Across his computer screen, two quotes run like banners flown from the tail of an airplane. The first reads, "You've gotta give them hope," a quote from Harvey Milk, the first openly gay politician in America. In 1977, Milk was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. A year later, he was assassinated. The second quote reads, "Stay Honest and True."
Ball is currently managing two major projects; the first is the restoration of a seven-story building on the fringes of the Pearl District. Visible from I-405, the building is a block of shadowy interiors and dreary exteriors. The windows that aren't smashed out are grimy with soot. But, by the end of summer, Ball promises the building will be transformed into a beehive of 150 condos. He envisions the highrise as a heart of the community, purposefully shuffling affordable studios in along with lofty $800,000 two-story penthouses. He believes the price range will allow for a community open to all socioeconomic backgrounds.
Ball's second project will be less visible than the Marshall-Wells Lofts, but a fundamental change to Portland politics and how residents interact with their elected officials. For the past year, Ball has championed a so-called "Good Government" Voter Initiative. It is one of three ballot measures making an appearance during this May's election. This project has also made Ball public enemy number one with many of the city's current and former politicians.
"We were moving along fine, when all of a sudden everyone comes zinging in," says Ball, swooping his hands towards his desk like dive-bombers. Under the initiative, there would be two dramatic changes to politics in Portland: First, instead of casting votes for all city council members, residents would vote for representatives according to the neighborhoods they live in. The second change under the initiative is that managers would take over administrative control of the city's bureaus--a job currently handled by the mayor and city council members.
Although Ball contends that his intentions are good, and he only wants to make City Hall more efficient and accessible, he has been slammed as an interloper--one who is assaulting the very foundation of city government with a sledgehammer. Current city council member Charlie Hales has taken a personal interest in deriding Ball's initiative; in addition, former Mayor Bud Clark is publicly leading the charge against Ball.
"When you go up against the existing power structure, it is very, very hard," laments Ball. "People wonder where they will end up after the change: Will I still have power? Influence?" But Ball remains undeterred. Although he says he respects each council member individually, he believes they represent "too narrow of a bandwidth." He believes his plan will open up the council to a mixed bag of representatives, with real life experiences. Sitting behind his desk, he is silent for a second. He arches his dark eyebrows and pushes his fingertips together into a steeple. "Clearly," he muses, "we're the underdogs."
Who Represents You?
The most abrupt example of districting happened in San Francisco. In 1977, for the first time, the city voted for council members by neighborhood districts. Although almost exclusively liberal, San Francisco has acutely distinct neighborhoods and political concerns that correspond with the geographic layout of the city. The Western Addition, running from City Hall out towards Golden Gate Park, is home to working class African Americans, while the Castro District, fanning out from Mount Sutro, holds the largest concentration of gay males in America.
The results from that first election by district were telling: Willie Brown, an African American, was elected into office. Two women joined the council as well. And, perhaps most notably, Harvey Milk--a cheerful and outspoken gay entrepreneur who was boosted from his Castro neighborhood into a seat at City Hall. (During that same election, Dan White was elected from a blue-collar neighborhood. A year later, frustrated by what he felt was purposeful alienation from the city's elite liberals, White climbed through a bathroom window in City Hall and shot and killed then-mayor George Moscone and Milk.)
Currently in Portland, four council members and the mayor are elected by a citywide ballot. Under Ball's plan, City Hall in Portland would host nine elected members; seven of those would be elected individually by districts that represent 75,000 people. Each of these representatives would sponsor a neighborhood office for his or her coalition--sort of like a series of outposts with a direct line to City Hall. The mayor and two additional council members would still be elected by a citywide vote.
"This (current) system of government is good for streetcars and projects like that," says Ball. "But if we want to solve real problems like gentrification and welfare moms, we need to ask, 'why are things this way?'" Ball believes in simple cause-and-effect politics; that direct representation comes from first-hand experiences. "When you bring someone to council who is a single mother--who has experienced challenges firsthand--they'll know how to make choices on the council."
This philosophy aligns closely with Ball's own background. The child of a single-parent, working-class family, Ball attended the University of Oregon. "Just barely," he says, referring to his family's tight finances. While there, inspired by a business class, he scrounged together $2000 for a down payment on a small home. He turned that house around for a profit and went on to purchase several larger apartment houses.
