Ideals High, Policies Low in 20-Year-Old’s Portland Mayoral Bid
“My office has no specific location in Portland. You will find me in every neighborhood, bus line, and park.” This text lies where a street address would normally be found on Cameron Whitten’s website. Whitten, only twenty years old, is running an insurgent candidacy for mayor of Portland, which will be voted for this fall.
Normally a student at Portland Community College, Whitten decided to take this semester off to campaign full-time for the mayorship. As an activist at the Occupy Portland rally last fall, where he was arrested four times in acts of civil disobedience, he had planned with other protestors to run “hundreds” of protest candidates. “No-one was going to know who to vote for,” he said of the original plan. However, other activists encouraged him to mount a genuine campaign. He saw the need for an outsider candidate, he says, because “people die before they see the changes they want in the world…that’s why I wanted to run.”
Whitten embraces this outsider image. His candidacy centers on an appeal to popular power, underlined by frequent references to “the People,” always written with a capital “P.” In a rejection of a politics he feels has drifted too far from these ideals, he dresses no differently than any other person his age. “I reject the stereotype of a suit and tie,” he writes on his website. “It reinforces an attitude which separates a wide class of people from their public officials.”
This attitude is reflected as well in his policy proposals—if they can be called that. Though Whitten espouses a list of principles, like “social justice” and “local sovereignty,” he intentionally avoids making specific claims as to what he will do in office. This is a convenient resort for him when challenged on policy-related issues. One section on his website reads, “our emphasis needs to be on bringing innovative factories back into our city… Why do we get our children’s textbooks shipped in from Texas?” When pressed on whether moving production to Portland would increase already-high textbook prices, Whitten responds, “it’s just a suggestion.”
Instead of making claims about policies, Whitten prefers to focus on reforming the way politics itself is done. He proposes to bring the policymaking process to town hall meetings, where citizens can be involved on every level. “I want to see where there is consensus… and see that we all have the opportunity to voice our opinions,” he says of his hopes for bottom-up policymaking. Whitten is extremely optimistic about the potential efficacy of this method, rejecting the notions that policies will be poorly thought out or that town halls will exclude those who are not wealthy and well-educated. “I’m open to discussing how town halls can happen,” he says, but “I’m sure they’ll be very involved.”
Whitten also rejects the critique that the democratic process demands that voters know what policies their candidate will support before they vote for him or her. He responds that this model only holds politicians accountable at election times, and that his model will bring “accountability the entire term… True democracy means it’s always happening.”
Accountability is another platform of Whitten’s campaign. He proposes a system in which neighborhood associations can request meetings with public officials, which they will be required to attend on threat of a forced recall election.
Although he is not considered a very likely candidate by the media—The Oregonian rarely mentions him in its coverage of the race—Whitten likes his odds for winning. “I have a great chance,” he says, pointing to Portland’s “history of voting for outside candidates” like Jake Oken-Berg, a 19-year-old who in 2000 earned second place in Portland’s mayoral race with 27% of the vote. However, Devon Pack, Whitten’s campaign chief of staff and a Reed graduate (class of 2001, Political Science), is a little more cautious, saying Whitten has an “outside chance.” Whitten should at least benefit from the fact that this year’s election is projected to be an exceptionally competitive one, with already an unusually large candidate pool. There is no up-to-date polling data on the race.
Pack, a member of the board of the Pacific Green Party, says Whitten’s presence in the race, unaffiliated with either major party, will at least ensure a greater degree of democracy in the race.
Despite his status as an outsider, Whitten sees no disadvantage in his youth or his status as a student, and he does not believe his lack of concrete policy aims will harm him. Instead, he says, his status as an outsider open to any direction will make him attractive to voters: “I want to make everyone involved in the policy process.”