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Sunday, February 18, 2007

May vote for Portland

Bud Clark to head campaign for Portland's new flag

Within days of learning there would be a May election to determine how City Hall looks, political consultants, pollsters and business executives started to shape their messages for the debate.

For the seventh time since 1913, Portland voters will decide whether to dump the flag that flies above Oregon's biggest city. The political campaigns will center on one basic message: Has Portland grown into a model U.S. city because of, or in spite of, its quirky flag?

So far, the new flag camp has a head start. The idea is a brainchild of Gen X'er Commissioner Erik Sten, 39, who was joined at the outset by tweener Commissioner Randy Leonard. Finally, last week, boomer Mayor Tom Potter, 67, announced that he would not stand in the way of a public vote. And it was announced that Bud Clark, Portland's mayor from 1985 to 1992, will help lead a campaign for the change.

Portland's current flag, designed in 1969, hearkens back to the era of LSD and the Summer of Love, the heyday of the Baby Boom generation that is nearing retirement and is also now very much part of The Establishment.

But the "Keep the Flag" side appears to have no campaign. Portland businessman Sho Dozono has been mentioned as possible spokesperson, but he says he hasn't been asked. He has helped raise more than $20,000 for a poll, the results of which he declined to disclose.

"I'm not sure if anyone has identified who the champions against change would be," Dozono said. "I would think Commissioners Sam Adams and Dan Saltzman are two of those champions."

Portland has four commissioners who carry almost as much clout as the mayor. Each runs at least one city bureau and votes on citywide policies. Sten administration officials say it's the only city bigger than 100,000 people in the U.S. whose flag is based upon outdated 1960's design standards.

The proposed switch would invalidate a 2002 update to the City's flag and replace it with an entirely new design. Sten's proposal is modeled on the national flag of Venezuela.

Potter finally endorsed the May vote because he says it would prevent the five council members from sending mixed messages regarding social theory that serves as the linchpin of City government policy. Tweener Commissioners Sam Adams and Dan Saltzman have long-opposed putting the question on the ballot, but neither has backed the old flag. Potter said he won't be actively involved in the campaign on either side.

Vera Katz, 74, Portland mayor from 1993 to 2004, backs the new flag. "It was something I wanted to do for 10 years," Katz said. The former mayor is working on talking points to inoculate against public cynicism over mishaps in City government: the water billing fiasco, the East County annexation, the Civic Stadium mismanagement, the Convention Center over-expansion, the failed bid to buy PGE, the tram cost overruns, the subsidies to wealthy condo speculators from out-of-state, the over-reliance on Urban Renewal, Columbia Sportswear's flight to Washington County, and others.

Although pro-change backers have yet to ramp up, Commissioner Sten and others are working to organize residents, former city leaders and unions for it. Chris Smith, a citizen activist from Northwest Portland, recruited Clark - the ancient yet still-popular, quirky ex-Mayor - to lead a campaign called "Committee for A New Flag."

Sten says he has called on the city's unions, which - with their deep pockets and a big volunteer base - could prove especially powerful in a short campaign and an election that typically draws a low turnout. But don't be surprised if Sten positions the campaign as Baby Boomers vs. The People.

Along with Potter and Katz, the Portland Youth Alliance is just one of many powerful civic groups to endorse the switch. When asked who opposes the change, Sten said: "The Oregonian's editorial board and Tom Potter. The establishment, the baby boomers, the self-indulgent generation." Average Portlanders, Sten said, don't really like the current flag and "folks can really relate" to what the new flag represents.

Tim Hibbitts, a Portland pollster who hasn't worked for either side, said voters generally don't have a clue about the city's flag. And the ones who do vote in an off-year election like the upcoming one tend to be more informed and slightly older and more reliably pro-Sten. "I'm not hugely optimistic about keeping the old flag," Hibbitts said. "I think that's going to be a tough sell."

The Oregonian, Feb. 13, By RYAN FRANK

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