On April 1, the most veteran City Hall staffer left the building. It could come as a surprise that this title belonged to 29-year-old Seraphie Allen, but it also might speak to the youthful tenacity required to remain in Portland City Hall for six years straight. Allen, who joined Mayor Ted Wheeler’s staff after volunteering on his initial mayoral campaign in 2016, has led a variety of projects since entering the office: From drafting first-of-their-kind LGBTQ+ policies in City Hall to starting up an emergency homeless shelter village in the midst of a global pandemic.
Allen, who grew up in Santa Rosa, California, never saw themselves in this kind of job—”politics was always a dirty word in my family”—and pursued teaching after graduating from Lewis and Clark College. But the politics of the 2016 presidential election altered that career path. Allen now heads to another position in city government in Redmond, Washington.
Before leaving Portland, Allen sat down with the Mercury to reflect on their experiences navigating politics, policymaking, and public discourse while working for the city’s most divisive politician.
MERCURY: So, how did you get pulled into politics?
ALLEN: Well, it was 2016, and the presidential primaries were really pissing me off, with the hate speech coming from Trump. I try to be someone that when something makes me really mad I put that energy towards something that’s productive, ideally. And so I decided that the best way to get involved was to volunteer locally. I decided to listen to all the mayoral candidate forums on OPB. Sarah Iannarone had one, Jules Bailey had one, and Ted [Wheeler] had one. I really liked what Ted said about mental health and addiction issues—it’s something he and I have personally bonded over, having family members who have struggled with addiction. So, I was interested.
I serendipitously met someone who invited me to one of Ted’s campaign house parties in the West Hills, and I was by far the youngest person, by like, 30 years. Ted saw me and made a beeline for me and was like “Hi, how are you, what are you doing here?” And we had a conversation, and I agreed to volunteer for his campaign.
What kind of volunteering?
I did everything. Fundraising, communications, door knocking, policy research. After Ted won, I managed the constituent inbox for a long time. My first policy issue was queer issues, because I was the only queer person in the office at the time.
What was your title starting out?
I think it was assistant policy advisor.
What surprised you about the job? What didn’t you expect coming in?
In 2017, everyone was complaining about trash. And every day the mayor would be like “What’s going on today?” and we’d say, “Trash!” When I was younger, my mom would always sign us up for trash volunteer events, and so I tried to find an equivalent in Portland. I just googled “trash pickup events” and I found SOLVE and I cold called them. I was like “Hey, this is Seraphie with the mayor's office, I was just wondering if you’d be interested in a partnership” and they flipped out, of course, because someone from the mayor’s office was calling them.
"There was a lot of hoop jumping I’ve had to do to not associate certain folks with Ted, but still have them on board to get stuff done."
I don’t think I realized the power in saying “I work in the mayor’s office.” You can email or call almost anyone and say that, and people will talk to you pretty immediately. It’s a crazy level of access. It doesn't mean you're going to get anything you want, at all, but it opens a door. So I learned early the power of convening through the mayor’s office.
I can imagine that saying you worked for Ted Wheeler also closed some doors at certain times, too.
Oh yeah, totally. As the term went on and people became more angry at Ted, people would stop getting back to me as much. I felt that the most in the queer community. People didn’t want to work with me because of who I worked for, so I would negotiate and say, “Okay, but what if we work on actually progressing some things forward, but you don’t have to say publicly you worked with us.” There was a lot of hoop jumping I’ve had to do to not associate certain folks with Ted, but still have them on board to get stuff done. It’s a lot of relationship building.
You mentioned how your work gave you the ability to convene many different people. What’s an example of that?
C3PO [short for Creating Conscious Communities with People Outside, an outdoor pod village for unhoused people during the pandemic]! But to be honest, that wasn’t just because I was someone from the mayor’s office, that was because people trusted me. I was moved to the city’s emergency command center at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and we began setting up these temporary outdoor shelters. I was in charge of everything from getting propane tanks, to getting permits for the sites, and getting everyone on board.
I spent time building relationships with JOIN and Street Roots, and managing Commissioner Hardesty’s office, and working with all the different advocates who wanted to be part of the creation. And, for a minute, it was really beautiful. There was such harmony between community groups and the government that I’d never really seen before. And then, some of the long term philosophies of how those things were going continue came to a head and imploded a little. I’m not sad that it happened, though. I’m proud.
It seemed to be really responsive to the moment.
Exactly. And with the queer affinity camp and BIPOC camp, those wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t, like two years prior, been building relationships or have people reach out to me to say “we need safer places for our community.”
What’s another memorable project you worked on while at City Hall?
The Red House. That was an example of using existing relationships with people to negotiate a stand down instead of a shoot out. That could have ended really, really badly. There were still challenges, but no one died. And that, to me, was a huge accomplishment. Me and [former Wheeler staffer] Sam Diaz talked to the [Kinney] family over a couple week as well as CAT (Community Alliance of Tenant) to negotiate with the developers and reach an agreement not to evict them. They’re still in negotiations two years later. And it’s two private parties, so we're not involved anymore. But again, it shows the power of the mayor’s office to bring people together during chaotic moments.
How does it feel leaving behind those relationships you worked so hard to develop?
I feel really sad. That’s one of the reasons I’ve stayed so long—I’ve felt a duty to people that have given me trust in those early years to try and push the things that they need for their survival. That’s what has kept me going through some of the bullshit, at times. But there’s a time for a close and I had to recognize that right now is that time for me.
"I’ve had multiple people email me in the past several months to say, 'You should quit as a trans person.' But it’s also a reason I stayed. I was a voice in the room."
