The cars outside North Portland's Liberty Hall on Sunday, where Oregon's chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America held a meeting and panel discussion, were plastered with telling bumper stickers. "Get corporations off welfare" and "Just say no to war with Iraq" were among the sentiments gracing the compact sedans, in whose backseats several hand-painted picket signs were also visible.

The meeting was a call to arms for activists in regards to issues surrounding poverty. About 100 people attended. One panel discussion featured representatives from Dignity Village and Oregon Food Bank. Another focused on the problem of poverty in Oregon, what might happen during the next legislative session, and the root causes of Oregon's social services crisis.

According to organizers, the group hopes to emerge as Portland's political conscience. After a long hibernation, the DSA is slowly gathering members and, they hope, momentum. But this November's elections, say members, indicated that things are going to get much worse before they get better. Although unemployment rates have backed off from last year's eight percent high, there is still a nefarious undertow of poverty throughout the state. Oregon still leads the nation in hunger rates.

Apathetic voters and deep-pocketed special interest groups defeated all the progressive measures on the ballot several weeks ago, according to members. Moreover, the House of Representatives has a 36-24 Republican majority, the Senate is evenly matched between the parties, and governor-elect Ted Kulongoski has not made clear a commitment to fighting poverty in Oregon.

Locally, DSA Oregon endorsed Measure 23, November's failed universal health-care bill, and currently supports campaigns to halt gentrification in north and northeast Portland, and to get Enron out of Oregon by creating a People's Utility District.

Also on the agenda, says Duane Poncy, the chapter's co-chair, is a petition to defend the Bill of Rights against the Patriot Act. "We're asking City Council not to allow those parts [of the Act] that infringe on civil liberties," Poncy says.

Another new focus for the DSA, both nationally and locally, will be economic justice. "We're looking at welfare rights, workers' rights, living wage issues, and we're working to build coalitions between advocates for welfare recipients, the homeless, and unions," says Poncy.

"Socialism really is the idea that the purpose of society and government is for the social good," explains Poncy, "not maximizing private good."