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Toni Nagy Headshot

Can There Be Transparency in Politics? Jefferson Smith Runs for Mayor of Portland

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Most Americans have come to accept clichés such as "voting for 'the lesser of two evils'" and "there are no honest politicians." This paradigm not only disempowers voters, but perpetuates the problem. We abandon our personal responsibility to the political process by allowing corruption and corporate campaign finance dictate who maintains power in our country. Of course politicians are obligated to vote for the private interests of their biggest donors, prioritizing purse strings over people. The problematic nature of that co-dependent relationship is obvious -- but what is to be done? In my experience as a political organizer, the only way to promote an honest political process is by developing true loyalty between politicians and citizens through grassroots campaigning for people you trust.

The beauty of citizen-run campaigns is the emphasis and understanding that giving your time and voice is just as valuable as dollars. We are living in an extraordinary time with countless social media platforms and opportunities to actively engage in local and national campaigns. We have to become just as deliberate in our strategy as big business and protect our interests if we're to elect honest men and women whose values will advance society.

Recently I was introduced to Jefferson Smith, an inspired, young elected official, who's now running for mayor of Portland, Ore., and aims to embody the future of what politics should be. Although Portland has a reputation of being a utopian center for progressive environmentalists who support local agriculture and love music, it also exemplifies the effectiveness of participation. Remarkably, Smith's campaign has had raised more individual contributions than any of his competitors. He is wisely leveraging this personal support to work towards a more transparent government for the public rather than protecting private interests who usually provide the main source of funding.

In our recent interview, I was able to delve deeper into Smith's thoughts on campaign finance, government transparency, what he learned from Enron, and how to actively engage the public to create true systemic change.

How can politicians stand up for the public's interest when so much of their campaign finance comes from private interest groups?

It makes it harder. The most important and meaningful effort toward campaign finance reform is bottom-up grassroots campaign. We do our share of that; we have said yes to every debate, and have participated in more than 50 house parties. By working together we can change the landscape of who is elected into office.

What does a transparent government look like to you?

I have worked on transparency and was the co-author of the state budget for Oregon, and it taught me that providing information is not enough. The most notable example is the Enron scandal. All the financial information was part of public filings. There wasn't a whistle blower with secret information but rather someone took the time to piece through numbers and documents that are available to the public. For a truly transparent government it is not enough for information to be public, but it also has to be accessible. People need to have the ability to impact decisions and have meaningful input in the political process. Not just to better observe, but to better participate.

How replicable is Portland's progressive politics and infrastructure? Do you have a vision of other urban communities that can reproduce Portland's success of instituting sustainable policies?

Anywhere there is a group of committed and able citizens I believe they can have a real impact on city elections. Portland's politics were not always like they have been in the last 15 years, and there is no guarantee they will continue to be. One of the reasons I am running is that we shouldn't take the landscape of any town for granted. I wouldn't describe Portland as progressive as much as community oriented. Portland politics are uncertain. This is the most expensive mayor race in the history of this town and we have to look at the overall process because the details are complex.

With statistics like what MSNBC reported recently, that 40,000 new laws will go into effect in 2012, how do you think this legislation will affect the citizens?

In 40,000 different ways! I recently heard on my campaign trail someone say, "If you want smaller government, you are going to need stronger communities." and I thought that was pretty smart. If we want a public interest movement in our county we need to build a public interest movement in our cities and legislatures.

You have been quoted as saying "we get the government we deserve." What are ways citizens can be more actively involved in the political process, besides voting, that could create true systemic change?

Help create the possibility for politicians to run more publically interested campaigns. Knock on doors and participate in the dialogue on all platforms. The word of a friend is the most persuasive in the political conversation. The ability to communicate information and to work with relationships is democracy's best hope.

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