‘Inappropriate’ comment derails light rail discussion

John Idsinga says he’s sorry.

The former Battle Ground mayor and current Battle Ground school board president didn’t mean to make anyone uncomfortable. He certainly didn’t mean to make a statement that some could construe as racially insensitive.

Let’s backtrack for a second, shall we. Last Thursday, Battle Ground held a sparsely attended forum on the Columbia River Crossing. The purpose of the meeting was for the city to receive feedback from citizens about the project (although the city has no real say in moving the project forward — or stalling it). The main sticking point, as usual, was whether to extend MAX light rail over a new I-5 bridge.

I wasn’t able to stick around for the entire meeting; that’s the rub when you have to meet a 9 p.m. deadline. I’d skipped out by the time the invisible talking stick had made its way to Idsinga, who wasn’t at the meeting in any official capacity. What he actually said is in dispute.

But a number of Battle Ground city councilors in attendance corroborate a particular story: It was Idsinga’s turn to speak his mind on the project. He prefaced his statement with something along the lines of, “Well, I have to be careful about how I phrase this.” There was a pregnant pause, and then he explained that he opposed a light rail line extending from Portland into Vancouver because there are streets in North Portland where white people aren’t welcome.

Something like that.

The subtext was: North Portland is a scary, scary place. Cue uncomfortable silence. “The room was stunned,” Councilor Alex Reinhold said. Idsinga apologized and said he didn’t mean to make it a racial thing.

Councilor Shane Bowman said the comment was shocking coming from a school board member. But he emphasized that he didn’t think Idsinga was “racist” (a view shared by Councilor Michael Ciraulo, who said Idsinga appeared appropriately apologetic after making the statement).

“When you’re an elected official, you need to be careful of what you say,” Bowman said.

Mayor Lisa Walters said the statement was inappropriate because Battle Ground has had a recent history of racism at its schools. (Sorry, the linked story is incomplete.)

Then there’s Idsinga’s perspective: He disputes he made a comment with such obvious racial overtones. He also denies that he prefaced his comment with something like, “Well, I have to be careful about how I phrase this.”

So what did he say? “I said there are some dark spots in North Portland,” Idsinga told me in a phone interview, “but there are bad white people too.”

On the grand spectrum of racial sensitivity, that’s probably not much better. He said he apologized because of how people could interpret that statement.

But, Idsinga said, his top concern is keeping kids safe. He opposes light rail because it could act as a backdoor to crime.

For many CRC opponents, light rail has long been tied to the “crime train” moniker. Hiding under the surface of that name is the supposition that Portland — North Portland in particular, more diverse racially and economically than the rest of the city — would bring bad elements to Clark County.

Reinhold said he’s had enough of that kind of talk.

 “The problem with the CRC is someone is always brings up the crime aspect,” Reinhold wrote in an email, “and it’s always attributed to either low-income, Latino or black people.”

He continued: “As far as I’m concerned, I won’t be going to any more forums like this, as they always get to the point where it makes me uncomfortable.”

Again, Idsinga says he’s sorry.

Tyler Graf

Tyler Graf

I started working for The Columbian in 2012 and currently cover Clark County. I'm a 2007 graduate of The University of Oregon. Contact me at tyler.graf@columbian.com

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