For Portland mayor: Cameron who?

Why I voted for Cameron Whitten

As Charlie Hales and Jefferson Smith took center stage on Tuesday night, the name Cameron Whitten was not on the lips of many, if any. But as our voting process proceeded with a business-as-usual result, it’s too bad that his name was so easy to miss on the ballot.

Who is Cameron Whitten? I hadn’t heard about him until he walked up to me outside of Smith Memorial Student Union and handed me a photocopied piece of paper that read, “Vote for Cameron Whitten.” As most of my attention had been focused on the top three candidates, I hadn’t given much thought to anyone else in the race—definitely not a 20-year-old former PCC student.

So when he handed me that piece of paper, I thought it was a joke. As did, undoubtedly, many others. After all, why would a young black college student be serious about running for mayor? Isn’t that for older white guys with lots of money? (Sorry, Eileen!) Apparently, he hadn’t received that memo.

With no flash, no ad campaigns and definitely no power suits, Whitten, an active member of the Occupy Portland movement, was not your average mayoral candidate. And yet, there he was, next to the Big Three, asking for our votes.

Despite his young age, Whitten revealed in his four-year Progressive Portland Plan that he’d given this job significant thought. And with the goal of reducing the mayoral salary to full-time minimum wage, he made it pretty clear he wasn’t in it for the money.

He said about his proposed pay cut, “Political office is not about a profitable career but is truly a civil service to the people. These funds will be returned to the total budget, to keep more city workers employed.”

It’s statements like this that connected with everyday people. It’s also the reason he’d never win.

In a society where politics and money are inseparable and where stump speeches are made for the listening pleasure of interest groups, Whitten never stood a chance.

And that’s why I voted for him.

Raised in an abusive home in Virginia, which he fled at a young age, he arrived alone in Portland, where he started out by living in a shelter. But rather than use his story to paint the predictable American Dream rainbow—“like me, you too can overcome the odds and rise to power, and I’ll take you there”—he told it in order to acknowledge that he knew a thing or two about how bad reality can suck sometimes. These are the sort of realities I have a hard time imagining many of the other candidates know much about.

Now, this is not to say that having a traumatic background is a prerequisite for understanding others and leading successfully. Yet knowing that someone has walked in your shoes daily and is only too aware of how worn out their soles are from pounding the pavement gives you confidence that they are acquainted with more than just the power of the almighty dollar.

And that’s why I voted for him.

He evoked camaraderie with the average Portlander with his obvious scorn for big money. With an emphasis on not asking “for large or special interest donations to run [his] campaign…[nor] a political family dynasty supporting…and telling [him] what to say or think,” he held up an unfamiliar model of politics. Unfamiliar yet attractive.

Whitten talked about the Portland we all like to talk about—the progressive one. The one where the flag of diversity flies high.

Except when it doesn’t.

Instead of pandering and feeding us mouthfuls of our own brilliant, liberal ideals, he took a hard swing at them. He asked the question of why, as the only black candidate, his voice was “so often ignored when it [came] to discussion[s] about equity and diversity.”

He challenged what we believe about ourselves and insisted that, in a city where non-whites make up about 25 percent of the population, “the voice of the colored community cannot continue to be marginalized if we wish to champion an age of racial equality.”

And that’s why I voted for him.

With a passion for environmental accountability, Whitten declared his commitment to enforcing current voluntary climate change action and carbon footprint reduction plans, which garnered him endorsement from the Pacific Green Party of Oregon and the Oregon Progressive Party. And his goal to revive local entrepreneurship and enact budget reform was as crucial as his intention to address the foreclosure crisis and see Portlanders back in their homes.

So he made campaign promises just like all the rest of them. What made him any different?

Perhaps the fact that he was destined to lose but was still willing to stand. And because he did what few choose to do—put action to their visions for change.

And it’s not the first time: Passionate about economic and social reform, Whitten dropped out of PCC to join Occupy Portland last year which, ironically, in and of itself would have discounted him as a candidate in many people’s books. Yet, whatever you think about the movement, he was probably the only one who ever spent any time with its people, listening to their concerns.

He was arrested more than once during his time in Occupy for, as he describes, being at “the wrong place at the wrong time.” Many would think his presence in the race was just as negligible. I happen to think it was crucial. Crucial because he represented a part of Portland that rarely gets noticed.

No, he didn’t have me at hello—but he had me when he said, “I am here because our entire Constitution is founded on the inherent foundation that all men are created equal and all have the potential for greatness.”

And that’s why I voted for him.


  1. Great article! I thought about voting for Cameron, too, but instead I went with one of the mainstream candidates because I didn’t think he had a chance to win. As you showed in this article, I should have voted for the candidate I believed in rather than one I thought had a chance.


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