AS YOU ALREADY KNOW—especially if you tend to spend big money helping political candidates—Commissioner Dan Saltzman is running for a fifth term on the Portland City Council next year.
And as he hunts for a narrative to spice up that campaign (his seventh, when you count two runs for the Multnomah County Commission), it turns out he's staring at a pretty neat gift courtesy of Mayor Charlie Hales.
Portland's fire and rescue bureau.
Saltzman, according to sources, has been talking about the possibility of sending firefighters door-to-door in the coming months to sing the virtues of fire prevention and to maybe even do spot inspections and other safety checks. Saltzman's serious enough that he invited one of his most trusted political consultants, Mark Wiener, to talk over pros and cons with Fire Chief Erin Janssens at a meeting in Saltzman's office last month.
The idea is part of a so-called "Community Risk Reduction Pilot"—something Saltzman is pushing not only to raise awareness about fire safety, but also to squeeze more work out of the city's well-paid firefighters.
That's an especially hot subject in city hall these days (pun totally intended) after a year of budget cuts and looming fears over growing pension debts. As fire calls have gone down, firefighters increasingly mobilize their big trucks for mere medical calls that probably could be handled with fewer people.
Saltzman has already been at the forefront of that conversation.
For years, he's promoted the use of lighter-staffed SUVs for medical calls. And his staff has also humored Commissioner Steve Novick's staff by talking about a somewhat more outlandish idea that would turn certain fire stations into urgent care centers. That would be an extension of something already offered at stations: free biometric testing.
This new effort on prevention wouldn't directly tie into his political campaign. But it would give him something new to feature in political ads, besides the same cherished causes he's been tending since 1993: helping underprivileged children and victims of domestic violence and sex-trafficking.
It also could give him a de facto army of well-liked ambassadors. Firefighters remain very popular in Portland. And whether they're knocking on doors or just showing up at homes for scheduled inspections, they'd be carrying literature bearing Saltzman's name and title. That would be a powerful and subliminal symbol for voters marking ballots next May.
(That's assuming someone credible actually decides to run against him. So far, no one has.)
Saltzman—beset by an illness last week and then waylaid by a power outage that closed city hall—didn't return repeated requests for comment. Wiener also declined to comment. I've also been unable to speak with another key player in all this, Alan Ferschweiler, president of the Portland Firefighters Association.
But sources suggest Saltzman's motivated more by policy than politics. Saltzman, after all, was an MIT-trained engineer in a former life. He geeks out on wonkery.
Not that the confluence of the two has been missed. It's just that he sees it as a very pleasant coincidence.