Fifteen years before he was elected mayor of Milwaukie, Oregon, Mark Gamba was bracing himself for a thwack in the head from a whale shark’s tail fin.
Gamba was working as a nature photographer for National Geographic, on assignment off the coast of Australia. The water was thick with plankton, so he didn’t see the school-bus-sized shark swimming toward him until it was mere feet away. He snapped a few photos, then realized it was too late to get out of the shark’s path—so he ducked down and rolled under the shark, bracing himself for the massive tail to smack against his head as it swam away.
But the slap never came.
“That shark was trying to not hurt me,” Gamba says. “People think of sharks as automatons: Eating and killing, that’s all they do. But this creature, whose biggest threat in the world is mankind—here is this creature who is causing the demise of your fellows, and it made an effort not to hurt me.”
Whale sharks were classified as endangered in 2016.
“We’re killing them,” Gamba says. “We’re killing them all, and that should matter to us, as a species that lives on this planet. We should care. It’s not just about nature—people are being treated no better than how we treat animals.”
The way Gamba talks about it, narrowly avoiding a blow from a whale shark’s tail isn’t just a story from his past life as a photojournalist. It’s a reminder of the progressive and environmentalist principles that inspired him to get involved in Milwaukie politics.
Those same politics are now driving him to mount a longshot primary campaign against the five-term incumbent Rep. Kurt Schrader in Oregon’s 5th Congressional District—a region that stretches from Mt. Hood National Forest to the Oregon coastal communities of Tillamook and Newport, scooping up Portland’s southern suburbs and Salem along the way.
Gamba uses his hands when he talks, and the gesticulations grow broader when he touches on subjects he’s passionate about, which range from the large swaths of the universe unmapped by humans to the injustices of Milwaukie’s water billing system (he’s working on fixing it). At 60 years old, he has a head full of white hair that peeks out from under his helmet when he rides his bike, which he praises as being “the most efficient form of transportation that mankind has ever developed.”
It’s not clear if Gamba, who is running to the left of moderate Democrat Schrader, has a chance of getting on the November 2020 ballot. Gamba, who has pledged to refuse corporate donations, faces an uphill battle in a district Schrader has represented with little significant competition that comprises both Democrat and Republican voters who lean more centrist than hard-line.
State political experts are betting against a Gamba victory. But if his accomplishments in Milwaukie are any indication of what’s to come, Gamba could become the first real competition Schrader has faced in years. And while some doubt whether Gamba’s campaign has legs, this run could prime him to be a favorite in future races, as Oregon’s political makeup continues to drift left. How well he does in this primary could also be a barometer for how far left Oregonians outside the Portland bubble are willing to go.
Gamba grew up in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, and spent much of his early adulthood working as a freelance photojournalist. He started a family in Bend, Oregon, moving to Milwaukie in the early ’00s so his children could attend the Portland Waldorf School. He says he found the town, a 20,000-person suburb south of Portland with its own city government, to be “quiet and pleasant,” and remembers the downtown area as “a bit of a ghost town.”
Gamba, having developed a sense of urgency for tackling climate change while working as a nature photographer, began studying issues like land use, development, and transportation. He formed Milwaukie Understands Sustainable Transitions (MUST), a group focused on adopting more progressive policies regarding housing, transportation, the economy, and the environment, a few years after moving to town.
“There was plenty of meeting over coffee or beers, that kind of thing,” says Ben Rousseau, a fellow MUST member and friend of Gamba’s. “When he sees other people who are passionate about similar things, he reaches out and connects.”
Gamba says MUST didn’t have many policy wins in its early days, but it was responsible for inspiring a slew of progressive Milwaukians to get involved with city government.
That included Gamba, and he joined the town’s planning commission, which helps govern land-use decisions, in the late ’00s. He had worked as a land surveyor as a young man and found that being dyslexic worked to his advantage when it came to understanding how city planning worked—people with dyslexia, he says, tend to imagine 3D models in their heads.
“I could really picture the project being discussed and see ways it could be improved,” says Gamba, “or look at a piece of code and go, ‘Well, when that’s applied to this particular situation, it’s going to do this thing.’”
Gamba became one of the planning commission’s leading voices arguing for more forward-thinking land-use policies—only to see his and his fellow members’ suggestions overturned by Milwaukie City Council.
It wasn’t just that the council rejected Gamba’s preferred policies. As he saw it, the council dodged critical issues that mattered to Milwaukians.
“I wasn’t seeing the council being proactive on any of the problems,” he says. “They were messing around with stuff like, ‘Should we have a minor-league baseball team?’ I understand the tendency of governments to engage in that stuff—cake and circuses, I think, is the old phrase for it. But we have enough problems facing us as a society that there’s plenty of serious problems to be dealt with by governments of all sizes.”
