• Allan Classen

The elephant in the race

(Interview with Smith follows Nolan interview below)

Nolan opens eyes to long-ignored issue

Mary Nolan’s career in elected office and public affairs did not prepare her for our interview on her Metro Council race.

“What do you think about elephants?” I opened.

Nolan asked for time to consider the issue so I sent her my 2014 article about elephants’ inability to thrive in zoos because they cannot walk enough to keep their circulatory systems and feet healthy. One week later, she was still not ready.

After at last completing her research, her first words were paced and guarded, like a politician preparing to share disappointing news.

“Your article and what I read and the people who are trying to free the elephants …” she began, as I prepared for some vague defense of inaction.

“… are right.”

What? Could those last two words possibly be part of the same sentence?

She went on.

“I think it applies broadly. The ethical question is: How much infringement of an animal’s health and welfare is justified?”

No candidate or anyone associated with Metro or the zoo at a policy level has publicly shared such sentiments before, certainly not in my six years covering the issue.

“It has struck me that many of the animals look unhappy, large ones in particular,” Nolan continued. “It is hard to take in. Reading about long-term irreversible damage done to elephants in captivity is pretty persuasive.”

She had me with “right,” and now she was sharing a soul-searching apotheosis.

She would not call her path a conversion but rather a “recent focus” upon earlier observations.

“I hadn’t really spent much time on it before,” she said.

Having drunk from the cup, what is she going to do about it?

Nothing immediately.

“It is not the highest issue of my responsibility at Metro,” she said. “It is not an issue on which I will be a leading proponent on, but when the issue comes before the Metro Council I will bring a more informed, broader view toward it than I had, and I will be open to following as others lead.”

But she did take the first step.

Courtney Scott, who founded FOZE in 2008, was thrilled to learn of Nolan’s comments.

“We at FOZE deeply appreciate Mary Nolan’s statement that elephants do not belong in zoos,” Scott said. “This is the first time a public official in Portland has agreed that zoos are unable to meet the needs of the world’s largest land mammals.”

Nolan may not campaign as the Elephant Woman, but there are other reasons to put her in office. She managed two city bureaus in the 1980s and ’90s, was house majority leader during her 12-years in the Oregon Legislature and later served as executive director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Oregon.

Her forte is turning aspirational goals into consistent policies.

“That has not yet really jelled for Metro, and that is my prime reason for running,” she said. “I had led large agencies to deliver specific outcomes. … That’s what I will bring.”

Nolan sees the $653-million Metro housing bond of 2018 as perhaps the biggest opportunity to apply her approach.

The housing projects funded by the bond “are coming in at $300,000 to $390,000 per unit,” she said, far beyond the cost of private developments.

“If through leverage Metro can deliver units at $175,000 to $225,000, we could build twice as many of them,” she said.

Reasons for the high costs are complex, she noted, including government requirements, but she thinks private and nonprofit developers who have found ways to economize can guide Metro toward stretching its investment.

Her acceptance of $9,000 in campaign contributions from the Portland Metropolitan Association of Realtors gave her opponent, Chris Smith, an opening. He has championed Portland’s Voter Owned Elections system since the early 2000s and has voluntarily limited his political contributions to $500 to “keep big money out of politics.”

On that score at least, I am on his side.

Smith sees himself as a policy expert. He has worked with advocacy groups but has not been an administrator.

When big projects go off track because people or the economy do not behave “as they are supposed to,” I would trust Nolan to adapt and reconsider assumptions, a trait I have not seen in Smith.

And someone who can be moved by the welfare of animals has an empathy we need in times when many in the metropolitan area are suffering and can’t wait for grand theories to unfold.

Unshakable beliefs make Smith hard to trust

When I first mentioned elephants to Metro Council candidate Chris Smith, he took it as a joke. He brushed off the topic with a chuckle and advised me that he was zeroed in on land-use and transportation issues.

On our second and third conversations about his campaign, he confirmed that he would not be drawn into the subject.

Ethical treatment of elephants should be a concern of Metro councilors. The Oregon Zoo, which considers elephants so central to its purpose that its logo features a pachyderm, is governed by Metro. Citizens caring about any aspect of zoo operations have no other elected officials to turn to.

