Not What She Ordered

Vanessa Sturgeon would like to speak to the manager

Vanessa Sturgeon — one of Portland, Oregon’s most powerful and wealthy and politically connected real estate developers — is not happy.

She is not happy about Covid, homeless people, protestors, and how much money all of those things are costing her — as if all of those things were not also simultaneously affecting every other person on earth. She’s even unhappy about aluminum cans.

But unlike the rest of us, when Sturgeon is not happy, she does not need to ask to speak to the manager, she has them on speed dial: the police, the mayor, and even the governor — anyone and everyone whom she can complain to about her order arriving incorrectly. And very much unlike the service the rest of us receive, those officials jump to pacify her.

When she can’t get what she wants from those people (not necessarily due to their unwillingness), Sturgeon simply forces things to happen on her own. After all, she herself is one of Portland’s most persuasive and visible building managers.

Through her role as CEO of TMT Development and her position on the board of the Portland Business Alliance, Sturgeon has strategically threatened tenants with eviction, employed armed security guards that many view as unnecessary and excessive, and has even privately funded Portland Police Bureau officers.

However, recent events — including a fatal shooting — have shed light on Sturgeon’s privileged position as Oregon’s Karenest of Karens, and call into question the sincerity of her self-proclaimed “passion to help those who struggle with inequity.”

BottleDrop

At the beginning of the first wave of Covid in spring 2020, as the rest of us tried to navigate the uncertain landscape, Sturgeon was busy making life more difficult for impoverished people simply trying to survive.

She did this by taking issue with the crowds forced to cash out their recyclables at a BottleDrop in TMT’s Delta Park shopping center — grocery stores were not obligated to exchange them at that time, forcing more people than usual up to BottleDrop.

Sturgeon first threatened the business with eviction (a tactic she uses frequently) for “violating” the stay at home order, “defaulting” on its lease agreement, and failing to limit the number gathering to exchange their cans — citing “drug dealing and fights” among the business’s queued patrons.

In an email to BottleDrop, Sturgeon said, “This situation has become combustible; it is only a matter of time before someone is hurt or killed.” However, she failed to cite a single incident of “violence or disturbance.”

Sturgeon then herded the crowd over to a vacant lot that was fenced off for them. She also hired armed security guards to keep the crowd there, out of the main parking lot and away from Delta Park’s classier clientele, like Lowe’s, whose complaint brought the “situation” to Sturgeon’s attention.

“While I certainly understand the access to income argument, it’s really difficult for us, morally, to understand how a few dollars in can retrieval money is the priority over the basic health and safety of a very vulnerable population,” Sturgeon was quoted by the Oregonian as saying — an extraordinarily tone-deaf sentiment from a multi-millionaire.

For many of the people forced to shuffle through Sturgeon’s cement maze under the watchful eye of armed guards as the world scarily crumbled around them, those “few dollars” were a main source of income. It was their food money, it was for their survival.

Sturgeon apparently hoped that the people, their cans, and their needs would simply disappear.

TriMet

As if all of that wasn’t bad enough, Sturgeon used her considerable political influence to make these poor recyclers’ lives even more miserable.

She did this by contacting Governor Brown’s Chief of Staff, Nik Blosser, on a Sunday, describing the BottleDrop situation as “dangerous.” (For Karens, it’s enough to imagine the absolute worst-case scenario and then behave as though it’s already happened.) Blosser responded within hours, promising that a policy advisor would look into the problem right away.

Less than a month later, Sturgeon and Governor Brown had their solution to the “problem” of poor people daring to show up — to the one place they could — and exchange their bottles for a “few dollars.”

That solution was a publicly-funded TriMet bus, of course, from Rose City Transit Center to the middle of nowhere — literally next to the railroad tracks — which impoverished people could ride, every day, feeling like important business commuters, but with dripping bags of recyclables instead of briefcases, in the middle of a fucking pandemic, with all the attendant risks.

This “solution” controverted Sturgeon’s assertion that her concern was for the “health and safety of a vulnerable population.” It instead suggests that she just didn’t want to see or hear any more complaints about homeless people and their bags of garbage.

The bus line may not have even been a solution, period. Undoubtedly you can think of far simpler, cheaper, and safer ways for the homeless to get a damn sandwich (simply giving them sandwiches comes to mind), rather than forcing them to run a Covid obstacle course hastily arranged to quiet a rich lady’s tantrums.¹

Oh, and the bus was “free” only to Sturgeon and the riders: It cost taxpayers $71,000 per month to operate. For the month of May 2020, it ferried only 907 riders — approximately 30 people a day — at a cost of nearly $80 per ride.

That is to say, it was not even a cost-effective non-solution, certainly nothing that Sturgeon would tolerate in her business — she will not even pay the union workers she promised to hire the last time she wanted the city to exempt her from local regulations.

