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Portland Indymedia interview with Mike Swaim, Mayor of Salem

Edited transcript of October 12 interview with Mike Swaim, Mayor of Salem
On October 12, two Portland Indymedia reporters interviewed Mike Swaim, the Mayor of Salem, Oregon, in his law office in that city. The conversation ranged over many topics: the current threat by Pictsweet Mushrooms to close its factory there in November, political activism, fighting corporate developers, media, money in politics, police accountability, the fracas over his public comments regarding the September 11 attacks on the East Coast, public participation in government and society, and the importance of staying true to one's values. What follows is an edited transcript of the hour-long interview.

Indymedia: [Regarding the struggle between Pictsweet Mushrooms and PCUN] there's been some recent updates in the situation there. We understand from PCUN [Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, "United Treeplanters and Farmers of the Northwest"] that Pictsweet wants to close their [Salem] plant sometime in November. Some people suspect that they just want to close it and then reopen it as a "union busting" move. Apparently they've been reordering supplies as if they're not closing in November. This is a story we've been covering so we're just wondering what your thoughts are.

Michael Swaim: I don't know much more than that although I suspect that since they're not particularly enamored of organized labor -- or equitable treatment of the workers for that matter -- that they would just fire 'em. They wouldn't have to go through the charade of closing down and reopening. So then how do you explain the fact that they're stockpiling like they're not going out of business? I think it might very well be explained by a desire to have a viable business operation so as to make it more valuable to sell to someone else, instead of closing it down, losing the workforce and not having product that is there and then trying to sell it as a growing business. Because there's some value to a growing business rather than a closed business.

But then the question is, well, if that's the case, why did they tell the people that they were going to fire them? Well, sometimes it's hard to explain what there motivation might be, but it's driven by the bottom line, I'm sure. I'm sure of that. They just make stupid decisions sometimes as well. They're not the brightest candle in corporate America. No matter how handsomely they're paid or what kinds of cars they drive, they make some pretty stupid decisions when it comes to handling the workforce that would preclude the results they're trying to avoid.

Indymedia: What kind of solidarity could be expected from other Pictsweet workers, for example at the Ventura [California] plant, if it is closed?

Swaim: I'm not sure how that might relate, but I do know -- because I went down to Ventura -- that it's a really strong union movement down there. It's a unionized shop. In California they have to recognize and bargain with the union. The employees wear their union shirts on the job -- it's the red "United Farmworkers" shirt -- and they wear buttons that say, "Boycott Pictsweet Mushrooms". These are the workers wearing these buttons.

You might have heard the story about how they locked us out. Under California law, the union has the right -- the absolute right -- to access to employees during noon time on the premises.

[Note: This past summer, as part of his campaign on behalf of the workers at the Salem Pictsweet plant, Swaim visited the Pictsweet plant in Ventura, California with Arturo Rodriguez, president of the United Farmworkers Union, to speak with workers about the conditions there. However, they found the way barred and were not allowed onto the plant grounds. For the full story, see Swaim's personal account of the incident in the Fall 2001 issue of Alternatives Magazine.]

Indymedia: Are there court proceedings underway regarding that?

Swaim: It's my understanding they're going to file for an injunction to make sure they open up. They'd never been closed before and we arrived and all of a sudden there's newly installed "No trespassing" signs and an outside hired uniformed guard and a fence that's padlocked and they looked like they were hunkered down waiting for an invasion or something. [Laughs] And it was just a couple of us folks who wanted to talk to the workers a little bit.

But it backfired on them because all the workers found out we were there so they piled out and met us at the gate and we were high fiving each other over the fence and we talked about how their employer is so insecure they gotta lock their employees inside to keep them there and lock us outside so they won't hear our message, but they hadn't figured out that it's a chain link fence and we were able to communicate pretty well anyway.

So I don't know if there's a coordinated effort but they know about each other's struggles, and there's some pretty clear violations of California law and they're pursuing that, but up here the workers have no standing other than an equitable claim on the conscience as human beings in the workforce.

Indymedia: How do the working conditions differ between the two plants? Has the unionization made a difference?

