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An Artist in City Hall
Ron Paul interviewed
by Miriam Knight
Ron Paul

It is hard to think of Ron Paul as a bureaucrat. How did a restaurateur come to be Chief of Staff to Charlie Hales, the City Commissioner for Planning & Development, Transportation, and Arts & Culture? It was probably a combination of being in the right place at the right time and the two personalities resonating with each other, but wouldn’t it be nice if it were indicative of a new wave of politico – one with soul who takes a holistic approach to his job? In fact, Ron likens his work to holistic medicine, where prevention is as important as treatment. He feels strongly that politicians should ascribe to their own form of Hippocratic Oath – first do no harm.

Ron Paul comes from a family of lawyers – father, mother, brothers and even wife. His mother never gave up hoping he would follow suit. In one classic exchange, she was going on about how being a lawyer would open the door to the finer things in life, like smoked salmon and caviar. Thinking he had the ultimate argument Ron said, “But Ma, I can get them for you wholesale!” Without missing a beat, his mother neatly overtrumped and declared, “See, I knew you should be a lawyer!”

Although he built up successful chain of restaurants bearing his name, from all reports Ron was too nice for the restaurant business. He believed in things like nurturing employees and providing superb food at reasonable prices. Ron has the sensibility of an artist and views cooking as an art form. In fact, he points to a growing awareness in the Pacific Northwest of food as a fine art. It is the ultimate in the performing arts – ephemeral and never the same twice - but when food is commerce-driven, there can be no sense of food as fine art. One of his pipe dreams was to create a studio for cooking funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. Who knows, maybe in the new world he is helping to create…

One of the most interesting aspects of Paul’s character is how he has gone about reinventing himself, moving from artist to entrepreneur to politician. He believes that we are retooling ourselves all the time. When arriving at life’s inevitable intersections, we only need a bit of courage to change the warp and weft of our lives. Just look at what interesting tapestries can emerge.

Ron feels particularly fortunate to be working with Charlie Hales. He sees the three elements in Hales’ portfolio as being related in a higher order to “a sense of place,” and the two share a vision of the essence Portland. “Charlie” he says, “is trying to refine the ‘goût de terroir’ of Portland,” that particular character that the native soil gives to a fine wine. By providing the right infrastructure and planning they hope to nurture the joy and excitement of the city’s cultural alternatives and choices. “It is rather like a tapestry that needs to be woven together.”

When asked how radical a departure politics was from the world of the arts, he responded, “There is still room for creativity, but most of the work is reviewing and revising the work of others, rather than creating from scratch. It is rather like making sausage – you can appreciate it when it is done, but you don’t necessarily want to know what went into it.” He doesn’t think we have the right balance yet in the arts, primarily because of lack of funding. Ron feels that art has a transcendental value that informs what life is really about. Unfortunately, “there is not the same consciousness of its importance at the State level, so we need to tap into local philanthropy.”

Illustrating his holistic approach, Ron described how artists are invited into the early planning stages of local projects in order to make them a more aesthetic experience. They cooperate with volunteer organizations on beautification projects such as Sharrett Square, and have agreed with City Repair’s Mark Lightman on other areas in which to create special places. He points out that our only true public space, as opposed to parks, is Pioneer Square, and that they have plans to explore other potential areas.

One of the projects clearly close to Ron’s heart is establishing a permanent 6 or 7 day a week home for the Portland Farmers Market. The focus will be on fresh and prepared foods and the feasibility study started a year ago. Portland had a rich history of markets up to 1941 when the city expanded to the suburbs. The sites under consideration have been narrowed down to a handful of central locations on both the east and west side, and a final recommendation is expected by spring. It is clear that the project doesn’t pencil as a private development, so it will be based on a public/private partnership. The vendor community will provide the backbone of the operating income, but private philanthropy will be needed to supplement public funds.

One hopes that more of this kind of thinking will permeate both the city and City Hall. Churchill once said that people get the type of government they deserve. Ron Paul said, “You can tell the soul of a city by the way people look at you when you pass. The joy of life has to be nurtured.”

And how do you do that? “By lightening up a little,” he said with an infectious grin.

Right on, Ron…