And $71,000 a month unquestionably could have purchased a lot of sandwiches.

Delta Park shooting

It didn’t take long for Sturgeon’s hysterical warning that it was “only a matter of time before someone is hurt or killed” to come to pass: One of TMT’s armed Delta Park security guards shot a man to death in front of Lowe’s on May 29, 2021.

The man, Freddy Nelson Jr., was shot four times through his truck’s windshield by Cornerstone Security Group guard Logan Gimbel, who was not licensed or certified to carry a gun at the time. Gimbel did so after apparently barking orders to Nelson and his wife, and pepper-spraying them. Portland Police are still investigating the incident.

There was little outrage or analysis after the shooting, perhaps due to Sturgeon’s ability to influence such things, but as reporter Rebecca Ellis of Oregon Public Broadcasting said in her intensive and excellently researched article on the shooting, “[Nelson’s] death serves as a case study for another notable law enforcement problem the city is grappling with: powerful business interests turning to private security to do the work of police officers, enabling them to wield force against vulnerable Portlanders with a fraction of the oversight.”

Yeah… about that.

Private police and prosecutions

Sturgeon is the former chair of the Board of Directors of the Portland Business Alliance (PBA), Portland’s Chamber of Commerce, which advocates “for business at all levels of government.” She is at the center front of this photo, fully indicating her prominence and influence at the PBA.

PBA is an affiliate partner of Downtown Clean & Safe — an “enhanced service district” in Portland — which provides “extraordinary” cleaning and safety services to a 213-block area of the city. Sturgeon is on their Board of Directors, as well.

PBA pays the salaries of four Portland Police Bureau (PPB) officers who work exclusively in the Clean & Safe zone. That is to say, those four officers are regular PPB officers, but they know that their salaries are paid by the business interests whose turf they patrol. As writer Tyler Walicek of Teen Vogue said in his piece on Portland business districts, “These are public employees invested with the power to carry out the full spectrum of policing actions while on the corporate payroll.”

More ominously, the Clean & Safe website asserts that it “contracts with… the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office to provide enhanced security in the core 213-block area.”

In other words, the powerful business interests and landlords not only have their privately funded police, they also have apparently direct access to prosecution.

The Multnomah DA’s spokesperson did not respond to requests to confirm any “contract” with their office, and it may very well be residual language on the Clean & Safe website from when from the tenure of former DA Rod Underhill, when a deputy DA was funded by another enhanced service district.

The current District Attorney, Mike Schmidt, doesn’t appear to be the kind of elected official to give in to private influence or interests — or even to be impressed by their displays of power and wealth.

Still, one wonders how many arrests have been made that were at the behest of one of the powerful businesspeople at the helm of PBA, such as Sturgeon; whether those arrests were warranted; and if any of them were excessively or unreasonably prosecuted before DA Schmidt arrived.

What we do know is that Vanessa Sturgeon, her family, and TMT Development have a way of getting themselves out of criminal charges and getting others into them. Sturgeon seems to have no shortage of public agencies and officials (and reporters!) to call upon during her times of need, and she almost never seems to lose in court… for some reason.

Extraordinary access

All of this should disturb people, even if they have never heard of Vanessa Sturgeon, and even if they have no reason to be concerned that they could run afoul of her interests, or annoy her with their poverty during a public health crisis.

Hers is not the kind of influence that a landlord should be able to brandish — even if she owned every building in the entire city and rented them back to the very agencies she calls upon in her times of need.

Sturgeon particularly should not be permitted to masquerade her conduct as concern for vulnerable people or public service to the community — or disguise her access to police and prosecution as a means of providing “extraordinary” safety to the city.

And if and when the lines between public and private are so obscured, such as they are with the four Portland Police Bureau officers and a deputy District Attorney, it would not be unreasonable to expect an audit of their arrests and prosecutions, to identify and expose any undue influence at work.

Until that happens, maybe we should all try to live by the personal philosophy that Sturgeon espouses on TMT’s website: “Love what you have.” Although, admittedly, that is far easier to do when you have the resources of a billionaire and nobody around to tell you no.

¹ For future reference: if a wealthy developer comes at you crying “danger” and claiming that impoverished people need their own bus line (away from her and her property) on your dime, the only acceptable answer is “no,” especially if she cannot back up her claims of “danger.” You should certainly not call her back ten minutes later and ask “how high” she wants you to jump.

² A request was submitted following the Delta Park shooting for records between “Mayor Wheeler’s office and staff at TMT Development, including Vanessa Sturgeon, from March 25, 2020 until present.” The first estimate for those records was $135.97 which seemed very reasonable. A week later, that estimate was revised to $1,631.64, tenfold the original amount, indicating a significant volume of contacts Sturgeon and her staff had with the mayor’s office. As an aside, the Governor’s Office fulfilled a similar request without charge.