For a little while Thursday morning, around 100 or so people in a board room at the Multnomah County headquarters in Southeast Portland were riveted by one man’s tale of contrition and redemption. That man was not Jeff Cogen.
He spoke eloquently about the troubles he had been through, how he had recognized the mistakes he had made and how he had worked his life back on the right path.
That man was not Jeff Cogen, the chairman of the County Commission, who had just cast the one vote to kill a resolution from his four colleagues demanding that he step down.
The man they were listening to was 49-year-old Sam Oliver.
Sam’s a graduate of the re-entry enhancement program run by Volunteers of America.
“I had been arrested 42 times over the years,” he said after testifying on behalf of a proclamation making this Pretrial, Probation and Parole Supervision Week. “My life was a mess. Things were really bad.”
His arrests ran the gamut from assault to cocaine and heroin possession. He had put his family at risk.
“There was little that I wasn’t getting into,” he said. “I was in and out of jail, looking for trouble and running.”
Oliver said he had spent much of his early years running from abuse at the hands of his father.
“I didn’t want to think about what had happened,” he said. “It was only when I started to think about things that stuff started to turn around. I had to realize that I didn’t want my life to be like that anymore.
“Before I started being honest with myself, it was just a bad cycle. I would do something wrong, go to jail, get out and return to my life of crime.”
Oliver told the commissioners that once he recognized that he needed to change – not just talking about changing – that life started to improve. A key part was having a support system in place.
“It was so important for me to have places to go and people to support me,” he said after. “Beforehand, I was released several times and would just continue my life of crime. Afterward, things started to come together.”
Oliver talked about how people can have shortcomings, how they can make mistakes and how they can still come back in a positive way.
While there is no question that his story is poignant and moving, it was also pertinent to at least one prominent member of the audience.
Not long before Oliver spoke, everyone’s focus was on Cogen.
Since admitting to an 18-month affair with one of his top policy aides – an affair that is now the subject of a criminal investigation to see if county funds were misspent – Cogen has been referred to as a large “distraction” by his fellow commissioners.
People who had been close to Cogen were urging him to step aside and focus on his family and rebuilding his credibility.
When it was his turn to speak, Cogen – like Oliver would a little bit later – spoke of his family, of the hurt he has caused people.
“I’m deeply sorry and I hope that I will be able to work to reduce this pain,” he said. “None of us is bigger than the work of the people.”
While Cogen was saying what appeared to be the right things, he remained silent after a self-proclaimed friend of his launched into personal attacks on his fellow commissioners.
When he cast his vote – the only one in defense of him – he did so with a thundering, “No.”
Later, after Oliver made his presentation, Cogen, who spent much of the meeting smiling and looking off, said: “You’re an inspiration at a time when some of us need inspiration.”
It remains to be seen just how inspired Cogen really is.