Jefferson Smith is just like you. Well, with a couple exceptions.
1. He's taller. How much taller is relative, of course, but he's a big heffalump of a guy. A basketball nut, he clearly played in the post back in the day.
2. He's saving democracy. What are you doing? Reading a magazine.
As it turns out, though, safeguarding the republic is simpler than you'd think. Some six years ago, a shaggy-haired, 28-year-old Smith got an old bus and started driving around the state with high-school and college kids -- plus a few graybeards to keep the conversations interesting. They knocked on doors, smiled a lot, listened even more, and encouraged people to vote.
And with that, the Oregon Bus Project was under way. It was supposed to be a one-time-only thing, but Smith, then a junior corporate attorney, had found his calling. He decided he wanted to remake our political system by yanking it away from the all-or-nothing partisan model of recent years.
This objective sounds noble, but it doesn't make everybody happy. After all, a lot of money, time, sweat and tears have been poured into the red-blue divide. There are plenty of scores still left to be settled. At The Bus Project's "Rebooting Democracy" event for fledgling activists in January, then-U.S. Senate candidate Steve Novick recited the Bus's motto to a roomful of young progressives: "Not left, not right, but forward." And then he called Smith out. "People who know me know I'd never say that," Novick said. His voice rose suddenly and he jabbed at the air: "Jefferson, don't you know that 'forward' and 'left' are the same damn thing?"
Smith, standing in the back, smiled tightly as the room erupted in cheers and whistles. But he refused to nod in agreement.
At a coffee shop near Bus Project headquarters in Portland's East Side industrial district, Smith puts it explicitly. He's taking the long view with the Bus.
"Our frame is that we need to be paying more attention to the public interest," he says. "At this point in history, I think it's fair to say that, over the past 40 years, the Democratic Party has been more focused on, say, the environment and economic fairness than the Republican Party. But I wouldn't say that's necessarily true of the last 150 years. It's conceivable in the next 40 years we're going to have a significant partisan realignment in this country. The current set of parties has lasted for a while, but it hasn't lasted through our history. So we don't want to build an institution that is dependent on how things are now."
In short, partisanship is for suckers. Party loyalty is outdated. Smith, now 35, is running for the Oregon House as a Democrat this year -- his first candidacy -- but he's not even willing to commit to being a Democrat for the rest of his career. He wants the Bus Project, he says, "to be about values and ideas, not tribal membership."
Sounds squishy, doesn't it? Sounds naive and just a little precious. It also sounds pretty good.
"I want to dump the spectrum idea of political thinking," Smith says, pushing a flop of blond hair off his forehead and then chugging a cup of water. "It's almost impossible, but I'm going to try to do it anyway. Right now we're led to believe that if you're against the death penalty that means there's only one way you can feel about abortion, and that means there's only one way you can feel about progressive taxation, which means you can only feel one way about immigration. The idea that the one answer to any one of those questions is necessarily linked philosophically to all those other answers is patently absurd. That it's not viewed as absurd is because we're victims of our current political construct."
It's easy to picture Jeff Smith in 30 years. Graying and stooped, but just as intense as ever as he hands out pamphlets in Pioneer Courthouse Square, railing against evil political parties and the aliens directing the president's actions through telepathy.
Except that's the current political construct talking. Expand your mind a bit, and it's possible to see that Smith is right, and that he'll ride the wave of his rightness to the top of a new political heap. After all, he caught the current Zeitgeist before it was the Zeitgeist. He recruited that first class of Bus activists by roaming the state and giving a power-point presentation to "whomever would watch it," an effort he supplemented with "one-on-one chats" that were passed down from one new enthusiast to another, like a daisy chain. A handful of years before Barack Obama's presidential campaign got thousands of excited young people participating in politics for the first time, Jefferson Smith was Oregon's Pied Piper for newbie voters.
Yes, he can
"I think Jefferson is one of the most politically talented people I've ever met," says Adam Klugman, a friend and colleague who runs the political consulting shop Progressive Media Agency in Portland. "I sometimes wish he had a higher profile, but I think he's getting there."
The key thing about his inevitable rise, says Klugman, who's assisting Smith's campaign for the open Oregon House of Representatives seat from District 47, is that he hasn't taken a traditional path to political influence. Smith is a proud Democrat, but, Klugman says, "he believes the way to create a healthy democracy is by bringing everybody on board -- Democrat, Republican, independent -- and having an honest discussion about where we want to go."
Smith doesn't pander. There's no bull pucky being thrown around when he gives a speech. That's simply not what Smith -- and the Bus Project -- is all about. "He doesn't find out what people want to hear and dig around until he finds a principle of his that he can make correspond," says Klugman. "Way too much of that goes on, but he's not willing to do that."
