DESPITE WHAT you might think, Portland did not emerge fully formed from the forehead of Zeus as a place filled with bicycles and pretty good coffee. These days the city can sometimes be painfully idealistic, but a new book from JD Chandler and Theresa Griffin Kennedy reveals a town that was far more cynical.
Murder and Scandal in Prohibition Portland showcases various episodes of corruption, crime, and government misconduct in Stumptown during the reign of George Baker, Portland's longest-serving mayor. Chandler and Kennedy paint Baker as the archetypal backslapping, baby-kissing politician who would be most at home in the proverbial smoke-filled back room. According to the authors, Baker (who was sentimentally referred to as "Our George" and "The Kissin' Mayor") formed police squads to round up unionists and members of the Industrial Workers of the World, paid lip service to Prohibition and dry politics, and had African American bootleggers arrested—all while drinking gleefully with his cronies. Law enforcement raided speakeasies and illegal saloons, of course, but the evidence locker more or less served as city hall's personal liquor cabinet. The only real opposition to Baker and his ilk came from early 20th-century Progressives, but Chandler and Kennedy depict them as hopelessly outmatched by the entrenched power structure of guys who all did each other favors, legal or otherwise.
If there's a weakness to the book, it's that it feels disjointed at times. There are too many individual incidents of corruption, crime, and racism to catalog, and sometimes they seem related only in a very large sense. Also, despite the title, murder is not the most shocking or disquieting aspect of Murder and Scandal. The biggest through-line in the book is a city government and law-enforcement agency riddled with casual corruption and cynicism. There is nothing motivating Baker and his pals besides personal power and enrichment. The politicians and law enforcement officials don't have any coherent sense of ethics or rightness. There is no vision.
There are only rich men smoking expensive cigars, laughing about how they run this town.