FROM NOW ON, this is what every candidate forum in next year's mayoral race ought to include: a "talking circle," a mystical "talking stick," a dozen or more citizens answering the same questions as the candidates, and the candidates required to sit and politely listen.
This was the semi-absurd—and surprisingly candid—setting that the candidates confronted during a sustainability-themed forum on Monday, November 28, over at Portland State's Native American Student and Community Center.
And it was marvelous. Because it forced everyone to shut up and get spiritual. No speeches. No parsed talking points, applause lines, or rebuttals. Just talking. And listening.
"In the circle, no one is first, and no one is last," the room was told, after some drumming, chanting, and sage burning. "We are ourselves here."
Initially, the candidates struggled. The first time he got his mitts on the talking stick, Representative Jefferson Smith answered a question about a personal commitment to sustainability with stiff remarks about how difficult it is for his Eastside neighbors to bicycle downtown.
He found his footing later, when he railed about having "five city council members sitting on what look like little thrones." He also decried the influence that donors, not voters, have on campaigns here. "Where do you get [big campaign checks] from? It's not this room."
Meanwhile, Eileen Brady—again the frontrunner now that Police Chief Mike Reese is officially out—managed to weave in her New Seasons pedigree while also embracing the room's vernacular.
"I still have a garden at home, an organic garden, and it's really big," she said. "The closer you are to your food and soil, the healthier and happier you are."
Max Brumm, the community college student, wasn't bad. He lamented that he had to go "out to the suburbs" to play baseball and attend school, forcing him to drive more than he'd like.
But ex-City Commissioner Charlie Hales outdid everyone, waxing rhapsodically about the Bull Run Watershed and promising that all of his land-use decisions would be "informed most by contact with the land."
"My wife Nancy is here," he said. "She knows I insist that we spend time every year in the wilderness." (No, he wasn't referring to their house in Washington.)
Afterward, a couple of campaign staffers who hadn't expected a "talking circle" privately wondered whether they'd just wasted their bosses' time. If this were March, or April, then maybe. But not now. At a point in the race when no one, really, loves any particular candidate, I prefer to see it as a much-needed bonding experience. And I think we'd all like to see more.