Swaim: I haven't been into the Ventura plant. Actually I haven't been allowed into the Salem plant either but I've seen the OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] video tape, which is about an hour and a half long; supposedly going through the whole plant. What you find here is a very decrepit plant, with infrastructure weak and subject to collapse -- in fact has collapsed in a major area and could have easily killed someone but no one was standing there at the time -- and sloppy workmanship such as exposed nails. It's pitch dark and the workers wear miner caps with lights on them. They heat the plant with water and steam heat and the pipes are not wrapped in some instances and people get burnt on them in the dark.

I don't hear any of those sorts of things from the Ventura plant. Those are not the issues down there. Wages, seniority. There may be some conditions but they're not like the conditions here, which are abysmal. It's a form of indentured servitude. They really don't have a lot of choices. They're trapped, and there are those who are undocumented and they're not going to speak up for themselves. They're afraid the INS will come get them. So it's a very complicated circumstance there. And very abysmal.

Indymedia: The plant here is just outside the city limits of Salem, so in an official capacity you're limited with what you can do. You can use the bully pulpit -- which you've been doing very effectively, such as when you helped get Fred Meyer and Safeway to join the boycott against Pictsweet -- but is that all you can do?

Swaim: You're right. The plant is just outside the margins of the city. I became involved because many of the workers live in the city and they asked me to become involved and told me about the circumstances. And I did it. And I would again.

But I just learned yesterday that they use water from the city of Salem to help operate their plant and that they discharge into the sanitary sewer system that feeds to our sanitary plant... . Why this might be problematic is because, I'm told, there might be violations of environmental administrative rules and statutes going on out there that I need to talk to my staff about and see whether we're on top of it.

Indymedia: How did you find out?

Swaim: From PCUN.

Indymedia: Your involvement with the Pictsweet situation is fairly recent; I believe it was June when you first found out about working conditions there and started speaking out. Have you been involved with other forms of activism for you or has this been a radicalizing experience for you?

Swaim: I led a demonstration against the Gap here in town and led about sixty people through the doors and was threatened with arrest by the security staff. I told them I'm a lawyer and I teach Constitutional law and you might want to think twice about arresting me. We delivered about 60 or 70 petitions to the management on the use of sweatshops to produce goods in Saipan. Some would call that radical I suppose... .

Before that I went up to a problematic timber sale in our watershed, and I decided I was going to inform people about how exactly it is they get the water in their tap and what the costs would be to allow the irresponsible timber companies to continue to externalize the costs of their business to the public, producing circumstances which delivered ever decreasing quality of water to the processing plant for the city of Salem. Some would suggest that that is radical.

I'm a strong civil libertarian. I will sign, a week from this coming Monday, a proclamation honoring gay and lesbian, transgender transsexual month. I've spoken at the gay pride events... .

But you know, this "radical". You talk about the informed and right kind of decision-making to create a better society, a healthier society, a sustainable society. Some call these radical ideas. They seem mainstream to me, but not to everyone.

Indymedia: You've been quoted more than once, in relation to your efforts in the Pictsweet/PCUN struggle, as saying that "it's just the right thing to do."

Swaim: It is the right thing to do. It's a matter of conscience. And that's why when the President of the [Oregon State] Senate took me on, I went after him, with every ounce of my fiber... . He called publicly in the newspaper for me to resign and that he would use all of his efforts as Senate President to remove me from the public sphere. I guess I've been a defense lawyer too long in the area of civil rights and criminal law because I was, well, give me your best shot. The system works and I'm prepared for it. He may win but he's got to give it a shot. You don't get a second shot.

We'll see. They've [corporate interests, primarily the development industry] spent over a quarter of a million dollars trying to prevent me from serving in this completely volunteer unpaid position. Unsuccessfully. The last campaign we won 64 our of 72 precincts in the City of Salem, which is not known to be a terribly liberal community. It's not our reputation. And I won even more precincts the time before that. 67 out of 72 precincts. When I said I, I should've said we. It was our campaign that won it.

Indymedia: If Salem is not a very liberal place, then why is it that you win?