So in 2012, Gamba ran for and won an open council seat, beating his opponent, lawyer Scott Barbur, with 53 percent of the vote. But he soon ran into the same problem of disinterest from some of his fellow councilmembers. A plan to improve Milwaukie’s sidewalks, for example, had languished for years, with several councilmembers reluctant to commit city dollars to the project.
“There were a number of parents that had come in to say, ‘We live six blocks from school, but our kids can’t walk to school because there aren’t any sidewalks,’” Gamba remembers. He saw those parents as “natural allies” to his ultimate goal of making it easier to get around without a car in Milwaukie.
Gamba and other Milwaukians rallied those parents to help get two new progressive city councilmembers elected in 2014, one of whom was Karin Power, who now represents Milwaukie in the Oregon Legislature. The city adopted its sidewalk improvement plan in 2016.
“In his first term, we had a very fractured City Council,” remembers Lisa Batey, who serves on Milwaukie City Council with Gamba. “We had a 3-2 split on almost everything... It was very acrimonious and there was a lack of trust, so he did recruit people to run.”
Gamba was elected mayor in a 2015 special election, after his predecessor took a private-sector job in Seattle. He sailed through his 2018 re-election without any opponents.
Milwaukie has passed a number of progressive policies during Gamba’s time in office, like establishing a $15-per-hour minimum wage for city employees; banning single-use plastic bags; investing construction taxes in affordable housing; and adopting a Climate Action Plan that should make Milwaukie carbon-neutral by 2050. As a member of the Metro regional government’s Transportation Funding Task Force, Gamba is now helping decide transportation priorities that could shape the Portland area for the next 20 years.
Not all of Gamba’s policy choices have been lauded by Milwaukians. In 2016, Gamba supported turning downtown Milwaukie into an urban renewal district, a move that would have temporarily frozen property taxes in the area to encourage development.
Some in Milwaukie were against the decision, arguing that it would deny needed tax dollars to publicly fund services like schools and parks—and spur gentrification and displacement. One resident at a City Council meeting called the plan “a pipe dream” and a “bad nightmare with huge risks.” Still, the plan passed a Milwaukie City Council vote 4-1, on the condition that future development in the district includes affordable housing.
When asked how Gamba managed to accomplish so much in eight years, his fellow councilors and supporters say it’s a combination of his ability to find support for his ideas, and being in the right place at the right time. When Gamba moved to Milwaukie, he was joined by many young families looking for cheap housing near Portland, which changed the political makeup of the town.
Angel Falconer, another current city councilor, first met Gamba when she was a young mom using TriMet buses to commute with her toddler. Both Falconer and Gamba took an interest in planning for the Orange MAX line, which opened in 2015 and connects Portland and Milwaukie.
“He was really looking for ways to connect people to the process,” says Falconer. “And now, he’s really learned quite a bit about working within the system. He’s adapted his style over time—from working without the system, and now applying that same energy when working within the system.”
Gamba’s top two issues—curbing climate change and establishing a publicly funded health insurance option—veer dramatically to the left of Schrader’s politics. With his progressive agenda and plainspoken barbs against his opponent (“If this were purely an issue-based campaign, he’s done, he’s toast, because he’s got nothing to stand on,” he says of Schrader), it’d be easy to classify Gamba as a younger Bernie Sanders. But when asked about his political role models, Gamba names another champion of the left: US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
“She’s proving the model that you don’t need to be a lawyer who has come up through the ranks and is therefore steeped in the ‘the most important thing about politics is money’ world,” Gamba says of the New York congresswoman. “She’s an exemplary example of a congressperson who is doing her very best to help people and is doing new and different things.”
Unlike Ocasio-Cortez, Gamba—an older, middle-class white man—wouldn’t be able to personally speak for underrepresented communities in his district. But he will need to pull off a primary upset as the one Ocasio-Cortez managed in 2018, when she defeated longtime Democratic incumbent Joe Crowley. And unlike Ocasio-Cortez’s district in densely populated Queens and the Bronx, Oregon’s 5th district covers a huge swath of the state: most of Clackamas County and a bit of Multnomah County, but also chunks of the Willamette Valley and the Oregon Coast. While Gamba is relatively well-known in the Portland metro area, finding name recognition outside his local liberal bubble—let alone unseating Schrader—will take some work.
“Schrader has been in long enough that he’s looking safer and safer with every election,” says Jim Moore, a professor who works at Pacific University’s Tom McCall Center for Civic Engagement. “[Beating an incumbent] takes money, because a lot of it is simple name recognition. It takes money and time to make that happen.”
One thing that won’t be difficult: Differentiating himself from his opponent. Schrader, who declined the Mercury’s interview request, is one of a handful of Democrats in Congress who regularly crosses party lines to vote with Republicans. He recently voted against establishing a $15 federal minimum wage and was part of a small contingent of Democrats who opposed making Nancy Pelosi the Speaker of the House in 2019 on the grounds that she isn’t willing enough to work with Republicans. Schrader’s also raised millions in campaign contributions throughout his career, many of which have come from the pharmaceutical, oil, and timber industries.
