PORTLAND, Ore. — Self-consciously quirky, outrageously liberal, Portland feels a bit like a hippie museum.
On a recent, glorious Sunday, in the hipster Hawthorne neighborhood, white-bearded bikers in bandannas straddled their hogs in the sunshine, crowds of middle-aged, Birkenstocked customers strolled in and out of what could only be termed “head shops,” while others flipped through racks of vintage clothing — everything from old Simpsons T-shirts to velvet blazers to flowered hats from the '50s.
One young man wandered around in antlers made out of long branches.
“Our motto is ‘Keep Portland weird,’” laughed Erin, a policewoman
They’re doing a pretty good job.
Oregon in general, and Portland in particular, have gone far beyond what most other states have done in terms of individual freedoms.
The November ballot will feature an initiative to legalize pot, and it has a good chance of passing, say supporters.
There is actually not too far to go — people are not arrested here for small amounts of cannabis, and medical use is perfectly legal.
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“It’s pretty easy to get a license to grow it, too,” Erin explained. “You just need some medical patients to list you as their provider.”
Oregon has a Death with Dignity law, which allows terminally ill patients to choose to end their own lives.
And its policy on public nudity is noting if not lax.
Recently a Portland man was acquitted of indecent exposure after he stripped buck naked at the Portland Airport in irritation at the invasive search procedures of the Transportation Security Administration.
John Brennan managed to convince a judge that his act was a form of protest, and thus protected under the First Amendment.
The city also hosts a yearly Naked Bike Ride, in which some 8,000 to 10,000 cyclists cross the city in the nude.
“We are definitely nonconformist,” said a public information worker in a nearby community.
The city’s free-wheeling lifestyle makes it a natural for the Democratic Party.
“This is a pretty liberal place,” said Erin. “But I know a lot of police who support the Republican Party.”
Oregon is an interesting admixture of people. It is classified as “likely Obama” by political experts, and has voted for the Democratic candidate in every presidential race since 1988.
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Recent Oregonian voter polls show the president with an eight-point lead over his challenger, Mitt Romney, but there is another 8 percent that is undecided. Oregon’s seven electoral votes may not make or break the election, but they could be up for grabs.
The governor, John Kitzhaber, is a Democrat. But the state legislature is almost evenly divided: Out of 30 senators, 16 are Democrats to 14 Republicans; the 60-member House is split right down the middle.
Ron Paul, the Libertarian gadfly, received just 13 percent of the vote in Oregon’s Republican presidential primary in May. Romney got 71 percent. Nevertheless, in keeping with Oregon’s contrarian nature, nearly half of the Oregon delegation to the Republican National Convention in Tampa this August will be made up of Paul supporters. This is unlikely to affect the results — the delegates are still pledged to vote for Romney — but they want to make noise and attract attention to their candidate.
Portland is the state’s most populous city, and the second largest US city in the Northwest, after Seattle. It has big business and hi-tech industry — Intel and Nike are based here — but it prides itself on being “cooler” than its larger cousin.
But in Bend, a small town nestled in the Cascade Mountains of central Oregon, cool gives way to warm.
Bend is a tourist destination, and just about every hotel on a recent weekend was bursting at the seams. Not only was the Deschutes County Fair in full swing, the town was hosting the “Flashback Cruz” vintage car show, with more than 5,000 automobiles on display. Some were long-finned cars from the fifties, while others looked like Eliot Ness might step out of the back door, guns blazing. A few appeared as if Henry Ford himself might have had a hand in their assembly.
“There’s always something to celebrate in Bend,” said the pretty hostess at Amalia’s, a Mexican restaurant on Wall Street, one of the two main drags in town. “There are wine tasting and cheese samplings, and it gets really crazy.”
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The craziness was all pretty amiable, however. Synthetic wigs seem to be the accessory of choice, the brighter the better. Turquoise and fuchsia heads drift by, occasionally interspersed with orange or Warhol-white.
Buskers played violas and drums on sidewalks, rock bands blared from brick halls. Everybody looked happy, everyone was friendly — until the talk turned to politics.
“What elections?” replied a gray-haired man when asked about his presidential preferences. Most just smiled, shrugged, and turned away.
One red-faced, red-eyed customer at a Starbucks the next morning was more forthcoming, however.
“Well, there are a lot of rednecks in Oregon,” he laughed. “But the smarter people are Democrats. I know how I’m gonna vote.” His orange jersey identified him as a participant in the auto show.
“I can’t believe people can’t see through that Romney guy. If he wants to take jobs overseas, why doesn’t he go with 'em? He keeps his money over there. How could he send boys to a foreign country to fight? They’ll come home and there will be no jobs for 'em. It won’t take long before they’ll start refusing to go.”
He sipped his coffee and shook his head.
“Romney,” he snorted as he headed out the door. “Pretty boy. Rich kid. I bet he never had a callous in his whole life.”
Jerry, a manager at the Best Western in town, was more cautious. A native of Bend, he was suspicious of the “big city folk” from Portland or Eugene, the college town that is home to the University of Oregon.
“There is definitely a mix here,” he said. “In general, though, Oregon is pretty Democratic. I can’t say I like the fact that the big population centers dictate the politics of the whole state, though. Those anarchists from Eugene start organizing demonstrations, you know, anti-Obama or against that other guy — who is it, the Republican candidate? They just make trouble.”