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Straight Talk: People for Portland is trying to hold elected officials accountable. Is it working?

The new advocacy group says it's worried that people will become numb to what's happening in the city.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Political strategists Dan Lavey and Kevin Looper usually find themselves on opposing sides of an issue.

Lavey served as strategist for former Republican U.S. Senator Gordon Smith, and advises Oregon business interests. 

Looper is a long-time Democratic consultant. However, what they see as the decline and decay of their hometown, Portland, brought them together to launch the nonprofit advocacy group, People for Portland.

"It's a perplexing problem when you look around, the trash, the homelessness, the public safety problems we endure here in Portland... More importantly, there was a gap between what elected officials were talking about and where the public was and we needed to get the public voice into this," Looper said.

Lavey and Looper were guests on this week's episode of "Straight Talk" to discuss why they founded People for Portland, their objectives, and who is funding the $1.5 million campaign.

People for Portland polls show voter dissatisfaction

Looper and Lavey launched "People for Portland" in August after doing some polling.

The poll by FM3 Research showed the frustration many citizens have with what they see as too little action by city leaders to tackle homelessness, trash around the city, and the city's record gun violence. The survey of 800 Portlanders found three in five voters feel negatively about Portland's direction, especially downtown.

When it comes to homelessness, voters said they believe tent encampments are a humanitarian emergency requiring urgent action, by a margin of 84% to 12%. 

Biggest Fear: "People are going to become numb"

Kevin Looper said the experts they've talked to say Portland has about two years to change economic and social behaviors to keep the city the special place that it is. 

Lavey said People for Portland has another significant concern: people will become used to the way things are.

RELATED: Portland’s homeless crisis worsens along Marine Drive, land ownership muddles response

"Another significant concern we have is that people are going to become numb, comfortably or uncomfortably numb, to the situation we find ourselves in. Portland is not a foregone conclusion. It took generations of leaders and citizens to make Portland the special place that it is and will be once again. But right now, it is not," he said.

Lavey said people will make decisions about where to locate their office, where to shop, whether to go downtown to visit a cultural institution, and where to spend their dollars.

"And once people change their behavior, it's hard to get it back," Lavey said.

"We're making it Election Day every day"

Lavey said the group wants to address three main issues: public safety, getting people off the streets into shelters and into long-term housing quickly, and cleaning up trash around the city. They plan to do that by giving voters a platform to have their voices heard.

"The main objective is to get more people involved in democracy urging elected officials to take action," Lavey said.

"We are making it Election Day every day for the folks in elected office. It makes a difference when they hear from folks. All this depends on individuals acting. That's why we are providing a platform," Looper said.

Complaints to Mayor Wheeler double

People for Portland said visitors to its website have sent more than 175,000 emails to city, county, Metro, and state elected leaders.

A KGW public records request revealed that in the three months before People For Portland's launch in August, Mayor Ted Wheeler had received 9,158 emails. 

In the two months following People for Portland's launch that number more than doubled to 20,017 emails.

Credit: KGW Staff

City takes action on issues pushed by People for Portland

Lavey and Looper believe the pressure on elected leaders is working. They point to the announcement this week from the city and Multnomah County that will invest $38 million in a set of new programs to address the homeless crisis. 

The plan includes 400 new shelter beds at four sites and will add more behavioral and public health services in high-impact areas like Old Town Chinatown. The money will also fund up to two dozen additional outreach workers in those areas. One-fifth of the money will go to trash cleanup around the city.

RELATED: Portland, Multnomah County leaders pledge additional $38 million to address homeless crisis

Earlier this week, Mayor Wheeler also unveiled his plan to address public safety concerns. The mayor's proposal will include $7 million to hire back 25 retired police officers, buy body-worn cameras for police and hire 200 more sworn officers, in addition to 100 unarmed public safety specialists. He said he believes he has the three votes on council to pass the plan.

The move comes a year after the Portland City Council unanimously voted to cut millions in funding to the Portland Police Bureau.

