There’s no question about it: I love Portland. It’s been true since moving here as a boy. My life, in fact, has been dedicated to making our community a better place. Portland’s rejection this week of fluoridation is far from cause for divorce but it does feed into the lover’s quarrel that is part of my relationship with this special place.
The fact is that fluoridation would have helped protect kids by increasing dental health. The Clean Water Campaign, fueled by Tea Party money and some odd doctors (like the one who asserts HIV doesn’t cause AIDS), scared the city into believing that fluoride causes cancer and was bad for the environment. In my 26 years of advocacy and ministry in Portland, I’ve rarely – if ever – seen a campaign distort and lie as often.
The fear based campaign waged by Clean Water Portland was upsetting enough but the often heard statement by those who identify as progressives that putting fluoride in the water violated their personal choice to take fluoride was perhaps more upsetting. Portland has never been about “me!” but about “us!” Not so this week. The common good lost out to a growing libertarianism that in this case put the needs of children last when they should have gone first. That children should come first is a beadrock principle of my faith.
Still, this is hardly the first time I’ve been disappointed in the city I love. We don’t do enough to fight poverty – and North Portland and East Portland are too often ignored, like these parts of our city just don’t count. Inequity flourishes here and if you are a person of color your chances to succeed diminish greatly. We launch plans to end homelessness every few years only to watch homelessness grow.
We say “Keep Portland Weird” because this is a unique community that has produced a special culture a little bit different than much of America and we can laugh at ourselves when watching Portlandia because there are times we’re absurd in funny, yet harmless, ways.
But at the pot-fueled Clean Water Portland victory party, where reporters say the air was thick with marijuana from smoking activists protesting adding fluoride to the water supply because fluoride was harmful (the irony is worth noting), the city crossed a line from absurd to sad.
Say what you will about Clean Water Portland: Them folks got some pungent medical herb. #fluoride— Aaron Mesh (@AaronMesh) May 22, 2013
In the end, we still have a dental crisis. Portland children will still suffer. Nothing changed this week – our dental crisis didn’t get worse but it could have gotten better but fears and lies and, yes, personal self-interest won over the common good.
Still, Portland is better than this. When confronted with difficult questions over taxes, schools, health care, LGBTQ equality and the environment we normally make the moral choice, even if it costs us more in taxes and upsets family, friends and neighbors. We normally put the common good first when given the opportunity.
I don’t fault the 60% of Portlanders who voted against fluoride. Most people don’t pay close attention to these elections and if I heard the city wanted to add chemicals to the water that caused cancer the natural reaction, it seems, would be to vote no. Those behind Clean Water Portland, however, - the activists and their financial supporterss, including the Tea Party and their allies – knew better and did great damage to Portland by waging a divisive campaign that hurt Portland’s children. Don’t be surprised to see this coalition reform to try and to reshape Portland in their conservative / libertarian image that is fueled by a distrust for government, other institutions (including institutions of higher learning) and, of course, science.
That coalition in no ways represents 60% of Portland. One lost election doesn’t mean progressive Portland is lost. What it does show is that our work to improve Portland just got more difficult. Outside Tea Party groups are willing to foot the bill to take on what our city has generally held most dear.
Fluoride supporters were wrong not to engage the public in an open and transparent process from the start on this issue, instead of trying to move this through the Portland City Council quickly (a move I endorsed). The backlash is similar to when the Multnomah County passed an ordinance to allow gay marriage without a public process (a move I also endorsed), only to see voters outlaw gay marriage statewide in response. Government works best when it is transparent. We ought to learn this lesson. Back room politics don’t work in Portland.
Progressives also need to find a way to fight lies in ways that don’t just win campaigns but also strengthen the community. As a minister, you might think this would be a skill I would have. But plenty of times I reacted to the lies told in this campaign with more anger than light and that is just as damaging. Lies shouldn’t be tolerated. They should be called out. But we can all find better ways to engage in the public square.
For me, I love this city too much to give up on it. I want my kids and the children in my churches to have access to the best public schools and to public health programs that help them thrive. After all these years, after all these battles, my deep belief is that 90%+ of Portlanders want the same even if we cannot always agree on the ways to get there. Good people can come to different conclusions on difficult issues. Until Portland becomes the city it ought to be, I’ll continue my lover’s quarrel and will happily work with people of integrity – people who value truth – even when they disagree with my views. After all, I’ve been proven wrong before and changed my views when confronted with good arguments based on reason and fact. Democracy works that way when it is truthful and fair.
Rev. Chuck Currie