PORTLAND, Ore. – As an Oregonian, I've always been proud of this picture-postcard metropolis, so I've been pained to see it portrayed as a war zone or dying city, and doubly pained when a local businessman recently recounted to me his effort to recruit an executive from out of state.
The executive came for a visit — but, when she saw today's Portland, with its homeless camps and boarded-up shops downtown, declined the job.
I think that executive erred: Whatever the scars from big protests that began last summer against racial injustice, this city has strong fundamentals and is resilient.
But the travails here are real and offer lessons for the rest of the country about the uses and abuses of progressivism.
Last summer President Donald Trump inflamed the crisis in Portland by sending in unneeded federal troops to deal with mostly peaceful protests. That aggravated the upheaval, provoked months of rioting and empowered fringe groups. And perhaps it also obscured the need to stand resolutely against violence by local troublemakers on both left and right.
There was too much deference to people sowing chaos under the banner of social justice, perhaps for fear of seeming unprogressive. After the feds left, the city never tried hard enough to pivot to re-establish order.
Just this week, there was new rioting in Portland after a white police officer in Minnesota shot and killed a Black man, Daunte Wright. Portlanders have reason to protest peacefully — the police arrest African Americans in the city at four times the rate of whites, one study found. But violence doesn't serve any cause other than the election of Republicans.
The local slogan is "Keep Portland Weird," but businesses boarded up to protect against rioters suggest not weirdness but melancholy. A beautiful elk statue that had presided in a park for 120 years had to be removed after its base was vandalized by protesters. Activists have defied the law and taken over a building known as the Red House, frightening neighbors.
Underscoring the concern for law and order, this year Portland is on track to reach 100 homicides, far exceeding the record of 70 set in 1987.
Homelessness and fast-rising home prices reflect another governance problem, although one factor is in-migration, a sign of Portland's continuing appeal. An inclusive zoning law may have constrained supply by discouraging construction of new apartment buildings. Two businesspeople involved in home construction both told me that they avoid building housing in Portland because of regulatory, bureaucratic and other challenges.
The city is hobbled by a commission form of government that promotes paralysis, and garbage collection is so bumbling that the Oregonian christened the city "Dumptown." The newspaper Willamette Week rightly warned that "obituaries for Portland are premature," but it's discouraging when you have to remind people that you're still alive.
As I see it, the city has basic management problems but also enjoys considerable strengths and social capital; COVID-19 mortality was low partly because people wore masks and looked out for one another.
So what lessons are there for the country?
One wing of the Democratic Party, encompassing President Joe Biden but also policy wonks to his left like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, focuses on practical steps to improve people's lives: vaccinations, broadband, highways, child allowances, day care.
Another wing of the party emphasizes identity politics and theatrical grand gestures to redress historical wrongs and push for a fairer society.
It's more complicated than that, of course, and many progressives, including me, believe both in broadband and in remedying historical wrongs. But some woke moves, like Dr. Seuss' publisher pulling some of his books, look ridiculous and others just seem out of touch with complexities on the ground.
Seattle leftists set up a six-block "no-cop zone" downtown last summer to protect the public from police violence. Six people were then shot in the zone within 10 days, simply confirming the value of a police presence.
In San Francisco, the Board of Education became a laughingstock when it voted to rename 44 school buildings, including schools named for Lincoln and Washington. This month the board rescinded its decision after parents protested that the board should focus on getting children into those buildings.
Someone asked me if it was true that in New York City one can be fined $250,000 for calling someone an "illegal alien." That's absurd, I replied, just more right-wing propaganda. Then I checked.
And, yes, it turns out that calling someone an "illegal alien," with intent to demean, can be punishable by a fine of up to $250,000. Is that really the best way to improve anyone's life?
So as I contemplate Democratic aims and toolboxes from this sullied but still lovely city of Portland, I reach two conclusions.
First, anyone who says no to a recruiter in Portland is a fool, for no one has ever made money betting against this city. Second, bravo for Biden and others focusing on tangible, nitty-gritty — sometimes revolutionary — improvements in real people's lives.
Grand gestures for justice are fine. But they can't substitute for quiet competence in keeping people safe, getting people housed or picking up the garbage.