Sten proves pragmatic politico
ON URBAN ISSUES
The season of elections and partisan politics is here.- And unfortunately, it is becoming increasingly difficult to separate genuine politicians and leaders from those who have been swayed by campaign contributions.
But if you look hard enough, you can find a politician who has remained consistent in championing little-guy issues.
If you have heard about the scenarios surrounding Portland General Electric, or if you've read about the billing travails of the Portland Water Bureau, the name will sound familiar. But how much do you really know about the philosophies that guide Portland's youngest City Council member?
At 36, Commissioner Erik Sten remains the city's most misunderstood politician. It's partly because he's consistently involved in so many City Hall dramas. What gets lost in the shouting is the fact that Sten is one of the smartest political leaders around, with a mind that mixes strategy and practicality to rare effect.
Sten is adored by a host of neighborhood activists and political realists Ñ among them advocates of affordable housing. In contrast, he's disdained by traditionalists reared in the world of capital gains and profits Ñ among them energy brokers and dealers.
You can fault the commissioner himself for some of these perceptions. Sten has been willing to take the blame for the inertia of the bureaus under his management. He has owned up to mistakes on his watch, such as the computer billing debacle at the water bureau, which is now under Commissioner Dan Saltzman.
When trouble surfaces, the average politician is quick to pass the blame to his or her staff. To his credit, Sten did not. To his detriment, the water bureau fiasco may have tainted his political future.
The heart of his philosophy Ñ a concept that many don't grasp Ñ is his belief that institutions that serve the public do better when government works with private expertise. That notion has earned him a legion of critics and is at the center of his battles with the establishment, such as the corporate interests that have pursued PGE.
Sten rode to his City Council seat seven years ago on the theme of 'Education, environment and affordable housing.' He's largely kept his promises and kept his philosophical faith intact. Sten and his staff have served the city with a creative mixture of community and economic development solutions, consumer protection ideas, and livability initiatives. Sometimes his exceptional insights and understanding of the issues are misconstrued.
For example, take his current push for public financing of city campaigns. Add in his leadership role in the city's proposed purchase of PGE and his fight with AT&T over local business access to Internet lines. These campaigns have led many to dismiss him as a far-left liberal, content and comfortable in the world of bloated government bureaucracy.
But Sten is far from that. Those who have worked closely with him over the years know better and extol his pragmatism.
'Sten is a very thoughtful politician with strong beliefs, and he is willing to fight for those beliefs,' says State Treasurer Randall Edwards.
So you've heard all about PGE and the water bureau. But did you know about Sten's proposal to eliminate duplicative services within city administration Ñ an idea that resulted in savings of $10 million in the last city budget.
Nor have you read much about the water bureau of late. In the aftermath of that crisis, customer service and rate collections have improved. Sten also has worked hard to changed rate structures so that those who use less water pay little. His inspiration, he says, was a little old lady he met who told him she was no longer taking baths because she wanted to be able to pay her water bills.
It's his eye for detail and grasp of the big picture that cause so many to see genuine leadership potential in Sten. Portland Development Commission Chairman Matt Hennessee says Sten's handling of the water bureau affair is instructive.
'Who has not made a mistake?' Hennessee asks. 'We make mistakes in life, in business É and politics is no different. But the water bureau is better for it because mistakes were rectified.'