This column, written by Anna Griffin, was originally published in The Oregonian on August 7, 2006. Seeing as how Chris is back in the political sphere, we thought we’d share it again to highlight that he was winning accolades for his environmental advocacy of land use and transportation in the local newspaper a full 15 years ago.
The scene repeats itself any time the Portland City Council considers a serious matter of land use, transportation, neighborhood planning or civic engagement. First come the city bureaucrats, spouting earnest techno-babble explanations of the day’s issue. Next come the professional lobbyists, their presentations as polished as their dress shoes. Then the neighborhood activists passionately point out how the city has failed to consider them.
Finally, a nondescript-looking man approaches the microphone.
He carries prepared remarks, but does not lecture. He congratulates city leaders for their hard work. He suggests loopholes they might have missed. He leads them to his point, Socratic-method style, in a soft voice tinged with a hint of a New England accent.
Who is Chris Smith, if not a lobbyist or a neighborhood activist or a bureaucrat? He’s a pro bono political operative who does everything from data analysis to door-to-door campaigning for progressive candidates and causes. A deep-thinking advocate for smarter transportation planning who can’t seem to resist a City Club research project. A foodie. A biker. A blogger. An outsider who nudged his way inside by working hard and showing up.
Striding into City Hall or the headquarters of Metro, the regional government, Smith turns few heads. The 46-year-old shows up at most places in nothing more formal than shorts and a polo shirt, squinting slightly behind his glasses. He has that so-geeky-he’s-hip thing going, from the T eo hooked to his bike messenger’s bag to the “four or five” computers humming at home.
Yet when it comes to promoting the kind of smart, urban-centric planning that attracts people to Portland, Smith hangs out on the cutting edge. Among his current projects: extending the Portland Streetcar to the east side of the Willamette River. Expanding the city’s network of bike paths and trails. Keeping alive the prospect of a Burnside-Couch couplet. Crafting a long-term vision for the region. Preserving public financing of City Hall campaigns.
Few people in Portland or Oregon practice the time-gobbling art of civic involvement to the same degree as Smith, a man of many metaphorical hats along with the hiker’s fedora he sports anytime the sun threatens to shine.
Smith did not expect to get so involved in civic affairs when Tektronix moved him here in 1988 from Boston. He’d been a student government do-gooder in high school and college, but by the time of his transfer he was too focused on his career as a computer engineer to worry about politicians and planners.
Like plenty of transplanted Portlanders, Smith assumed he would head back to the Northeast in a few years. Instead, life intervened.
In 1991, he moved from the Beaverton area to North Portland. He fell in love with the
neighborhood, which reminded him of the urbane yet easy-to-navigate European cities he’d visited for work. He also fell hard for Staci Paley, a fellow technology whiz. Their relationship has survived more than a decade, despite the fact that she prefers to drive everywhere and he is a transit fiend who also walks 15,000 steps or bikes 15 miles a day to help his weight and blood pressure. A passion for his new neighborhood spurred the activism that ran in his genes: In his hometown in
western Massachusetts, his mother led the League of Women Voters and ran for City Council; his father served on the local hospital and Chamber of Commerce boards. Curious about his new community, Smith attended a few neighborhood meetings. He discovered he had a brain for the way zoning laws and traffic patterns shape how people live. He became more and more involved and educated until he ended up serving as the Northwest Portland neighborhood association’s transportation expert for a long and nasty debate over parking.
From there, he branched out. He worked for Our Oregon in its 2000 statewide campaigns against anti-tax measures proposed by conservative activist Bill Sizemore. He joined the volunteer board planning the streetcar. He signed up for City Club. Eventually, he went part time at Xerox, where he now works. Now, he says, “I spend 30 hours a week making a living and 30 hours a week making a difference.”
While many neighborhood activists stick to their own backyards, and their own real estate investments, Smith’s passion for public engagement is an intellectual pursuit as much as a matter of the heart –or the pocketbook.
He’s a systems guy, trained to view the world as a series of interlocking parts. When he goes to work –commuting to Xerox’s Wilsonville office by bicycle and bus –he spends his days trying to make computer systems link up as efficiently as possible. When he stays home, he strives to ensure that each zoning decision, road map and mass-transit leg meshes with the larger scheme.
He quotes Winston Churchill on infrastructure –“We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.”–then launches into his own interpretation, barely pausing to catch a breath: “The interstate highway system really shaped modern America, right? So we’re making decisions right now in this region that will affect how we live for decades to come.” Unlike many neighborhood and civic organizers, Smith is more pragmatist than idealist. In the debate about parking in Northwest Portland, for example, he tried to negotiate with developers to push pay stations and permit parking over large garages. Smith and his neighbors eventually lost
in court. Yet even people on the other side credit him with being open to compromise.
“He’s not the classic citizen activist, always coming to argue against things,” said David Bragdon, Metro Council president, who also got his start as a Northwest neighborhood advocate.
Two other reasons politicians and bureaucrats pay attention: Smith works his tail off, staying up late to sort through political spending reports, toiling for hours over maps showing where in town the City Council candidates collected their contributions and tracking down every pertinent public record on any given topic.
Also, he’s there. It seems simple, but just showing up at all the hearings and presentations that precede a government vote presents a steep hurdle for many activists. They’re too busy making a living.
“Chris is a guardian of the public process,” said Scott Bricker, policy director at the Bicycle Transportation Alliance. He cites Smith’s recent successful effort to force Metro to waive a $30 charge for a June brainstorming meeting on regional growth.
“As a lobbyist, I’ll wear a suit and a tie, I’ll go to these events because I’m paid to go. Chris shows up in his sunglasses, his hat, his shorts. He’s walked there or biked there,” Bricker said. “But because he has the patience and the time to do what most people can’t –take part in this grueling process –they pay attention.”
Hesitant to go professional
With his computer skills, tenacity and aw-shucks charm, Smith could surely get paid for much of the work he now does for free. He’s played with the idea of running for office but never bit. Every now and then, friends suggest he go into business as a consultant advising candidates or organizing grass-roots campaigns.
He’s not so sure. For one thing, a large part of his credibility and freedom comes from the fact that he’s doing this because he cares, not to pay the mortgage.
If he was focused on one thing, beholden to a boss, would he have time to make those regular calls to Portland Streetcar president Rick Gustafson to point out vandalism or technical glitches?
Would he still have the credibility to point out to city Auditor Gary Blackmer what he perceives as holes in the city’s lobbying rules? Would anybody listen when he shows up to argue for city government to cut Flexcar a break on parking fees?
If he went into business, he might also have to get rid of those home-printed business cards, unlike anything anybody else carries in this town.
On the back, the card lists Web addresses for his blog, the Portland Streetcar, the Metro Policy Advisory Council and the City Council. The front side is simpler and answers, in blocky blue, black and white type, that nagging question about Smith.
Given all his activities and interests, what the heck is he?
“Chris Smith, Citizen Activist.”
Read Chris Smith’s blog at http://www.portlandtransport.com.