It’s early in the morning on a recent day at the Ted Wheeler campaign and the office is a zoo. A pack of toddlers tumbles across the floor. “Wheeeee!” one them exclaims.
Wheeler is meeting with a group of housing activists, and he invited people to bring their kids. The grown-ups are with Portland Tenants United. They sit in a circle, and one by one, they introduce themselves.
“I’m a school lunch lady,” says Jenny Stein, from Northeast Portland. “If the rents keep going up, we’re not going to have people like us in town any more.”
Wheeler listens. He’s 53, tall with glasses and floppy hair. From the day he launched this campaign last fall, he’s made affordable housing the central issue. He talked about a run for governor before throwing his hat in the mayor’s race instead.
“Right now, what we’re seeing is massive displacement,” he says. “And we’ve got to find a way to mitigate that.”
Wheeler has proposed new rules to make it harder to evict people. He says he’ll create an office of landlord-tenant affairs.
But the issue for the activists here is where his loyalties lie. Wheeler is a somewhat unlikely champion for issues of income inequality and affordable housing. He’s a Stanford- and Harvard-educated money manager, and his father managed one of Oregon’s largest timber companies. His donors include developers and others who have profited from rising rents, names such as Homer Williams and Jay Zidell.
A woman named Rebecca interjects.
“You’re not a renter. You don’t face the kind of daily crisis that we face,” she says. “And I think a lot of us want to know, ‘What’s your personal motivation?’”
“That’s a good question,” Wheeler says. “My personal motivation is, our community is slowly being pulled apart.”
Wheeler admits he’s never worried about paying the rent. But he says the crisis stretches far beyond tenants. Displacement is hollowing out the city’s middle class. It affects everything; schools, traffic, the very fabric of Portland. Wheeler says giving tenants more protections is the first thing he’ll do if he’s elected.
“Right after you take office is always the best time to try to push change. Because you only become less and less well-liked as time goes on,” he says.
“Ask me how I know,” he adds, prompting laughter.
Wheeler has struggled at times to build relationships with colleagues. In March, Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury endorsed his strongest opponent in the race, Jules Bailey. Kafoury has been a colleague of both Wheeler and Bailey on the county board.
Bailey has suggested that Wheeler isn’t good at building coalitions, an important skill in Portland’s unique form of government. City Council members, including the mayor, serve as both legislators and administrators over city agencies.
While he doesn’t mention Bailey by name, Wheeler responds that he’s the only candidate with a strong record of executive experience. As state treasurer he manages about $90 billion. Under his leadership, the state’s pension funds have been highly rated.
And as Multnomah County chair, he was responsible for the county budget and a staff of thousands.
“When you get elected, you’re immediately handed the keys to a number of bureaus, some of which have multi-hundred million dollar budgets, and thousands of employees,” he says. “You don’t have to wonder whether or not I can lead in that kind of environment, because I’ve done it before.”
As treasurer, Wheeler has also received national recognition for his approach to one of the country’s looming problems: an entire generation that hasn’t saved enough for retirement. He championed an effort to create a state-run retirement fund for people who don’t get the benefit at work.
“The situation is actually much worse in Oregon that we thought it was. There’s a million people in this state who do not have access to a retirement vehicle through their place of employment,” he says.
But while Wheeler may have a long resume in elected office, lots of people in Portland have never heard of him. And he’s up against 14 others in the mayor’s race. So he heads out into the drizzle to knock on doors.
A woman answers the door.
“I’m curious to know if there are particular issues you’re concerned about and what they are, and what you’d expect the next mayor to do to address them,” Wheeler tells her.
Kelsey Gotch tells Wheeler she’s a barista, and she’s worried about the minimum wage and affordable housing. Then her cat slips out the door.
Wheeler runs after it and tries to coax it out from under a staircase. Herding cats may be an apt metaphor for running for mayor of Portland. Each of the past three mayors has only lasted one term.