Swaim: I think it's because I'm really concerned about quality of life and that doesn't have a political tag to it. Clean water, clean air, taking care of our kids in the community. Those are not political issues, those are community issues. For one. And second, I hope that I'm given a fair amount of credit because I tell it like I think it is. I may be wrong; I tell it like I think it is. So, for example, I'll probably have people -- when I sign the [gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans] proclamation next week, call me and say, "you know this gay and lesbian thing, it's wrong, and it's" -- blah blah blah, you've heard it before. "But you know, I really believe in what you're doing with trying to make developers pay a more equitable part of the costs, and I really agree with what you're doing to keep the water clean, so I'm going to cut you some slack on this gay and lesbian thing. You're wrong, Swaim, but I'm going to cut you some slack on that." So it gives me an opportunity to talk to them a little more about that issue, but because this kind of conversation has happened a number of times, I think people like hearing someone that is willing to say it like they think it is, even if it's wrong. They know I won't lie to them. I might be wrong, but I won't lie even if it's to my own advantage. If I screw up I'm willing to take the heat and admit it. For example, one of your colleagues in the media [sic.; Swaim was referring to a member of the corporate media] accused me of engaging in a shouting match with one of my constituents at a city council meeting. Now of course, as mayor I preside over those meetings. I've been a trial lawyer for over thirty years. Trial lawyers do not win by shouting. That's not well thought of by the judge and even less well thought of by jurors, so I don't shout no matter what my opinions might be. I did not recall shouting at this particular person. She had wondered what we should be doing with our urban renewal funds and I was probing that to see what the outer limits of her ideas might be. But he wrote this article and said we engaged in a shouting match.

I called him in and said, listen, I don't recall doing that, but maybe I'm not the best judge of my demeanor. So I tell you what, I'll order a copy of that videotape, and we'll sit down and watch it. If you hope to get another interview with me, you're gonna sit down and watch it. And if I shouted at her that's inexcusable in my opinion; my responsibility is to keep decorum and civility, and I will apologize in public to that lady for doing that. And, because you're right, and my recollection is wrong, I will buy dinner for you and a friend, whoever you want to take.

And so he sat down and watched it, and I said, did I shout? And he said, no, and I said what are you going to do about it? And he said I don't know. And I said let's think about it. I thought he should print a retraction. But I slept on it, and I thought, my credibility as mayor is very important to me, and his credibility as a reporter is very important too, and so if I make a big deal about rubbing his nose in it, when he was trying to spice up a story to my detriment, that could cause him some damage. So I decided to call him and tell him that I didn't want to do anything but expect that he would be more accurate in the future. And I opened up the newspaper that night and there was a retraction. [Chuckles]

Indymedia: You referred to developer costs before. Were you talking about when developers expect tax breaks or special favors for new construction?

Swaim: Yeah. Water, sewer, parks, traffic, roads. We know, here in the city, and from the governor's commission on growth, that it costs about $12,000 to essentially provide five of the elements of infrastructure that are covered by impact of development: water, sewer, parks, traffic, and storm water. And so when I came into office, I found out that of that $12,000, approximately, the developer was only paying $2,141. Since we go ahead and develop the subdivisions, the taxpayers are subsidizing each house to the tune of $10,000. All of sudden it dawned on me that over a decade of really significant growth, over 2% over ten years, why it was we were falling further and further into debt as a community.

And so I made a campaign promise that I would address that issue. And so now the assistance development charges total to just under $11,000 of that $12,000 and so, at least as to those capital costs in those five areas, development is paying its fair share of their impact on growth and the costs of it. There are still huge issues with respect to general services like fire, police, library operations and emergency parts. And I'm bringing the public more into City Hall so they can help make decisions better. I was the first person to sign a petition that would ask whether the voters wanted more of a voice in these matters. Up until then, the City Council was the sole decider on these issues, and in the 32 years [for which] I did research, I found that the City Council had never said "no" to a developer. Not even one time. This is kind of ridiculous that we even vote on it. [Chuckles] They never said no. And then when I figured out the relationship between annexation and growth and impact and the depressive effect on our financial resources, I said, well, you know, that's okay if we want to drive down our quality of life here, but it ought to be the people deciding that, not having it happen by backroom deals...

At that time, the council was not willing to let that go to the people for a vote, because it was dominated by developers, but in my next term, it was different, and one of the councilors became the chief petitioner, and it got on the ballot and was passed by a good margin. Something like 57%. So now the people have the opportunity to say how and where and how fast they really want to grow...

We'll have an ordinance come back shortly which will require developers to tell us what they want to do with the property. They don't have to tell you right now. Say they want to annex, and the people say, okay. Once they annex they have an absolute right as a matter of law to develop it. And so people come in and say, "We don't want you to build there, because the school is already crowded, or there's some environmental value, so don't do that". And they would be told by the Council, "We're only considering the annexation of the property, we're not dealing with the development plan". Then when the developer comes in and says "I want to build three or four hundred more houses and carve a hole out of the side of the hill to do it", then people come in and say, "We don't want this, we want to fight this". Then the Council says, "No they have an absolute right to do this".