Since then, Ball has continued to roll real estate projects into larger and more lucrative renovations. He purchased a red brick apartment building in Northwest Portland; a building that he currently owns, rents and lives in. As his financial comfort increased, his interest in politics and civic responsibility intensified.
"I tried to get appointments with some of the people in City Hall," he says. He wanted to speak with representatives about shifting Portland to voting by district. "But I couldn't get appointments with anyone," he adds. Frustrated by the closed doors of City Hall, Ball drafted the current initiative.
"What people want is representation," contends Ball. "Your average person doesn't have a connection (to City Hall)."
But the neighborhood coalitions--who should be his strongest foundation of support--have been skeptical. The Northeast Coalition, which covers the bulk of African American and Latino populations in Portland, has balked on endorsing the initiative. One member agreed that changes were "overdue." Even so, he went on to explain that although the organization agrees with the concept of districting, there was unanswered anxiety that more power would be consolidated with the mayor.
From interviews with members and representatives from other neighborhood organizations, it is clear many feel alienated by City Hall; but, at the same time, many are also leery about whether this initiative will provide the inroads they want. Many confessed they support the initiative's concept--but are suspicious of the initiative's sponsor, Ball.
"For something that purports to be inclusive," said a representative from one neighborhood coalition, "it did not seem to follow that process."
At a meeting in early March between Ball and board members for Southeast Uplift Neighborhood Coalition, there were questions about who was identifying the problem and the ultimate solution; some feel as if the initiative is a one-man crusade.
The second prong of Ball's initiative--and even more controversial--is a plan to overhaul the current administrative system of City Hall. Under the current structure, city council members serve as managers for the city's various bureaus, from Mayor Vera Katz overseeing the police bureau to City Commissioner Erik Sten managing the water bureau. The initiative would move all the bureaus under the sway of the mayor, but administered by professional, non-elected managers.
Portland adopted its current "commissioner" system in 1913, at a time when the Reform Movement was demanding changes to city governments around the country. At the time, emerging immigrant populations and labor unions expressed concerns that a mayor controlling City Hall could only breed cronyism. They felt locked out. At the time, Portland, as well as cities like Chicago, Kansas City and Los Angeles, were under the sway of a single, powerful mayor. By distributing management of the city's bureaus away from the mayor and putting it instead, throughout City Council, the belief was that the single-handed stronghold on city politics would be broken.
But according to Ball, this commissioner form of government has only created individual "fiefdoms" for each commissioner. Now, he points out, we have five quasi-mayors, each with his or her own bureaucratic turf.
"This code of silence develops," he explains, "and because each (commissioner) has his own bureau, an attitude has emerged: 'If you don't interfere with me, I won't interfere with you.'"
Over the past century, every major metropolitan city in America has abandoned the commissioner form of government. At the same time, as women and African Americans gained the right to vote, concerns arose that their political voices were being muffled. By casting their votes into a citywide pool, minorities felt as if their votes were being diluted. In some cities, like Denver, activists sued for better representation. During the Civil Rights Movement of the '60s, that pressure brought about changes to the structures of City Hall and the voting format of every major metropolitan city in America--except Portland.
Old School vs. New School
In 1970, then-Governor Tom McCall invited non-Oregonians to "visit, but don't stay." It's a slogan that captures the dichotomy of politics in Oregon and, even more acutely, in Portland.
In spite of the city's pride in its openness, liberal views, and rugged individualism, Portland politics are commonly abusive to newcomers. Even businesses that are considered the soul of the city's economy--Nike, Tazo Tea, Powell's--are thought of as upstart entrepreneurs. Yet, there is a suspicion that lingers around new ideas and radical changes; an undercurrent that flows in the opposite direction of progress and change. The Good Government Initiative has brought these "old school vs. brash outsider" conflicts to center stage.
Sitting in his tavern, Goose Hollow, former mayor Bud Clark details his objections to the ballot measure. With deep blue eyes and a shock of wispy white hair, he looks like a benevolent and stocky grandfather.
