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Power to the people

Mike Selvaggio has spent his life trying to understand and improve governance

One of Mike Selvaggio’s earliest political memories is meeting the mayor of the small town he grew up in just outside of Los Angeles.

He was 10 years old and attending a city council meeting as part of a Cub Scout citizenship project. At the time, he felt a sense of wonder — here was someone who was an elected official, who had been chosen by his neighbors and trusted to make decisions that would greatly impact the community.

TIDINGS PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Growing up in Southern California, Mike Selvaggio was immersed in politics from an early age, and found a passion in working to improve governance.

It was one of Selvaggio’s first forays into the political world, but certainly not the last. In fact, more than 10 years after that first meeting, Selvaggio came across that same mayor once again but under very different circumstances.

The former mayor was now a school board member in the same city of Santa Susana, California, and Selvaggio — by now a student at the University of California-San Diego (UCSD) — had arrived at a meeting to present findings from a study he’d done on school curriculums. The former mayor disagreed with Selvaggio’s findings and took to the local newspaper to call him a “shill” and a “union thug.”

The lesson?

“These people have agendas,” Selvaggio said, reflecting on the moment. “And sometimes that puts you at odds with people you know, and that can be a personal thing and sometimes it doesn’t have to be.

“I try to get along with everybody.”

It was just one of many lessons Selvaggio has learned throughout his career in politics. The latest venture, of course, is his run for West Linn City Council, which will undoubtedly put him at odds with some residents in an increasingly heated local political climate.

But Selvaggio is no stranger to the ins and outs of democracy. In fact, he’s spent nearly his entire life trying to understand it.

“The neighbors all knew each other”

Santa Susana is a small town about four miles outside of the Los Angeles metro area — a “rural enclave” as Selvaggio termed it.

“There’s so much sprawl and there’s no urban growth boundary,” he said. “So when I say ‘four miles outside of L.A., I really mean 40 miles outside of downtown L.A. And by that point, there can be a sub development on one side of a mountain range and a farm on the other.”

Indeed, the Santa Susana of Selvaggio’s youth faced similar challenges to modern day West Linn. Development was always around the corner and as a result Selvaggio’s family was active in city politics.

“We were always staving off sub development here or there — they were always trying to open up new streets, cram more apartments in, or whatever,” he said. “I grew up in an environment where the impacts of planning were very, very clear to me from an early age. By the time I was in high school, I had been to more than my fair share of planning commission and city council meetings.”

The early exposure evolved into a genuine curiosity about the inner workings of government, and when Selvaggio arrived at UCSD he decided to study political science with a focus on political theory and constitutional law.

“That was always very interesting to me, the theories behind governance,” he said. “Not so much the mechanisms of politics, but how good government flows from how you set up a system, how you structure those relationships between the public and the administration.”

He interned at the Clinton White House and the San Diego Mayor’s office while in school — no, he never met Monica — and as graduation approached, Selvaggio sent resumes out to an array of campaigns.

One day, the campaign manager for Charlie Ringo — who was then running for state senate in Beaverton — called Selvaggio and asked if he would come to Oregon.

“By the end the day, my car was packed with everything I owned,” he said.

An independent streak

After helping Ringo win his campaign and serving as a staff member from 2003 to 2005, Selvaggio was approached by State Senator Ben Westlund, who was planning a run for governor.

“I know you’ve been fed up with party politics. I’m getting fed up with party politics,” Westlund told him. “Why don’t you join my team and we’re going to do something pretty amazing next year.”

So Selvaggio moved to Bend, and though the campaign ultimately fell short, it was one of the best experiences he’d ever had.

“There were Democrats, Independents, Republicans, Green Party members, Libertarians — everyone was on that campaign,” Selvaggio said. “It was such a great example of what politics could be.”

While Westlund did not become governor, he did eventually win a race for state treasurer. At that point, in 2008, Selvaggio was named policy director at the state treasury office.

Westlund died in office in 2010, and by 2014, Selvaggio was ready to move on. At that point, through a connection from the Westlund gubernatorial campaign, Selvaggio was hired as a lobbyist at the ProspectPDX communications firm.

Settling down

While still working in Salem, Selvaggio and his fiancé found a new home in the Willamette area of West Linn.

They were looking for a place to settle down — a home where they would be comfortable raising a family and someday welcoming grandchildren. It didn’t take them long to realize that place was West Linn.

“We got out of the car and the lady who now lives across the street from us, she just came up and introduced herself,” Selvaggio said. “She said, ‘Hi, are you guys looking to buy here? It’s such a lovely neighborhood.’

“It didn’t matter what the inside of the home looked like. We can find a bedroom anywhere; what this said is it’s a community, and that was important to us.”

Selvaggio wasted little time getting involved with the Willamette Neighborhood Association, and until recently he served as president of the group. Now, in the midst of the campaign, he’s had to give up his personal hobbies — namely, working on his yard and garden — but the passion in his political work comes from the same question that piqued his curiosity back in Santa Susana: What makes government effective?

“I’ve learned that you give people a lot more credit than you think,” Selvaggio said. “In politics and staffing, it’s very common to kind of chuckle, like, ‘Oh the people, they’re going to do what they’re going to do, but we have a plan, and we know what to do, so just let them have their talk and then we’ll do what we’re going to do anyway.’

“I found that the general public deserves so much more credit.”

Patrick Malee can be reached at 503-636-1281 Ext. 106 or pmalee@westlinntidings.com.