But it’s hard, because you feel that weight of expectation. That was also one of the hardest things—people thought I could do more than I could. You’re a voice in the room, and you’re a powerful voice in the room, but you’re still one person. Especially if you’re a queer person or a person of color and when you leave people are like, “You didn’t get this thing done for our community and it feels like a betrayal.” When you add identity to that, it gets personal. I’ve had multiple people email me in the past several months to say, “You should quit as a trans person.” But it’s also a reason I stayed. I was still a voice in the room.
What would you say about City Hall is the most misunderstood by the public?
I think overall, Portlanders want a dichotomous thing. They both want City Hall to have a lot of power to do whatever they want when they want it, but they don’t want anyone to have too much consolidated power to do anything. They’re like, “We want you to answer our requests on a dime, but we don’t want you to have consolidated power because that’s scary.” That is 100 percent true of the mayor’s office and of our form of government. You can see that dichotomy at play in the charter commission’s work.
What’s so unusual right now is that, besides Commissioner Hardesty, everyone else on the City Council is pretty new. When we came into office, we had Commissioner [Dan] Saltzman who had been there for like, 20 years, we had Commissioner [Nick] Fish, we had Commissioner [Amanda] Fritz, there was a huge amount of institutional knowledge there. For these new commissioners, well, they don’t know what they don’t know when they join the council. I think this council has been the most city-focused I’ve seen in the past five years.
City-focused in what way?
They’ve come up with values that they all together believe in. The council offices really work together, they often try to move together with things. I think it’s because they constantly feel so under assault with all the crises right now. Because they're all underwater, they’re all looking for the hand to be like, “Who's going to float with me?” And on the other hand, I think there has been less progress on some issues, and people would like to see bolder policy.
Like Commissioner [Chloe] Eudaly, she really had a vision as to where she wanted to go. Love her or hate her—and I love her—she wasn’t going to wait for you to catch up. I’ve gone back and forth on this: During a crisis, I think it’s good to have a council that is on the same page as it is now. But I hope that as we come into more of a recovery period, that we see more skillful politicking on how to advance things like tenant protections... or other issues that have been on the wayside for so long because of COVID.
You entered politics as a response to Trumpism. Did you feel like the work that you got into helped push back on that? Did it feel like you were countering that movement?
I haven’t thought about it in that way for a long time. I think Trump, for me, represents greed and selfishness. And I think that the work I’ve done in Portland has been a counter to that, by including more communities that haven't been included before and expanding services that weren't there before. I didn’t know if I was going to stay in politics. But I have seen the duty of someone who is a skilled politician to actually move things in the right direction and witness how it can be totally abused.
Were there any times where you doubted the system?
Oh yeah, every day. But on the other hand, is the alternative to just burn everything down? I think we’re seen throughout history—like the fall of the Roman Empire—that when we tear systems down, we just keep reconstructing the same systems.
So I don’t believe in the “burn it all down” approach. It doesn't mean that that time won't come, and I think a lot of people think we’re headed toward that time in the country and the world right now. But I gotta believe that we, at some point, are willing to stick it through. I’m not saying that things shouldn’t change, but oftentimes it's the people that need to change, not always our structure.
Now that you're out the door, do you still support Mayor Wheeler as a politician?
Here’s my thought: Ted is still the best candidate who ran for his second term. If people don't like it, they should run a better candidate. You don’t like something? Do it better. That’s always been my answer.
You’ve been deeply involved with addressing the homelessness crisis in Portland. What do you see as the biggest roadblocks to genuinely helping unhoused people and getting them into housing?
It's important to remember that people are being helped right now. We get really lost in politics. Homelessness is more political than its ever been, unfortunately. And that doesn’t help people. The amount of grandstanding we’re seeing is so frustrating…. particularly with [the local lobbying group] People for Portland. With them, I go back to selfishness and greed. [People for Portland co-founder] Kevin Looper doesn’t care about homeless people. He’s a political hack. He cares about what his next consulting gig is, and that's it.
"Homelessness is more political than its ever been, unfortunately. And that doesn’t help people. The amount of grandstanding we’re seeing is so frustrating."
The bigger takeaway is that our government has a really hard time communicating its work... it honestly seems to be harder than ever. I think that's partly because local newspapers have shrunk. I think people are more knowledgeable about national politics than what’s going on in their own community, and that’s not great. And in the absence of communication, we see campaigns like People for Portland that are crafty and simplified and tap into the community’s fears.
What hopes do you have for Portland?
I’ve been traveling a lot back and forth between Seattle and Portland lately, and it's a reminder that Portland is a much friendlier place. As Portland becomes larger and wealthier, I do hope Portland holds onto its spirit of community. I’ve seen it—around certain policies, and during the protests, the mutual aid... all of that work. I hope that people don’t rush to view each other as enemies, because we should be reaching out to understand each other better.
I have hope for that, but it’s hard right now—especially around certain topics like policing and homelessness. Everything feels really divisive at the moment. But I guess I just hope Portland leans back into relationships. If I have any advice for Portlanders, it's vote for people that you think will take action and are willing to be in conflict with someone, but will be able to maintain a relationship with that person for the next day's battle.
And what hopes do you have for the mayor?
I hope that he continues to surround himself with people who look different, think different, and act differently than him so that the next stage we go into as a city really brings about the diversity of opinions.
That's what I was—a 23-year-old queer staffer brought into a politically minded team. And I was able to last super long because I had a duty to the people I felt like I was serving. He could hear that and know where my heart was coming from, and I heard where his heart was coming from, even though we often disagreed.
I think he will be remembered as a kind man and he gave me the opportunity of a lifetime.