Portland City Council Candidate Jesse Cornett has backed down from a claim he made in an interview with the Portland Observer (April 21 issue) that he worked with a former Portland State University student to bring more diversity to the athletic departments of Oregon’s public universities.
In 2009, the Legislature passed a bill requiring all state universities to interview at least one minority candidate for athletic coaching positions. The proposal was modeled after the National Football League’s “Rooney Rule,” which was shaped by Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney and adopted in 2003.
Cornett, who worked as director of government relations at PSU, told the Portland Observer that he worked with one of the university’s alums, Sam Sachs, to get the Legislature to pass the landmark bill.
“As somebody who feels pretty darn lucky with my career in that process, I realized that I had all the chances in the world because I got to sit down face –to-face with people and talk, and that’s how you get the doors to open,” said Cornett in an interview with the Portland Observer last month. “And so I became convinced that because of the lack of diversity that Oregon should lead the way on that and was proud to lead the university in support of that bill.”
But people at PSU involved with the issue say Cornett was not a strong advocate for the legislation.
“He never supported it,” said Sachs who lobbied to Legislature for the landmark bill’s passage. “He didn’t work with me.”
Avel Gordly, a former African American state senator who now teaches at PSU, described Cornett as a “barrier” of the proposal until the final stages of its passage.
“He was in no way an advocate or champion for the legislation,” said Gordly, who added that Cornett’s claim raises issues of integrity.
Dalton Miller-Jones, professor of Psychology at PSU, also contends in an e-mail that Cornett was not a champion for the bill.
When confronted with these discrepancies, Cornett wrote in an e-mail exchange that PSU was neutral on the bill, until just before a final hearing when it “wisely” decided to support it. Cornett was employed as PSU’s director of governmental relations at the time, and said that his prodding helped get the bill to a final hearing and eventual passage.
Praising Sachs for the bill’s eventual adoption, he wrote, “I have no right to take any [credit] on the Rooney Rule [bill].”
Rep. Mitch Greenlick, a Portland Democrat who was a primary sponsor of the bill, also said that he had no direct contact with Cornett on the issue.
The bill, which made Oregon the first state in the union to have such a requirement, passed both the Oregon House of Representative and Senate overwhelmingly.
People on both sides of the issue say PSU was neutral on the bill, citing concerns about a one-size-fits-all mandate, until after it passed the House and went to the Senate. As the final hearing approached, Torre Chisolm, PSU athletic director, then came out in support.
Miller-Jones said that by that time the bill was set for passage, and the support from PSU mattered little.
“PSU didn’t have any bearing,” said Sachs, added that Democratic State Senators Mark Haas and Margaret Carter deserve the credit for getting the bill passed in the final stages. “Jesse had no role in this.”
In a later e-mail, Cornett maintains that what he said was correct from his perspective, and argues that his behind-the-scenes work was instrumental in getting the bill passed in the final stages.
In another phone interview, Cornett said that his claim that he “worked with” Sachs could boil down to the definition of “with,” arguing that because he did ultimately advance the bill he was working with Sachs for the same goals.