The Dream of the 90s Is Not Quite Alive in Portland

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While much of the country was receiving election returns and news of a red tide sweeping across the nation, here in Oregon we have more of a white, black, and brown problem.

One way to look at Oregon was that the “progressive” blues all won — our Democratic incumbents were all re-elected for U.S. Congress and governor, and statewide measures to legalize the sale and use of recreational marijuana sailed to an easy victory.

So, from a distance it looks like the dream of the Bill Clinton 90s is still alive in Portland.

I’ve been here more than a year now, planting a church and beginning to work with neighborhood partners, and have come to realize that the dream for truly “progressive” values — like immigration reform and bridging the gap in ever increasing income inequalities — is more like a bad dream that won’t go away. Measure 88, which would have provided driver cards and required insurance for those who cannot prove their legal residency, failed. A similar measure has long-since passed just to our north in Washington. When you look more closely at Portland’s rapid growth and gentrification, with thousands of African-American families priced out of their homes and neighborhoods, you have to ask how truly progressive our weird, blue state is.

I love living here. I love that we have some of the best bike lanes in the country. But when you hear that those bike lanes were put on city streets without input from historic residents who used those streets to park their cars to go to church, something falls flat. I love eating here. I was in total favor of the GMO labeling ballot measure that narrowly failed. We’re spoiled with a wealth of incredible food and dining options. But when you hear that some of these foodie restaurants with commitments to sustainability were built on land gentrified by city commissioners and big business, a bad taste remains in my mouth.

Having moved from Baltimore, Md., to Portland, Ore., two summers ago, my wife and I knew that making a home and finding community here would be a chance for fresh beginnings and new possibilities. We moved out of our 120-year-old row house near Federal Hill to a much newer townhouse in inner North Portland. We knew about Oregon’s troubled history around race, with its exclusionary laws and sundown towns

Every week I meet someone who’s just gotten off the modern-day Oregon Trail, moving here from California, Ohio, or the East Coast. I think in some ways we all come for the possibilities that we can “keep it weird,” as so many of our bumper stickers say, and live out progressive ideals like sustainability and inclusive community. For us, along with our micro-roasted coffee, cycling, and award-winning food trucks, this is part and parcel of the good life. But something is truly amiss in our progressive dreams if it is not a good life for everyone.

Measure 88’s defeat hits close to the bone. For those of us in the immigration reform movement, some days it feels ever further away from 2006’s marches, where millions of Americans got the attention of the Bush White House and reform nearly passed. Tuesday night, cable news pundits weighed in that President Obama now, long-since overdue on his promises to pass immigration reform, would now never issue an executive order, passing the responsibility off to the newly elected Republican-controlled Congress. But all politics is local — and for us, Measure 88 was a no-brainer.

Measure 88 would’ve ensured that thousands of undocumented immigrants would be able to obtain safe and legal driver cards, allowing some of our most vulnerable neighbors the ability to safely and legally get to and from work, school, the grocery store, church, and doctors' appointments while the federal government sorted out our national immigration mess. My heart breaks for Hugo Nicolas, a University of Oregon student whose support of the ballot measure was rooted in family values. The Oregonian shared Hugo’s lament. The college student asked how his own father would manage the day after the election: "How is he going to get groceries?" Hugo asked. "How is he going to buy car insurance?”

Thirty-five of Oregon’s 36 counties voted against this smart measure (only Multnomah County, with our GMO labeling, weed legalizing, cycling citizenry voted in favor). Our re-elected Gov. John Kitzhaber is in favor of the measure.

So what’s next for us in Oregon around immigration reform? Perhaps we should take a cue from Hugo who hasn’t given up hope: "We've got to educate voters about this issue," Nicolas said. "It didn't happen this year, but this fight's not over. We took a little step forward toward other steps."

As we pick up the pace and continue to work on immigration reform, we must remember Oregon’s full story — we’re not as progressive as we think we are. Our version of progressivism is truly weird: many of us in favor of left-leaning consumerism but forgetting that a truly progressive vision includes everyone in the fight for the common good. Perhaps something truly great can emerge out of this: Perhaps we can look backward in order to move truly, progressively forward.

Adam Phillips is pastor of Christ Church: Portland.

Image: ballot box illustration,  / Shutterstock.com

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