And so they're [the people] always too early or too late and there was no in-between when they could make themselves heard. [Under the new ordinance] the developer is going to tell us what they're gonna do and what are going to be the impacts to transportation, the watershed, the schools, and people can decide what to do. "Let's just continue to build as far and fast as we want because we want to look like LA." [Chuckles] That's a choice. It's a legitimate choice. It's not that one I would make and I would probably move but I'm comfortable with the people having the right and the power and the legitimacy to make these sorts of decisions. That will be with us shortly.

I have pushed for a desegregated police force. We've had one black police officer in the 150 year history of this city. You can't explain that by statistics. So I pushed the police force to desegregated and we've had a couple of black police officers hired.... We're also pushing for civilian oversight.

Indymedia: Tell us more about that. Portland is struggling with that issue, and last night we attended a police commission meeting in Eugene where we saw how things work down there.

Swaim: Yeah, and none of them have really been entirely satisfactory. Our Police Chief was very much against it. And as long as I had a 6-4 opposition in City Council, there wasn't a lot I could do about it. Except that I marched with the people from one particular demonstration that was held at Willamette University that was predominantly people of color. We marched to City Hall and I opened up City Hall and I told the Police Chief that he could either come and hear it first hand or he could receive two reports from the City Manager, his boss, and me, about what happened. He chose to show up. We had two or three hundred or so people there and they demanded that we do something about it... .

Later, [some of the organizers] got 1000 signatures on a petitions, which includes former Supreme Court Chief Justice Ned Peterson, includes the current President of Willamette University, includes some of the bluest bloods here, on this list calling for a civilian review. So I told the police chief he didn't have a choice. It's a question of how to make it happen. So we'll have a civilian review board, it'll start off reporting back to the Police Chief, and the City Manager, the Chief's Boss, with a comment report to City Council. We'll see how that works, with the authority to look at the records, the opportunity for officer to come in and say all his or her story if they want to. I suspect many of them won't. Some just because they don't want to be submitted to civilian oversight. But then this group will be able to recommend to the City Manager, and the City Council, the appropriate measure to be taken, in those instances -- and I hope they're few and far between -- that are examples violations of the civil rights of our community. My hope is that by having that in place we'll have a salutary effect such that less things happen.

I haven't done a lot of criminal law in the last five years but I used to do a fair amount of defense work and "driving while Hispanic" is an issue here in this country and here in the state. Black people are followed on a regular basis by our police. I challenged the police chief to ride with me in a back seat of a car driven by a black male and a white woman and just see how his police officers react... . He has not accepted that opportunity. I said what are you afraid of, Walt? If you're so sure that you don't have any problematic officers than what are you so concerned about? I rode along with one of his police officers, he ought to ride along with one of my guys. [Laughs]

... It's kind of amazing to see a police officer write a guest editorial against his own mayor, that appears in the city paper, but one did, and he ended with, "it seems like maybe the mayor is discriminatory and doesn't like the color blue". Because that's what their uniforms are.

And so the police chief was ragging on me to ride along, ride along, and I said, "I rode along in East Los Angeles, Huntington Beach, I've done that, I know what it's like to ride along with police". And it seems kind of grandstandish anyway. But that [guest editorial] got my attention and I told the Police Chief, "Yeah, I'll ride along, and I want to ride along with that guy, who wrote that article. I want a full shift, eight hours long, in his squad car." And I did, and we had a heart-to-heart conversation. It was good. We got to know each other. I said, "You know, you would be one of our most problematic cases if you were a black guy, just because of your attitude. If you copped this kind of attitude then, you'd be singing from the inside of the cross bar hotel... ."

Indymedia: As you know, Portland has the Joint Terrorism Task Force, in which the city police officially partner with the FBI. Has the City of Salem been approached with such an arrangement, or by any other federal agencies? Is there a multi-agency force here at all?