That kind of stubbornness goes a long way toward explaining Jefferson Smith. For one thing, there's no other explanation for the fact that he's a Democrat. "My extended family is almost entirely Republican," he says. "My grandfather had one picture on his mantel, and it was Ronald Reagan."
It took a while for Smith to even realize he was interested in politics. Smith's mother died when he was a teenager, and partly as a result he "finished high school more weakly than I started it." Thanks to a close family and his own determination, he rebounded at the University of Oregon, earning a spot at Harvard Law School. He clerked for a federal judge (former Oregon Supreme Court Justice Ted Goodwin) and joined a tony corporate law firm.
But Smith's drive has always been more team-oriented than selfish. A volunteer middle-school basketball coach when he was an undergraduate in Eugene, he knows how to put together a game plan and identify the right person to step forward and make it happen. He'd rather be the guy with the clipboard than the guy who takes the shot at the buzzer. It was Smith who recognized that Rhodes Scholar and elementary-school teacher Ben Cannon was a potential leader and urged him to get in the game. Cannon joined the Bus as a volunteer and is now a state representative.
Now Smith is running for office. And it's not coincidence or expediency that has him stumping for the Oregon House, a part-time gig, rather than Gordon Smith's U.S. Senate seat or the governor's chair in 2010 -- two offices the rumor mill had insisted he was eyeing. He wants the Bus Project to remain his focus. Post-partisanship isn't just a rallying cry for him; he's decided it's his life's work.
Back in 2003, Smith said that individual Oregonians, rather than political parties, could "create a constituency for the common good. That's the dream, to have 1,000 people, 2,000 people, 5,000 people thinking about what we want our state to be like."
Focusing on making real-world connections (as opposed to going to the Web, Daily Kos-like), he got to 5,000 people - and much more - faster than he'd anticipated. He did it by making grassroots political activism fun for young people, with events like Candidates Gone Wild -- basically a policy forum redesigned as a rave in which you might see Tom Potter trying to juggle or a city council candidate jumping around in a gorilla suit. The Bus Project even nailed down empirical evidence that this seemingly superficial approach works, bringing in Notre Dame political scientist David Nickerson to run a controlled experiment on Gone Wild's effectiveness.
"He used a lottery system made up of people who said they wanted to go to the event," Smith says. "He randomly let some go and not others, to eliminate the self-selection issue that people who go are the kinds of people who vote. And there was a 25 percent difference in voter participation between those who went and those who didn't." No phone bank or mailing or canvas, he points out, can match that level of success.
"It gave me faith that the more personal the interaction can be, the more likely we're able to get people to lift their eyes from their everyday toils to look at the ways we can be stronger together than apart," he says. "Social interaction is a big piece of this. Robert Putnam's "Bowling Alone" -- the fraying of the social fabric -- was a big motivator for a lot of us."
Ready for his closeup
Supporters describe Jefferson Smith's appeal in movie-star terms, and there's truth to that. There's no doubt he's got charisma. But if he's a movie star, he's George Segal rather than George Clooney. He doesn't smolder with sex appeal. He gets a response because he's smart -- and because he's so friendly. He's the kind of guy who makes you flinch when you first meet him because, for a moment, you're certain he's going to hug you.
Smith, who's engaged to OHSU research coordinator Katy Lesowski, also provokes fierce loyalty from his fellow Busers because he's so plainly dedicated to the cause and to them. Remember, he could be a highly paid corporate lawyer right now instead of a penny-pinching political activist.
"I started with no staff, and then with one stipended volunteer," he says of the Bus Project's early days. "I did this without pay for a few years. I had decided I wouldn't take a living wage until we could afford health care for our people, which happened at the end of 2005. For a while, in 2004, I really had zero dollars. It was really a bummer time. I wasn't able to pay my traffic tickets; I was sleeping on a couch. I didn't have a lot of money for food. It's not like I was a victim. I knew at any time I could go back to law -- my cage was of my own creation. But it was hard nonetheless."
He's still in his cage, though more comfortably so. The Bus Project isn't exactly rolling in money, but it's now got a core of individual donors who give regularly, and larger fish like the Pew Charitable Trusts have embraced the organization.
His days as a lawyer are over, he insists. He's committed to building the Bus Project, not only in Oregon but across the country.
Klugman, for one, sees no reason why it can't be a successful national movement. "I think that the Bus Project has constructed a model that could go be in any city, any state, anywhere," he says. "It's franchisable. That's one of the things I like about it. It'll work."
For Smith, remaking the political landscape one 18-year-old voter at a time wasn't the life he expected when he first turned the ignition key in that old bus.
"I didn't think I'd ever do anything better than coaching seventh-grade basketball; that might have been my highest and best use," he says. A smile spreads like mayonnaise across his elastic face. "But this is a good second."
– By Douglas Perry, published in Ultimate Northwest magazine, 2008