It's easy to draw lines on a map....isn't it?
ZOOMing is really a trip when it comes to meetings of government bodies doing their sausage-making.
As opposed to people arrayed behind a semi-circular desk (best appreciated through a pair of opera-glasses), the pols are under the relentless scrutiny of their grainy laptop cameras, encased in their little electronic egg-crate, displaying expressions ranging from ignorance to utter boredom to something you might reasonably interpret as fear.
Typical example: the “virtual public hearing” on March 22 featuring members of the Commission that will, somehow, chop the city up into four mega-districts. (You’ve met them here before.)
…and since this was the Commish’s first opportunity to hear from the citizens, you might be surprised that some of the commission members apparently had something better to do on this night.
And that, considering the work the commish is doing—all those “data-sets”!!!—the public was also notably absent. Eight folks testified, including—inevitably!— someone from the Coalition of Communities of Color (the non-profit that did the Charter Commission’s “listening,” although those they heard from tended to be disproportionately POCs). Comic relief came from the guy who hit the “put your hand up just like in elementary school” button on the ZOOM page by mistake.
A couple of people offering testimony were newcomers: 18-months in one case; she said she “didn’t regret it.” Two were from the hyper-active Northwest; one said it would just be really simple to just lump downtown, the NW and St. Johns together and be done with it. (Memo to the NW side: that’s too easy—and misses the point we’ll discuss below.)
A couple of east-siders said the usual stuff about the east side being ignored. Not that the east side’s voter turnout numbers—briefly mentioned by one of the commissioners—might have had something to do with that.
If there was any theme running through the citizen commenters, it was best put by citizen Bob Weinstein…
…the Supreme court of the United States said the Constitution permits no substantial variation from equal population in drawing districts for units of local government…
…and other citizens uttering the words, “one man, one vote.” (Evidence they really don’t understand our new voting schemes.)
Perhaps it was just the Portland polite way of saying that trying to goose-up the votes of certain favored folks in the city—in the same way that our various governments have doled our contracts, preferences, go-to-the-front-of-the-line favors—might not be universally appreciated.
It wouldn’t be a proper progressive meeting without some confusion, which ensued when the listening was over.
The radical progressive caucus on the Commish made a play to add a little twist to what the voters have already mandated. It was Jesuitical in its subtlety: add one itsy-bitsy item to the criteria that the commish will follow in drawing those lines.
If you have paid any attention, you’ve read the city’s criteria that will guide the pens drawing the map…
The voter-approved district criteria require that the district commission ensure that each district, as nearly as practical:
Will be contiguous and compact
Utilize existing geographic or political boundaries
Not divide communities of common interest
Be connected by transportation links
Be of equal population
The itsy-bitsy unfolded when Commissioner (and co-chair) Edie Van Ness observed…
The Commission has been deliberating whether they should be more explicit with some of the existing criteria.
One additional question that we have voted to pose to the community at this public hearing tonight is, should the commission be more explicit about the equitable distribution of public goods and services…that use public funding things like libraries, community based organizations, and others…
…and then tossed the question, hot off the griddle, to the public to, well…say something. Or other.
Which the public didn’t do. Too interested in that silly “one man-one vote” thingy.
But someone on the Commission was interested in that concept; it turned out to be Amanda Manjarrez, whose day-job is director of public policy and government affairs at Foundations for a Better Oregon…and whose statement on the city website says…
"It’s critical that we create districts that honor the unique experiences and identities across our diverse communities.”
…which might strike some as a nest of unspecific, loosey-goosey terms—just how would the city “honor” those “identities.” And just who would be in charge of defining them?
Gosh! People such as Ms. Manjarrez!
And so began a…what to call it? Discussion? Debate? Two scorpions in a jar?
Commish Van Ness, an attorney and, presumably, someone with experience in the damage that imprecise words can do, began to circle her prey…
I wrote some notes because I don't want to forget… I appreciate to me what we heard, and I…I totally appreciate and really appreciate all the testimony and the input from my fellow commissioners. But I don't think this…and I already forgot the term…the goods and services. I think we're conflating these two ideas right?
I'm not connecting goods and services and equity or inequity, and I am truly hoping someone can just educate me about this, so that I can understand it better.
Enter Ms. Manjarrez…
I appreciate you sharing your experience with that, because when I put the question out there, it was for my own clarity and part of it was that, when we think of things like places of interest, those are embedded in… they could be embedded in areas of geographic boundaries of their things. It could also be, you know, communities of interest, but it sort of lives in a middle space…
…what I did hear today was a little bit of confusion about the question and I think part of it is… I do want to be clear and I wanted to be as clear as possible in the framing of the question… we're not talking about necessarily equitable access, which is a policy question and a policy goal.
In what used to be known as a “limited hang-out,” Manjarrez, wiithin moments, said…
I think there are many different underserved, historically underserved communities across our city…
..although it would be heresy to attach a date to when the history would be paid off…and…
It would be devastating to pull, the equitable goods and services, the culturally specific services, the culturally responsible services… from those communities.
Oops—back to policyland…
And so I put the question out there honestly to get, because I was really just having…I was thinking out loud.
The commission isn’t even close to drawing its first map. Prediction: she’ll be doing more thinking, maybe not out loud. And we all know who will be the last to find out.
I signed out of the ZOOM session with a feeling of unease, although I couldn’t put my finger on it.
As I drifted off to sleep, it finally hit me.
The Charter Commission, from the get-go, was hellbent on creating a charter and election scheme that would produce a certain result, best summed up in the pernicious word, “equity.” After all, the charterites had actually—in print!—complained that the city is too integrated to allow creation of an explicitly racially-oriented district, so the charter would have to be the next best thing.
Implicit in both the Charter and District commissions is an effort to push the envelope of federal laws and that small impediment known as the 14th amendment to the constitution. They want wiggle room, not “one man (sexist!!!), one vote.”
Social engineering anyone? It lies at the heart of the progressive political/social/racial/sexual/economic experiment, one that has been going on here for decades. It’s built into the DNA of the class that runs things. And now we’re living with the payoff.
Thus, no one should be surprised that the districts, however they’re drawn, will be anything but neutral stages upon which the political drama of the city’s politics will be performed.
Nope: the engineers are setting the stage, designing the scenery, determining the cast. And the script.
Will their drama allow the city to flex with the times, to deal with existential crises long after the commissioners and their fanaticisms and petty theology will be as distant as the Portland that prompted the editor of the Oregonian to condemn and apologize.
It’s a delusion: They were so wrong; we’re so right.
History has a nasty way of testing certainties. Smart organisms adapt. Dumb ones go extinct.
In short: history happens. Get the hell out of its way.