RELATED: Portland mayor sets target to hire 300 police staff members in three years

"So those are three very specific things we've been talking about that we have put on the agenda, that we have been encouraging people to advocate for, that elected officials have announced this week and in the upcoming week are going to be voting on before council," said Lavey.

Critics say group is stoking public frustration

Critics of People For Portland have said the organization stokes public frustration without offering real solutions and gives the public the sense that nothing is happening when it comes to homelessness. 

A spokesperson for Multnomah County said before Mayor Hales declared a housing emergency in Portland in 2015, there was shelter space for 650 people. Now, going into the winter, there's space for more than 2,000. 

Credit: Multnomah County
Portland shelter sites circa 2015.

In addition, money from the Metro bond voters passed in 2018 will mean supportive housing for 2,200 people. The county also said rental vouchers have helped 20,000 people remain housed who might otherwise have become homeless.

Credit: Multnomah County
Portland shelter sites in 2021.

RELATED: 'I still didn't believe it until I got the keys': Funds from 2018 Metro housing bond boost affordable housing

Looper said that's not enough.

"Critics might think we are trying to make it seem like nothing is happening but Portland is making it seem like nothing is happening. Just people looking around is where that problem is. I would point out, things aren't happening fast enough and not enough is happening. That's for certain," he said.

Who's funding People for Portland?

The Willamette Week reported the group has a budget of $1.5 million for seven months. However, because the organization is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, it doesn't have to disclose the donors funding the campaign. 

KGW political consultant and lobbyist, Len Bergstein, said by hiding the source of the funding it's hard to know the group's true motives and who stands to benefit. Bergstein said the group is trying to monetize the public's pain and anxiety about homelessness and public safety issues.

"They try to kind of like hide who their supporters are. I've been in this business [lobbying] for about 50 years. And whenever I represented somebody to a government and wanted to influence them or lobby a decision, I had to declare who my client was. I couldn't intentionally hide or disguise who really wanted to see something happen," Bergstein said.

But Looper said the group doesn't have any hidden secret agenda.

"The agenda we push is right online and we show that it's got all the agenda items that 75% of the public support. There's nothing here that's any different from any other advocacy group that you know about: environmentalists, choice groups. None of them divulge their donors," Looper said.

He said there's a reason for the anonymity — it protects free speech.

Credit: KGW Staff
Dan Lavey (Left) and Kevin Looper (Right) are the co-founders of People for Portland.

Looper: "Cancel culture is real"

"There are real consequences for people who step out. I've felt that myself. Cancel culture is real," he said.

Looper said he's lost $150,000 in business from progressive clients because of the pressure he's putting on elected leaders through People for Portland.

"You know what, I don't care. I've got a 7-year-old to raise in this city and this stuff needs to happen. So, I'll take the chance," Looper said.

Lavey pointed to what happened to Portland City Commissioner Dan Ryan last year when his home was vandalized as a result of his vote on policing. He also said a coffee shop owner who appeared in a video on the People for Portland website had her shop vandalized the day after the video was posted.

RELATED: Commissioner Dan Ryan responds after protesters vandalize his home: 'We need common sense to take over and take our city back'

"Unfortunately, we are living in an environment where they feel their free speech is threatened and intimidated," Lavey said.

Thousands visit People for Portland website

Lavey said when they started People for Portland they didn't know what would happen, but since then, thousands of people have taken action. He said the group has provided a road map on the issues it feels City Council needs to work on and a platform for citizens to have their voices heard.

"Thousands of people visit our website every day. Close to 5,000 people have joined us on Facebook in just ten weeks. So, we are trying to give voice to Portlanders," he said.

Looper, a self-described progressive said in a city dominated by Democratic politics, accountability can't be a dirty word.

"We have to embrace it. We actually have to deliver what we say we're gonna do. When we talk about homelessness it can't just end with talk and having more meetings. It's got to end with people actually having a safe and sanitary place to put their head at night."

Straight Talk airs Friday at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 9:30 p.m.

Straight Talk is also available as a podcast.

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