Portlanders at a storytelling event last night got quite the surprise when former mayoral candidate Jefferson Smith took the stage and told a story about the time in college when he hit a woman at a party.
Smith, who lost to Charlie Hales in last year’s election, was a Democratic state representative who was considered a rising star in Oregon politics.
Then his campaign was riddled with controversies about his past. Several media reports show that besides the confrontation in college, his drivers license was suspended seven times, he apparently punched another player in a basketball game and the Oregon State Bar suspended him three times for failure to pay his dues.
But most of that wasn’t mentioned last night. Last night, at Back Fence PDX, it was about his story of what happened in 1993.
Smith said he was at a party, had been drinking and came on to a student, she rebuffed him and he admitted to making some crude comments. Then much later, the woman was asleep on the couch at a different party and someone else knocked her off the couch.
She got up and Smith said she began to attack him.
“I grabbed her,” he said and he had to pause. He inhaled deeply and exhaled even deeper. The room was silent.
He continued to describe how he pushed her away and then the woman, who was about a foot shorter than him, attacked again. After this allegedly happened a couple more times, Smith said he hit the woman “above the eye.”
The air in the theater was thick. The girl next to me muttered “Wow.”
The woman was taken to the hospital where she received stitches. Smith signed an agreement that allowed him to avoid prosecution and he paid the woman’s medical bills.
Smith went on to talk about how he kept those who knew of this incident to a very small group and when one of those people called him about a reporter asking questions, Smith knew his secret was about to be exposed.
He then talked about how his campaign handled the incident. Should they go public to get ahead of the story? Wait until it comes out? What should they say?
Smith said he went to the woman’s house to try to talk with her and she told him that it wasn’t a good time. A few hours later he told a reporter he hadn’t had any “meaningful contact” with the woman.
Inside he asked himself: Why did I say that? What does “meaningful contact” even mean? I just saw the woman. He said he hated he was turning into the kind of politician that he never wanted to be. You know the type, the evasive, lying ones.
It was interesting to watch this unfold because in typical storytelling fashion Smith gave us various perspectives of what happened. There was the public version, his version and his internal dialogue about the whole thing.
He said he struggled to admit he hit a woman. “I couldn’t say ‘hit,’” he said looking down. He could say “popped,” “knocked” or “tagged,” but not “hit” because of the basic rule: You don’t “hit” girls.
Though his voice was raspy with emotion, it wasn’t all mea culpa.
“I’m not here to set the record straight,” he told the audience. “I’m here to say thank you.”
He then thanked his family, friends and supporters. Strange as this may sound, but the politician didn’t sound stilted and rehearsed. It wasn’t the usual laundry list of trite thank yous. It was just a stumbling little expression of gratitude.
Toward the end of his 10 to 15 minutes on stage, he acknowledging that storytelling is hard, very different from political speeches.
Yes, Smith it is hard to stand up in front of a large group of people to talk about your innermost fears, desires or regrets. But it’s cathartic and unifying and that’s why we love it. Not to mention when you’re on stage, the audience isn’t judgmental, it’s a space for sharing human experiences.
Even ugly experiences where you break such a basic social norm as hitting a girl.