Moore, who calls Gamba’s chances of beating Schrader “not very good at all,” says Schrader’s image as a conservative Democrat fits well with the district he’s served since 2009, since its demographics skew older and whiter than, say, Oregon’s 3rd Congressional District, which includes most of Portland proper and is represented by Earl Blumenauer.
“It’s interesting, because Schrader is a bit too conservative for our district, and [Gamba] is maybe a little too liberal,” says Batey, from Milwaukie City Council. “It’s hard because it’s a big district that includes a lot of rural Oregon. That’s the challenge for Mark.”
But Gamba says that while Schrader sometimes votes conservatively, “the things he does don’t serve the conservative people of his district.”
Gamba points to Schrader’s vote against a higher federal minimum wage. Oregon, Gamba says, is already on a path to instituting higher minimum wages (ranging from $12.50 to $14.75 by 2022, depending on where in the state you work), which means that by voting against a higher federal minimum wage, Schrader “gave a competitive advantage” to businesses in nearby states with low minimum wage standards, like Idaho.
“You’re not representing farm workers of the Willamette Valley, you’re not representing fishermen on the Coast, you’re not representing the people working in restaurants or cleaning hotel rooms, and you’re not serving the businesses of Oregon,” he says. “So who are you serving when you vote that way?”
But does Gamba even have the district’s Democrat votes? Casey Kopcho thinks so. An Oregon Democratic party veteran who currently serves both as a state auditor and a Salem planning commissioner, Kopcho is one of Gamba’s advisors from District 5. He says there’s a feeling of disconnection from Schrader among Salem-area Democrats, exacerbated by the fact that Schrader hasn’t had to campaign very hard in recent election cycles.
“A lot of folks just don’t feel like the current representative represents them,” Kopcho says. “When you start showing up and you’re consistent about it, people start to pay attention.”
Gamba’s team plans to begin campaigning in earnest this fall, about six months before Oregon’s primary election in May.
“It’s going to be a grassroots campaign that is largely won in the field,” says Eileen Reavey, Gamba’s interim campaign manager (The campaign recently hired a permanent manager, Kyle Ashby.) “Lots of door knocking, lots of talking to people one-on-one.”
It’s hard to know if Gamba’s campaigning skills will be a match for Schrader’s. Though Gamba is praised by colleagues for being a skilled negotiator, he hasn’t faced a political challenger since his first Milwaukie City Council race in 2012.
“I haven’t seen his stump speech, really, so I don’t know about the campaign trail,” says Batey. “Anybody thinking about running for a higher office—it’s the campaigning that really wears you down. It’s quite the grind.”
Though Pacific University’s Moore is doubtful Gamba has much of a chance this election cycle, he does think the district could swing to the left in five or 10 years—and if that happens, Gamba could be poised to take on Schrader again. Moore compares District 5 to Washington County, which was the epicenter of Oregon Republicanism until about 20 years ago, when tech companies like Intel expanded their offices to Hillsboro and Beaverton, and TriMet’s MAX line made it easier for Portland commuters to live there.
“The high-tech workers tend to support Democrats more than Republicans,” Moore says. “Change in Schrader’s district is beginning to mimic that same pattern. They’re trying to get the more high-tech people to come in.”
Oregon’s population has grown significantly in the last 10 years, and the state may be granted a sixth congressional district after the 2020 US Census. If that happens, the current districts will be redrawn, which could give Gamba yet another opening to run—but it’s unclear at this point whether the new districts will work to his advantage or not, Moore says.
If he does make his way to Congress, Gamba has big plans. He sees Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal as an entry point for revolutionizing environmental and economic policies and overhauling the country’s healthcare and transportation systems. He compares the current era to the Great Depression, which spurred Roosevelt’s New Deal, as well as to the lead-up to World War II, which saw huge economic and infrastructure expansion. Gamba says climate change will be where he puts “the majority of my time and effort, because it’s such a big, hairy issue and there are so many aspects to it, and so many opportunities to benefit Americans through it.”
Gamba also hopes to help establish publicly funded elections, in hopes of booting millionaires from Congress.
“Even if they’re nice millionaires with good hearts, they only have their perspective to work from,” he adds. “The middle class has been getting poorer, year after year, for the last 60 years.”
Gamba admits that taking on Schrader will be an uphill battle. But he still thinks he has a shot. That’s largely due to interactions like one he had in May, a month after announcing his intent to run. Schrader was hosting a panel on healthcare in Lake Oswego, and Gamba attended and sat in the back, trying not to be too conspicuous. Schrader’s panel focused mostly on Obamacare, rather than on the possibility of a public option or single-payer system. While many of the panel’s attendees held up signs calling for Medicare for All, Gamba says, Schrader didn’t devote much time to the idea.
As the event ended, a person holding one of those signs came up to Gamba.
“Aren’t you Mark Gamba?” he asked. “Hold on a second. I want to write you a check.”