A small man with disheveled hair and a rumpled grey suit steps up to the podium to speak before the Eugene City Council. The Council holds weekly public forums and he’s a familiar presence. His speech begins with a few impressive claims. He’s the popular vote winner in the 2016 mayoral election and over 6,000 people in Oregon’s fourth district consider him their congressional representative.
After declaring, “People say I have the best ideas,” he launches into his latest idea, prostitution. “Some people might have heard of this before, and they say, ‘Stefan Strek that sounds complicated’.” He continues, “And that’s a fair conjecture considering that most things involving sex with women are pretty complicated.”
The rest of his allotted three minutes are devoted to explaining how much legal prostitution could benefit the city, upping tourism and providing money for schools. By the time he leaves the podium there is a lot to unpack.
First there are his electoral claims. Strek did indeed run for mayor in 2016, he didn’t come close to winning the popular vote. He also competed in the Republican primary for Oregon’s 4th congressional district where he received about 6,000 votes or about three percent of all votes cast. Of course voting for someone in a primary does not mean you consider them your representative.
Then there are his claims about women. He cites a former pimp who apparently taught him in a public speaking class as saying, “Hoes will be hoes and there ain’t nothing you can do to stop them.” A pearl he calls one of the most profound feminist sentiments he’s ever heard. His biggest selling point for prostitution? It will allow men who aren’t as rich and attractive as himself to enjoy relations with beautiful women as he does.
Taken in total he appears disingenuous, boastful, bigoted and unintelligent, or at least deeply lacking in civics education. A set of qualities that reminds City Councilor Chris Pryor of President Trump.
Councilor Pryor in particular views Strek’s actions through the lense of shock comedy. He believes Strek shows up and speaks at public forums because they afford a televised setting for him to perform a routine. His main concern with Strek’s public persona is that sometimes he goes too far, as in the case of his prostitution speech.
That speech prompted a discussion on the council about how they might handle similarly disrespectful content in the future. Part of this discussion was how valuable these public forums actually are. The city has no obligation to hold these meetings but they do so out of a respect for civic engagement and free speech. A respect deeply strained by Strek’s performance. “We don’t censor anyone but we need certain rules of decorum and that crossed a line.” Said Pryor. Strek reflects this conversation by captioning a Facebook video of the speech, “City Council threatened to not do these public hearings anymore because of my speech tonight. Talk about stepping on the 1st Amendment, what is this, Soviet Russia?”
Greg Evans, another councilor, was less willing to claim that humor or entertainment was Strek’s motivation, but did concede that he found Strek entertaining at times. “He comes in with his suit on and he has wild ideas.” Evans said. “Some of my fellow councilors get more offended but usually I think he’s harmless and entertaining.” In response to Strek’s claim about winning the popular vote he laughed and said, “Well Lucy Vinis is mayor isn’t she? We don’t use an electoral college here so I think he must have gotten himself confused with the president.”
Stephen Leveckis, who voted for Strek in 2016, sees a third option between politician and entertainer. “I think he’s trying to stir things up.” Leveckis says. “I’m always a supporter of the people who want to create chaos like that.” Since 2016 Leveckis has been disappointed with Strek’s pivot from irreverent rabble rousing to Trump inspired comedy and hopes that someday he can use the political experience he’s gained to run on a serious platform.
Strek’s political career began when two separate factors motivated him to run for mayor. In part he was disappointed by the city’s mishandling of the new city hall project, two years later he’s still frustrated by the empty gravel lot. But, that wasn’t all, “The city was talking about a fireworks ban,” Strek explains. “And I love fireworks so that really motivated me to get out and do something.”
Strek petitioned his way onto the 2016 ballot representing the Federalist party and quickly discovered that he loved the exposure of campaigning. “I got to speak at forums and go to town-halls in all the neighborhoods,” he says. “It was really cool.”
The Stefan Strek sitting in the courtyard of Cafe Roma explaining this is totally unlike his public persona. He’s eschewed the suit for a neon green camouflage windbreaker and faded blue jeans. He’s eagerly consuming a pink smoothie as he speaks and his affect is generally akin to that of a stoned teenager.
He tends to trail off or stop speaking mid sentence and he aggressively avoids eye contact. At 28 he looks young for his age and he doesn’t stand out against the array of college students in the courtyard.
After his 2016 defeat, Strek became a fixture at the city council’s public forums and in 2018 decided to run for Congress. “When I was running for mayor there were a lot of people I talked to who said that they would vote for me if they could but they couldn’t because they lived outside the city so I decided to run for Congress.”
While Strek is talking, he’s approached by a wiry man with long white hair that flows from his temples and in thin wisps from the crown of his head. The man, who introduces himself as Thomas Stephens, wants to talk politics and Strek is happy to oblige.
Regaling Stephens with his Congressional campaign Strek gains back some of his political persona and bravado. Strek says that he got three percent of the vote in that race. “That’s pretty good for a third party, two percent is a good result” remarks Stephens. That number of course comes from a Republican primary, a point on which Strek fails to correct the record.
“I know at least a hundred people who would be very interested in supporting you.” Stephens says. “There’s a lot of people who want something new.” Stephens recounts his own history of political activism tracing back to the 1960s and immediately latches onto Strek as a vehicle for social change. “We need to form coalitions against fascism,” he explains after Strek departs. “That’s the most important thing.”
The most remarkable thing about Stephens’ impression of Strek is that he seems to pretty much take him at face value and embraces him for his potential to disrupt the system. This is perhaps Strek’s trick. He’s able to gain the support of radical leftists despite an official platform that cleaves close to that of President Trump. He’s done so by riding a wave of irreverent disdain for entrenched politics and an urgent thirst for change that seems to cover the entire political spectrum. Whether this anti-establishment groundswell will ever grow large enough to carry him into office is an open question.