On Friday afternoon, March 24, Dave Lister will climb onto the Governor Hotel's ballroom stage for his very first political debate. "To be truthful, I've never debated anybody," says Lister, who jumped into the race on February 2 in a bid to unseat City Commissioner Erik Sten.
Lister, a 51-year-old Northeast Portland resident and a political novice, didn't even make the original cut for the City Club of Portland's debate. Only Sten and his two best-funded challengers were slated to spar: State Senator Ginny Burdick, a Portland political veteran who'll have no trouble raising money on her own, and Emilie Boyles, who—like Sten—recently qualified for $150,000 in public campaign financing. But Lister's supporters—"a whole army of what we're calling Listerines," he jokes—called City Club on his behalf and asked that he be included. Lister, who won't divulge how much money he's raised yet—he's opposed to voter-owned elections, and is raising cash on his own—says his campaign provided info on how many supporters and donors they had so far, to vouch for his viability as a candidate.
Now, Lister's set to take on Sten. "I felt Erik Sten was the one who more often than the other [commissioners] was not sympathetic to small businesses and to the taxpayer. Erik Sten wouldn't support any reform of the small business tax," Lister says.
Reforming the small business tax—Lister says Portland's current system penalizes entrepreneurs, and is part of the reason companies move to the 'burbs—is one of the things he'd push if elected. "I'd like to see those jobs back in Portland. I'd reform that business income tax so it's a fee- based system. That'd go a long way toward restoring jobs," he says.
Beyond tax policy, Lister is more interested in the bureau management part of the commissioner job than the legislative role. ("We don't have anyone [on city council] that are frontline managers.") Instead of pet projects—well, besides reforming the small business tax—he'd hunker down with the city budget, look for cuts, and run his bureaus efficiently. "The city is doing a lot of things that it's not charged to do, and it's not doing a very good job on things it is charged to do. The city's supposed to take care of police, fire, sewers, water, streets, and parks," he says. "But [the council is] spending too much money for things other than core services. The iconic one right now, of course, is the tram."
Lister's back-to-basics approach would focus on things like shoring up the public schools, beefing up community policing, and watchdogging the city's capital projects for budget busts.
Budget overruns and management snafus were what got Lister involved in Portland politics in the first place. After the water bureau's initial billing problems, Lister—who owns a small software business, called Integrated Data Concepts—wrote to Commissioner Dan Saltzman to offer his expertise. "I said, I've been writing software systems, and I'm willing to do anything I can to help the city avoid another problem," Lister says. He reviewed the city's Request for Proposals for a new water billing system. "I thought there were three or four big problems," he says, but officials didn't heed his warnings. "They bought a new system. And it's not working yet."
Frustrated with issues like the water billing problems—Lister is happy to tick off others, like the city's bid to take over PGE, public money for the OHSU tram or PGE Park, voter-owned elections—Lister did two things. He joined the city's Small Business Advisory Council, and started writing a monthly political-outsider column for local conservative magazine Brainstorm NW, with the nickname "The Eastside Guy." According to Lister, he writes from the "common Joe's perspective."
On the advisory council and in his essays, Lister's been tackling small business and tax issues, earning a reputation as a small business advocate and tax hawk.
Those positions have also earned "The Eastside Guy" another nickname—a conservative. It's a nonpartisan race, but Lister will concede that he is a conservative—fiscally. "But I'm socially liberal. I'm a live-and-let-live kind of guy when it comes to telling people how they live their lives." More insight into his political leanings: His roster of Portland political heroes includes current Commissioner Sam Adams, a solid progressive, and former mayor—and small business guy—Bud Clark. "I thought he was cool," Lister says. "He offered to serve and he served for two terms. And he didn't really foul anything up."