At his fundraiser last Thursday, Senator Gordon Smith probably lost more votes than he scored. Running for re-election, the staunchly conservative senator from Eastern Oregon has twice used Portland as a venue to pry open billfolds and raise cash for his campaign. In June, Vice-President Dick Cheney swooped through town to offer support and host a breakfast meeting that raised $600,000. At that event, although a few hundred protesters held snide placards denouncing the Vice-President and marched through the Park Blocks, Smith's fundraiser went off without a hitch.
But last Thursday, a well organized and dogmatic protest brought downtown to a standstill. For six hours on a sunny afternoon, protesters held downtown captive. In an effort to plump up his $5 million campaign budget, Smith invited President George W. Bush to host a dinner meet-and-greet.
But still angered about the ongoing war in Afghanistan and destructive environmental policies, an estimated 3000 protesters gathered to spoil Smith's fundraising party and poke their fingers in the eye of President Bush. (Earlier that day in Southern Oregon, President Bush announced his plan to ease logging restrictions; he claimed that thinning the state's forests is a preventive measure for fires. At the protest, one sign read, "Less forests mean less forest fires? Great idea, let's start by pulling out the Bushes.")
In addition to their other complaints, as the day wore on, pedestrians and protesters alike began to complain that their tax dollars were paying for security at a private, political fundraiser.
"He's here for a fundraiser, not some legitimate reason," one motorist lamented about President Bush's visit. At the time, the motorist was stuck in traffic alongside Pioneer Square that was barely inching forward. "The whole system is fucked," he added, shaking his head.
Weaving through streets and pressing against police barricades, a roaming parade slowly circled the city blocks near the Hilton Hotel. Inside, President Bush spoke about his new logging plan and a pressing need for increased homeland security. (Earlier that day, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court publicly scolded the Bush Administration for supplying misleading evidence and wrongly obtaining warrants for wiretaps in 75 cases.)
Smith, who made his fortune managing a frozen-pea packing empire, charged $1,000 for tickets to the event. Photos with the President cost a reported $25,000. The event raised more than a million dollars and pumped up Smith's campaign funds to a reported $6 million.
(Gordon's campaign is particularly interesting to the Bush Administration because the Democrats hold only a one-seat majority. His Democratic opponent, Bill Bradley, allegedly only has a $1 million campaign budget.)
At the same time, the 16-hour visit by the President cost the City of Portland an estimated $250,000 in overtime for police officers and lost revenue for downtown businesses; not to mention inconveniences. Some workers in businesses near the Hilton were told by the secret service they could not leave their offices for the entire day.
"This is ethically reprehensible at a time of fiscal austerity in Portland City Hall," said Christian Gunther, who is running for city council. "Do Bush or Senator Smith care that, due to budget constraints, social services are being cut?" added Gunther. "Our public schools have so little funding, they've had to cut the length of the school year. Yet we're expected to pay for President Bush to come here and raise even more money for Smith's already-bloated campaign coffers." Gunther also pointed out that if he (or any other candidate) wanted to host a campaign event at Pioneer Square, he would be charged $1300 in rental fees. "Yet Gordon Smith can disrupt our entire city and expect the city to pick up the bill. Where's the congruity there?"
As protesters scuffled with police near the Park Blocks, one agitated protester lunged at the police barricades, demanding "Where's Vera?" Others began to chant, "One hundred thousand dollars," in reference to the alleged cost the city paid for additional police officers.
During President Bush's last visit in January, he visited Youth Opportunities in Northeast Portland, a program that helps disadvantaged youth secure GEDs and long-term employment. During that visit, Bush publicly stated his support for job-training programs. Three weeks later, Bush approved a budget that cut funding from that same program.