"They might have voices, but will they get anything done?" asks Clark, who is troubled that taking administrative power away from council members and giving it to professional managers will simply add an additional, unnecessary layer of bureaucracy. Since leaving office, Clark has largely eschewed politics, choosing instead to take his place as an elder statesman who attends casual meetings with former politicians and city planners. But this initiative has brought him back into the fray; he has openly debated Ball and is courting neighborhood associations to oppose the measure.
With a level stare, he explains, "This just pissed me off. I found out how much power it gives to the mayor and it really sickened me." Under the initiative, the mayor would sit as the chief legislative official, much like the federal system with a single president, and much like every other major metropolitan city in America. Clark says the current structure distributes political power throughout City Council; currently, the mayor votes along with the other four council members. According to Clark, the new system would potentially concentrate executive power and create a Giuliani-type character whose personal missions would have few checks and balances.
"All you have to do is get the mayor elected and then you have the city by the balls," he says. "I had enough power to get things done," he adds, ticking off the montage of social services for the homeless that his administration implemented and his plan for community policing that is still in operation. "I think we ought to do it our own way, keeping Portland Portland."
"Man Puzzles City Hall"
To Ball's chagrin, the debate over the Good Government Initiative has focused more on him and on a technical glitch in the initiative, than on the true substance of the proposed changes. In January, it was discovered that the ballot measure misidentified the date for implementing the new system. Read literally, the initiative would eradicate the current form of city council, without implementing a new system until a year later; essentially, this would leave Portland without a functioning council for twelve months.
That foible led to a series of hurry-up city council meetings and unwanted media attention. Ball requested that City Council re-draft the initiative to correct the error. An Oregonian article ran with the headline, "Man Behind Initiative Puzzles City Hall." The article mused about Ball's underlying purpose for the initiative; it offered several quotes from acquaintances who categorized Ball as a budding and erstwhile politician--more a salesman than statesman. (City Council voted 4 to 1 not to change the initiative. It stands on the ballot as a flawed document.)
Moreover, the opposition has tried to categorize Ball as a top-hat developer. "Vote No on 26-30" does not have a permanent office or amenities. Apologizing for the campaign's informality and use of a personal cell phone as opposed to a formal business line, campaign manager Caroline Fitchett explained, "We're not backed by a lot of business money."
In February, Willamette Week ran a lengthy feature pontificating on how the initiative would open City Hall up to business interests; it impugned Ball's motivations by detailing how three commercial developers had each donated $5,000 to the campaign. Although the article failed to present a decisive thesis or discuss the substance of the proposed changes, the article intimated that the initiative is trying to strengthen developers' hold on City Hall.
"I think it's because I'm restoring buildings; that's why they look at me strange," contends Ball. "People who contribute to the campaign don't get political favors in return," he also points out. "I'm not in any position to give anyone favors."
Despite his detractors, Ball insists that this campaign is something he wants to give back to the community. Since moving to Portland almost a decade ago, he has volunteered for AIDS organizations and as captain for a police reserve unit.
"No one questioned when I gave 5000 hours to the police," he says. "I was kicked, punched, spit on, my family was called names for free," he laughs. "No one questioned that."
Standing in the shadow of Marshall-Wells Lofts, Ball looks out of place. He is excitable and wears a well-cut suit. The hard hat perched on his head looks awkward. Nearby about a dozen construction workers mill around smoking.
He is from a distinctly different culture than these men. Only a few minutes earlier, he hung up his cell phone after receiving a call from his boyfriend. He is friendly. He walks right up to the group of workers and introduces himself to those he doesn't recognize. Ball looks up at the side of the building. On the top floor, workers are tearing out well-worn window frames and installing new ones.
Whether the Good Government Initiative passes this election, Ball has managed to bust into the closed circle of city politics and force a new dialogue. Except for his most ardent detractors, most people admit that Ball's initiative has exposed fundamental flaws in the city's political make-up and pointed out City Hall's shortcomings. Representatives from neighborhood coalitions have remarked that even if they don't endorse the Good Government Initiative, they plan to start agitating for an overhaul of the voting format in Portland.
"Even if it doesn't pass this time, I'll keep pushing," Ball says while looking at the seven-story building he's transforming from a wreck to a landmark. "I'm here for the long haul."