAN CALL ME DESIRE," were his first words. It was an entirely unexpected way to start a conversation with City Commissioner Dan Saltzman, long seen as city council's Tin Man—its most staid member. Less than two months before the primary election battle to retain his seat, Saltzman was trying to decide if he should spell his new drag name the traditional way, or as "Dezyre."
The dilemma was due to his pending participation in a candidate forum hosted by Sissyboy, Portland's most raucous, gutter-minded drag troupe (it makes Darcelle's show look like a night at the Grand Ole Opry). The night—Wednesday, March 15, 10:30 pm at Holocene—promised to push Saltzman out of his comfort zone and, at least in some small way, change the perception of him as a stiff.
Despite a potentially tough reelection campaign and an appearance at a drag show, Saltzman doesn't expect to drastically alter his image. "I can't change fundamental parts of my personality," he said. "I'm a quiet person. I usually say that I'm a forced extrovert. I can't see myself going through a major transformation."
(Curiously, though, Saltzman is no stranger to the drag scene. He was a celebrity judge at Darcelle XV's recent La Grande Femme competition, and Darcelle, whom Saltzman calls an old friend, has endorsed his reelection.)
Since Jim Francesconi left the council in his unsuccessful bid for mayor in 2004, Saltzman has become the easiest target on the council for progressives. He was the lone vote opposed to the city's departure from the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF). The city withdrew because the FBI refused to give the mayor adequate security clearance to monitor the activities of the Portland Police involved in the JTTF. Even though the mayor had zero oversight of the officers' involvement, Saltzman sided with the Portland Business Alliance (PBA) and the Citizens Crime Commission, saying he was comfortable with the status quo—despite overwhelming citizen support for the withdrawal.
He admits that many people see him as "being in the pocket of the business community," and his campaign contribution reports do little to dissuade those critics. Real estate developers (including Home Depot cheerleaders Gerding/Edlen), investors, and steel manufacturers have largely funded his current campaign.
Yet Saltzman was also one of the four commissioners who voted for the PBA-unfriendly Voter-Owned Elections (VOE), which gives public campaign funds to candidates who can raise 1,000 $5 contributions. The result: His most prominent opponent, Amanda Fritz, has been equipped with $150,000 in city funds to run against him. Unlike his colleague Erik Sten, Saltzman declined the public funds for his reelection, but has pledged to limit contributions to $150,000, with a $500 cap per contributor.
He said that it's "too early to assess" whether the Voter-Owned Elections system will ultimately fulfill its stated goals. "It's brought in more women candidates, which is good," but there are other potential candidates, like Lucinda Tate, who have been shut out of debates because they haven't yet met the VOE qualifications. "I was able to raise money early on and get that out of the way, and it's helped to have a targeted amount," he added. "In the past, you had to raise as much money as you could."
Still, as an incumbent, Saltzman has to balance his full-time duties as a city commissioner with his campaign activities. Right now, that means his plate is full. The city is undergoing the early stages of the budget process, holding hearings on a bureau-by-bureau basis. And then there's the OHSU aerial tram—Saltzman still supports the project, but won't approve any city spending over the $3.5 million already committed to the cost-spiraling project. He also wants to push the idea that OHSU should take over project management duties from the city.
Assuming he makes it through the primary, Saltzman's biggest fight may be over proposed changes to the Fire and Police Disability and Retirement system. The city has formed an independent review committee to investigate and suggest changes to the current system, which, if left unchanged, has the potential to cost the city millions. So far, though, the police and firefighter unions have been resistant to changes. Saltzman is pushing the committee to make its proposal to the council by May 1. If the unions are unable to agree to the changes, he says the proposal will go to the November ballot without their support.
Saltzman recently made headlines with his successful push to rein in the city's payday loan industry. Despite the vocal opposition by payday lenders, city council unanimously approved Saltzman's plan to require lenders to obtain specific licenses from the city and curb their more egregiously predatory practices.