Profile: Nicholas Caleb, lonely voice for better biking in race for council

Profile: Nicholas Caleb, lonely voice for better biking in race for council

City Council Candidate Nicholas Caleb hands out signs in support of a citywide minimum wage hike in a demonstration on 82nd Avenue last month.
(Photo by M.Andersen/BikePortland)

The best way to understand the only vocally pro-bike candidate in tomorrow’s city elections might actually be to watch him drive a car.

“I drive at 20 mph, 25 mph inside the city at all times,” Nicholas Caleb said in an interview this month. “I just don’t think it’s safe. And I don’t care if people are beeping at me.”

As a campaign that calls, on every one of its signs, for a $15 minimum wage — volunteers favor the green and white version when they’re campaigning downtown, red when they’re in East Portland — the 30-year-old Concordia College adjunct professor’s two-month sprint of a city council race has certainly drawn a lot of beeps.

Caleb campaigning at Sunday Parkways in East Portland.
(Photo by Caleb for Council)

“I kind of knew that there was a nice political space for people to run as strong progressives right now,” Caleb said. “I tried to get a lot of other people to do it and nobody wanted to.”

The day before the March filing deadline, Caleb decided to do it himself. He’s challenging Dan Saltzman, the council’s longest-serving member and one blessed with, as Caleb puts it, “tons and tons of money.”

State records show that in the last year, Salzman has raised $143,000 from 340 donations, 70 percent of which were for exactly $500. In the last two months, Caleb has raised $4,444 in “miscellaneous cash contributions,” with the biggest deposit for $280.

Caleb, right, with a campaign volunteer.
(Photo by M.Andersen/BikePortland)

The imbalance, Caleb says, is an obstacle but also a chance to emphasize who he is: a candidate who set out to give voice to “a lot of stuff that people cared about that is not represented in the political mainstream.”

Last month he scored the endorsement of the Portland Mercury. He was also endorsed early in his campaign by the local political action committee Bike Walk Vote on the strength of a policy questionnaire (PDF) in which he endorsed lowering all neighborhood speed limits to 20 mph, a citywide “emergency fund” that would immediately improve the sites of street fatalities, an Idaho-style stop law and a London-style anti-congestion charge on downtown motor vehicles.

Caleb’s questionnaire also noted, accurately, that in a city where mayors started bike-commuting in the 1980s, he would be the only member of the current city council who bikes to work.

“The campaign is structured around the right to the city,” said Caleb, who shares a 1998 Toyota Camry with his girlfriend but gets around mostly by bicycle. “The right to the city means that people who live, work, commute … they have the right to enjoy it. They have the right to be safe.”

Caleb at Sunday Parkways.
(Photo by Caleb for Council)

Born and raised in Klamath Falls, Oregon, Caleb moved to Portland to start attending Concordia as a student. He trained there as a scientist, but became interested in policy and attended the University of Oregon School of Law before spending a year in the Netherlands for a technology policy degree.

After stints as a cancer researcher, a policy advisor and a Democratic Party staffer in Washington County, Caleb moved back into academia in 2011. His teaching schedule is a smorgasbord to fit his varied interests: cultural geography, environmental sciences, introduction to biology and American government.

“I have kind of a weird background that only made sense once I was an adult,” he said. “I think I’m just kind of a weirdo in general.”

For someone who’s running for office with zero staff while holding down a full-time job, Caleb doesn’t come off as unprepared. He’s familiar with the social dynamics of the council and many details of his key policy area, housing and displacement, and has recruited policy wonks he trusts from years of social-justice work to provide policy positions on issues he doesn’t know as well.

But a campaign with neither staff or significant funding can only achieve so much — something Caleb seems to understand and take in stride.

Instead, he’s content to run for office more or less the way he drives a car: following rules of his own and hoping that it makes other people think twice about themselves.

Caleb says he himself is inspired by newly elected Seattle Councilwoman Kshama Sawant, the registered Socialist whose successful campaign last fall led Seattle, this month, to strike a deal to create the highest minimum wage in the country.

Sawant’s campaign persuaded Caleb that the act of running for office can change public perceptions of what’s politically possible.

“If nothing else comes out of this campaign, I hope that people take notice that there are large swaths of Portland that are totally unrepresented and are totally shut out of the media,” Caleb said.

Ballots in Tuesday’s election arrived by mail late last month. The deadline for mail votes has passed, but they can be delivered to any of these drop sites until 8 p.m. tomorrow.

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