Jefferson Smith and Progressives on the Rise

BY JOHN BERKON

When Americans get disillusioned with politics, they often turn to Jefferson Smith, the idealistic Jimmy Stewart title character in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. For progressives who are disheartened by the state of affairs in Washington, the idea of Jefferson Smith might seem whimsical. It shouldn’t.

This week, the Harvard Law Democrats discovered that there is a new Jefferson Smith on the scene, shaking up politics and successfully championing progressive causes. This Mr. Smith, a product of HLS, currently does his work in Oregon. But if progressives can emulate his success nationwide, they may be going to Washington in droves.

Smith, who graduated magna cum laude from HLS, founded the Oregon Bus Project in 2002 with the goal of making Oregon a progressive model for the nation. The Bus Project recruits volunteers, mostly under 35, puts them on a bus, and canvasses for progressive candidates in swing districts for the Oregon Senate and House.

When the Bus Project began, Republicans controlled the State Senate. Two elections and 170,000 knocked doors later, the Bus Project won 9 of its 10 targeted races and Democrats took control of the State Senate for the first time in a decade. A sister project, the Washington Bus Project, helped Democrats take control of the Washington State Senate as well in 2004. It is no surprise that former Governor Barbara Roberts announced that the Project was “the most exciting thing in Oregon politics for the last 20 years.”

Over lunch this week, Smith told the assembled group of Democrats that we are living through a crucial historical period, where America is transitioning into an interconnected, information age. Americans, however, have not fundamentally redesigned the way in which they govern themselves. In order to succeed, Smith believes that America must “reboot its democracy” and generate “a public conversation that yields the public interest.” He sums up his philosophy in the following words, “We are stronger together than we are apart.”

To that end, the Bus Project is designed not only to win elections but to build civically aware communities. Whereas most canvassing groups parachute into neighborhoods the weekend before the election, the Bus Project makes multiple trips to voters’ homes; most canvassing groups use non-residents, while the Bus Project has local partners in every community. The Bus Project begins its conversations with communities by doing a non-political service project and a listening canvass, where voters talk about their concerns and the canvassers relay them to their candidates.

Smith, who left a prominent law firm before returning to Oregon, told the Harvard students that they had a special duty. After recounting that a plurality of Rhodes Scholars chose to work at McKinsey a few years ago, he said, “If the best and the brightest of today try to figure out how to fix the health care system instead of figuring out how banks can hide fees without customers noticing, we would not have to spend 17 percent of our GDP on health care.” His words clearly touched the audience. “Jeff and the Bus Project are helping me believe in the power of active citizenship,” said Kristine Yen, a 1L. “I think it’s great for HLS students to have periodic reminders that there’s more to life than working at corporate law firms and that there’s so much other important work to be done.” Oregon has certainly taken notice. Perhaps it is only a matter of time before this Mr. Smith, and his followers, go to Washington.

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