Swaim: Well we do have a certain amount of cooperation on the drug issues, mainly methamphetamine production. We have reexamined our Emergency Response efforts and the level of sec we can rely upon. [Pauses and smiles] But I'm thinking that if my office gets bombed it's likely to be a developer or a land speculator. [Laughs]

I don't mean to make light of it. There are serious issues. There are crazy people out there who would do harm. But I believe in non-violence, am direct, and willing to engage in civil disobedience

Indymedia: Dissent is often seen as unpatriotic. It seems like right now that's becoming more prevalent. To speak out on anything political, even labor issues -- it seems like there's not as much patience for that now.

Swaim: That's the substance of the most recent flack over my tenure as mayor. I was asked to speak on the day of and the day after Sept. 11. and I spoke at Peace Plaza, which is between city hall and the library, a place I helped construct. I said in concluding, "I call upon President Bush and those who would advise him that I don't want to see a single innocent child harmed or die in my name anywhere". The owner of the largest brokerage house in the Willamette valley called in the newspaper the next day for my immediate -- if I would not resign -- my recall, and said that he would spend all his resources to see that I was in fact recalled. It was only in the last three or four days that there hasn't been a barrage of letters about this. The good news was, to my surprise, the overwhelming number of letters supporting me. It went like 7-1... .

I'm a Democrat. When it first broke that I had said this, the reaction from the organized, entrenched people in the party was, why are you doing this? Why are you raising this controversy? Don't you know it's not safe for political people to get out in front that way and look unpatriotic? And yadda yadda yadda. And I said, well, you know I would rather debate my detractors and have them deny me public office. That's okay, I can go do something else. I go back into law full-time, although I enjoy public policy. I would rather debate them publicly and let them chew me to pieces than to debate myself in my mind afterwards and say, you know, some people had to speak out and I could have, and I have the pulpit, and the ability to get the message out and I didn't do it. How would I explain that to myself? I would rather debate them than myself on these issues.

And now, the word is that I must be some sort of Machiavellian strategist that I got all these people to write these letters on my behalf saying that no one is going to sign a recall petition,. Then the banker wrote another letter, kinda sideways, and apologized, and said he's not going to seek a recall and it wasn't appropriate for him to suggest it that that was the response to me, and after all we do have freedom of speech here.

So, the people who should be my supporters in the political party said all the money's gonna dry up, all the money's gonna go away, if you do it this way, and you've got to be more vanilla. And I said, I don't care. If that's the cost, I don't want to do it, I don't want to do it... . [If] those traditional sources of Democratic money can stay away and I'll kick their butt too. I'll win, and win on my own... .

I campaigned hard against the growth industry and right after I won, the developers wanted to come make a deal. "We can do things for you." And I said, "If you do things for me, then I owe you, and I don't want to owe you guys. I'm not going to do it." ...I've really been pleased that they don't have any hooks in me. Here I am a volunteer mayor in a little tiny town in the middle of Oregon and I've got the Senate President attacking me in the media. It's because they don't have any of the usual kinds of hooks in me. And they got the guy who handles all the Republican campaigns here [in Oregon] and they hired him to be the campaign manager of my opponent in the last campaign. I mean, they [city government] give us a sandwich at lunchtime, that's how they pay us. And the people opposing me spent $130,000. They put up billboards with the guy's picture on it. So I would get a little family together with one my lawn signs and stand in front of the billboard and ask, "Which one represents your point of view?" [Laughs]

The more money they spend, the more obvious it is where the strings are going to be pulled and you're able to track it back to the developers.... Money is the grease which gets the job done. But it's really driven by ego. I had a teacher who said, "Don't ever vote for anybody who really wants the job." You know? That makes a lot of sense to me. Because some of the guys I really -- and gals -- that I really thought I knew, and I supported them, and gave them money, and they get in there and they want it so bad -- they want to stay in that position -- that they're cutting deals with the National Rifle Association. They're unwilling to stand up and be counted when it comes to civil rights. They're afraid to go toe to toe with the Lon Mabons of the world. And I become so disenchanted, so disenchanted. I figure I have to be one of the people who tries to isolate myself from this abomination or get involved and see if people care if there's an alternative... .

So it's been a bit of a trial and error process. But I really believe in the inherent ability off the common people to make really good decisions when given enough information and when they really feel they're doing something important. And they do that in jury trials all the time, with very complicated medical malpractice suits, engineering, and legal malpractice suits as laypeople. And it's the same way with government and society. If you really let people be part of the process, and you're not patronizing them, and you're willing -- and this is the tough part -- willing to back their participating in the public process when they hold an opinion diametrically opposed to your own, that's the true test.