Illustration by Ryan Alexander-Tanner

JUSTIN NORTON-KERTSON, a co-founder of the campaign to bring a $15 minimum wage to Portland, has been keen to focus on the brighter side of his dealings, so far, with Portland City Hall.

After scheduling a meeting with Commissioner Dan Saltzman's office for Monday, June 9, Norton-Kertson had steeled himself for disappointment when Saltzman's chief of staff called the Friday before and asked to reschedule.

Saltzman had embraced the minimum wage push this campaign season after one of his rivals, Nick Caleb, made it a signature issue. But with his fifth term in the bag?

"Oh, great. Here we go," Norton-Kertson remembers thinking.

Turns out, Saltzman had a decent reason: "He really wanted to have the meeting with us personally," Norton-Kertson says. "I expected to be blown off."

They met, instead, on June 12—the day after Norton-Kertson was supposed to make a three-minute appearance in front of city commissioners at the start of that week's Portland City Council meeting. Norton-Kertson showed up as promised, but his stay sprawled well beyond the allotted time—after a bout of banter with Commissioner Amanda Fritz and Mayor Charlie Hales. The mayor, especially, seemed game, suggesting the council might beseech Salem to lift Oregon's 13-year-old ban on local minimum wage laws.

"That was," Norton-Kertson graciously allowed, "one of the more interesting things about our presentation."

But for all the sympathetic whispers issuing from city hall, heartening as they may be, Norton-Kertson's also aware of all the substantial promises that aren't issuing from our elected leaders. And might not ever.

"It seems clear they don't like pre-emption and probably think the minimum wage in Portland is too low for the cost of living," he says—before mentioning something rather important, maybe even a deal-breaker, to a movement that calls itself $15 Now.

"They don't seem too excited about the 15 thing specifically."

He's not far off the mark. It's not clear how hard anyone will push to lift the state pre-emption. Norton-Kertson says Saltzman promised he'd ask legislative leaders—Senator Diane Rosenbaum and House Speaker Tina Kotek—to spearhead that legislation. But Saltzman's office hasn't returned calls seeking comment on that pledge.

(The legislative leaders' spokesmen didn't call back either, for that matter.)

Sources throughout city hall have specifically cast doubt on the $15 figure, using words like "arbitrary." Saltzman, says Norton-Kertson, raised similar concerns in their meeting. Just because it's the law of the land in Seattle, sources say, doesn't mean it fits Portland's economy.

And no one's much interested in giving city workers and contractors a raise or passing a living-wage tax on employers who pay less than $15. Fritz specifically said she had other priorities for the parks bureau's already-stretched budget.

Norton-Kertson admits it could be worse. The council, prodded by Caleb's campaign and ongoing weekly rallies, might not be paying attention at all. But he's also realizing the movement's eventual route through city hall might first need to go around it.

That means lots of canvassing—door-to-door, worker-to-worker. That means finding allies in organized labor. That means building a bigger movement.

"We haven't built ourselves up to pressure them," Norton-Kertson says. "Rallies only go so far."