The Oregon Zoo has been named one of the 10 worst zoos for elephants in North America 10 times by In Defense of Animals, an international animal rights group campaigning to end the Oregon Zoo’s captive breeding program and release the elephants to a sanctuary.

Citizens have registered their concerns about the treatment of elephants in recent years without getting to first base. Free the Oregon Zoo Elephants protests at the entrance of the zoo several times a year. Metro council chambers were filled for a public hearing in 2015 as 39 witnesses spoke against continuing to exhibit elephants at the Oregon Zoo. The outpouring came at a budget hearing, the only agenda topic at which such concerns could be raised.

Smith, who lives in Northwest Portland and has read the NW Examiner for decades, knows that I have a thing about abusive treatment of Oregon Zoo elephants. We have published four Page 1 stories on the elephants since 2014 and several editorials.

If that were not enough to sensitize him to the matter, his wife has made it her cause. Staci Paley is listed as fundraising chair for Voice for Asian Elephants Society, whose mission is “doing whatever it takes to protect Asian elephants.”

Yet Smith said he would make no statement regarding elephants or the zoo before the election.

“I’m running on the issue of climate change (which I assume affects wild elephant habitat as well!) and I don’t want to distract from that,” he told FOZE activists.

Smith, who recently retired from a career as a computer engineer at Tektronix, is no populist. He does not do emotional issues. He takes ideology-driven stands on planning, transportation, environmental and urban problems. He sees greater urban density as the key to many issues. Portland’s housing affordability crisis can best be addressed by building enough homes to fulfill the demand—an Economics 101 lesson as it is often described.

As a member of the Portland Planning & Sustainability Commission, Smith’s vision often coincided with the interests of the development industry. He was adamant about not requiring new apartment buildings to provide off-street parking. He saw no problem in the formation of the West Quadrant Plan, which increased development entitlements to developers, including several who sat on the project’s Stakeholders Advisory Committee. The City Auditor’s office disagreed, ruling that ethical violations had occurred in the nondisclosure of committee members’ private real estate holdings.

Without qualms, Smith supported recommendations coming from this “poisoned tree.”

“While I don’t claim exhaustive knowledge of who owns which parcels,” he told the Examiner, “I do feel that my eyes are open and in evaluating heights, I can balance public and private benefits. That balance is not going to be inappropriately tilted because of advocacy by property owners during the SAC process, and I’ve given significant attention to the opposite perspective. I also don’t base my decisions on which particular individuals may receive a benefit from a public policy decision.”

Smith has been unswerving in his support for bike lanes, including the one on Northwest 16th Avenue, which he defended in a letter to the editor of the Examiner in 2018.

“I’m delighted by the additional separation from traffic and safety offered by the new bike lane on 16th. I’m glad that what was viewed as infeasible 15 years ago is now considered best practice. I’m confident that in a few years the new lane will be seen as a ‘normal’ fixture in the neighborhood, just as the lanes on 18th and 19th now are.”

Bike lanes, density and affordable housing are complex, vexing issues on which opinions are divided. The best ideas of today may be discredited by new evidence over time. The application of science, leavened by humility, flexibility and empathy for the human experience, may be as close to wisdom as we can get.

Portland’s boom in hotel construction challenges several of his assumptions.

Last summer I asked Smith what the wave of new and proposed luxury hotels said about the theory that unfettered development would lead to greater housing affordability.

He replied that there should be no concern unless “hotels are being overbuilt for the long-term demand.”

Smith also speculated that hotels “are reasonably convertible to permanent housing over time” with the addition of kitchens and other infrastructure.

I followed up last month to see if the pandemic and collapse in tourism had changed his thinking. He concluded that even Portland’s exuberant hotel boom created no consequences for affordable housing because there is still ample building capacity within the current zoning.

I found the responses deft yet dizzy. Luxury development clusters can extend for blocks without satisfying the market if our economy continues to produce billionaires, and they make surrounding property less feasible for affordable housing, even if it is legal to build it.

No counterargument, evidence or cataclysm can shake his conclusions. He may be smarter than average, but representing citizens of all values, views and circumstances requires the capacity to recalculate when complications get in the way.

And if he cannot be bothered by the suffering of captive elephants, he is missing something no logic can touch.


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