Government of the people?

At first glance Mike Casper may resemble any other bartender in Portland, except for the custom-made “Elect me in ’06” shirt he wears behind the bar as he serves drinks. A father of two, full-time student at Portland Community College and bartender at both Oyster Bar and Velour, Casper said he somehow still makes time to run his campaign for City Commissioner (Seat 3).

Portland’s Public Campaign Finance Fund has opened the doors for many of Portland’s citizens to become involved in the local political scene. The finance fund is a program that allows citizen to run for office if they can collect signatures and $5 from 1,000 people.

As the race for the two Commissioner seats on Portland’s City Council heats up, two candidates have already qualified as public finance campaign candidates, but there are still several candidates attempting to qualify. What motivates the average citizens to venture into the world of local politics?

Casper said his political odyssey began in the unlikeliest of places: The Shanghai Tunnel. Casper spent two years working as a bouncer at the downtown bar where he found that his job afforded him plenty of downtime. He used that time to read hundreds of books, including works by political thinkers such as Noam Chomsky and Thomas Jefferson. Casper describes this time as an awakening. “I redefined myself spiritually and intellectually,” he said.

The independent study that Casper began in front of the Shanghai Tunnel, evolved into a formal education in political science at Portland Community College. Once there, Casper says he developed a better sense of the history of government, as well as a sense of the possibilities for the future.

“I’ve always been a doer,” Casper said, “and the more I was taken out of the political scene, the more alienated I felt.”

Casper says that his greatest asset is the diversity of experience he would bring to the council. He has worked in the past as a credit counselor, insurance agent and mortgage broker. “I have always done service,” Casper said.

Casper’s main political concern is trying to make a better life for the working poor, and trumpets the idea of community banking. The current fee system that banks use, he said, is part of what keeps the working poor at poverty level.

“A $33 dollar overdraft on a $3 dollar transaction is extortion,” he said. In Casper’s vision of community banking, a small portion of city development money would be allotted to starting a new type of bank whose mission would be “to stimulate local growth and stabilize the community’s economy.”

At this point in his campaign, Casper, like many others, is struggling to obtain the 1,000 signatures and $5 donations that it takes to qualify for the Campaign Finance Fund. As a one-man political campaign, he finds the greatest barrier is reaching out to his constituency of young people and the working class, many who are too busy or too poor to contribute. Despite the difficulty, Casper said it is all worth it.

Casper credits the Political Campaign Finance Fund for making his candidacy possible. He believes that voter-owned elections (the nickname for the fund) is the most progressive political reform currently happening in the US. “It opens the doors to anyone with a message,” he said.

Bruce Broussard is a happily married father and grandfather of 12. He and his campaign manager wife, Norma, live on a houseboat in the Jantzen Beach area. Like Casper, he is running for the third seat on the Commission, but unlike his competitor, Broussard already has three previous elections under his belt having run for governor, senate and mayor of Portland. “Being an African American running for office in a majority community is very, very difficult,” Broussard said of his last three attempts.

Broussard’s experience in the world of politics began 35 years ago when he was living in NE Portland. “I ran for state representative because I felt that there were issues that were not being conveyed across the board. Issues like crime, housing and the like in Northeast Portland. Dollars were coming in from blacks in Northeast and were being re-distributed to other areas,” he said.

Although he lost his three previous campaigns, Broussard feels that his efforts served a higher purpose. According to Broussard, his participation wasn’t about winning a political position, but rather, about giving exposure to minorities. “I wanted to show that there were qualified minorities who could talk about the issues and not just minority issues,” he said.

Over the years, Broussard’s resume has grown to include a wide variety of political and community experience. He oversaw the construction of a $2 million senior center. He has served on several boards including the Boys and Girls Club of America and City of Portland Public Utility Review. He has chaired several committees including Columbia River Correctional Institution Prison Advisory Committee. He currently owns a business and political consulting company, Broussard and Associates, LLC. He is also the owner, director, producer and host of a cable television talk show called Oregon Voter Digest.

Unlike many of the candidates, Broussard has chosen not to continue collecting signatures and $5 donations for the Campaign Finance Fund. He objects to the current system based on the criteria for collection signatures. “I’m very interested in making sure that minorities register to vote. The present system doesn’t promote registering to vote. Anybody can give $5, even children,” he said.

This time around, Broussard is out to win. He feels that he is the most qualified of all the candidates seeking the commissioner seat. “I’m qualified and experienced. I have a business background, and of all the people running, I’m the only one who has built something,” he said.

Chris Iverson is another political newcomer who is running against Broussard and Casper. A vegetarian who only drives vehicles powered by bio-diesel, Iverson believes in keeping his lifestyle in synch with his political agenda.

Iverson’s political journey began when a friend talked about running for city council, but then decided he wasn’t ready. “I decided recently that getting involved in local politics is the best way to make a difference in this world,” he said. “I just felt called to do this.”

Iverson grew up in Portland, and part of what drives him is the community of visionary people he has encountered in Portland over the years. He feels that he represents the local community of creative people and that his interests are closely aligned with many Portlanders.

Iverson aims to develop a community-based platform. He is currently interviewing a group of people that he calls the “movers and shakers” of Portland, and when finished plans to take a collection of the ideas of over one hundred people and turn them into a book. He hopes this book will be around long after the campaign is over.

Among the issues that Iverson is concerned with are bio-diesel, promoting diversity and equal rights, affordable health care and medical marijuana. Iverson is also currently working on an initiative that would make marijuana-related crimes the lowest priority for Portland police. If the signatures that Iverson collected are verified, the initiative will appear on the November ballot.

Iverson believes that one of his greatest advantages is being a political outsider. He also sees the diversity of his experience as one of his strengths. Iverson recently produced, co-starred and co-wrote a feature film entitled The Green Goddess, making him a member of the culture of creative people that he feels are the heart of his constituency. He has also been a long-time activist and self-described world-class raw food chef. “I try to live a sustainable life. I walk my talk,” Iverson says.

Iverson hopes that his campaign will reach out to the young people of Portland. “I think it’s important to represent the youth and the youth culture. We need to give them more opportunity to be involved and empowered,” he said.