Portlanders headed out to farmers markets, neighborhood restaurants and Timbers games soon will face a dramatic question: Will you help kick Mayor Ted Wheeler out of office?
The organizers behind “Total Recall PDX,” as the campaign to boot Wheeler from office branded itself, need to collect 47,788 valid signatures — 15% of the total number of Portlanders that voted in the 2018 gubernatorial election — to force a recall election. Their field director says they’re shooting to turn in 90,000 to be safe.
The group planned to begin collecting Friday, hours after city regulators approved the filing. They have until Sept. 29, according to the city elections officer.
It’s a big lift for a group of leftist volunteers with a little over $50,000 in contributions, no big-name backers and less than three months to convince a city that just went through a mayoral election to do it again.
Local political operatives say they can see it going either way. Many Portlanders, they say, have soured on the city’s leadership and feel the mayor has badly mishandled months of protests and a years-long homelessness crisis. Still, political experts warn an effort spearheaded by Portland’s far-left may not appeal to a large swath of the city — no matter how fed up they may be with Ted Wheeler.
“My interpretation of how they’re arguing for the case is really coming from a position of ... the hardcore sort of left of Portland. All the language about ‘Tear Gas Ted’ and the way that the city and the police have managed folks who are living on the streets and how they’ve managed protests — it’s all coming from the left,” said pollster John Horvick of DHM Research. “So I consistently wonder … are they limiting themselves by presenting themselves as really representing a faction of the city?”
The campaign appears aware of this potential stumbling block. The training handout suggests that if a passerby asks if “you folks are antifa” and whether the recall effort is part of “a leftist agenda,” the volunteer should respond that they are “nonpartisan and not affiliated with any previous mayoral candidates.” The suggested response to “What is wrong with Wheeler?” also seems to strive for middle ground, simply pointing to “his partnership with the Portland Business Alliance” and “his stance on homeless communities.”
The group’s argument to voters made in the recall filing similarly stays away from detailed allegations against Wheeler. The documents mention just one specific: Wheeler, the scion of a timber fortune first elected in 2016, loaning his campaign $150,000 of his own money during last year’s mayoral race. His opponents argued that violated the city’s campaign finance limits on self-funding, though the city auditor’s office dismissed the complaint.
The mayor’s office did not respond to an inquiry on the recall effort.
One question, many opinions
On Thursday afternoon, on the eve of what the campaign planned to be the first big day of signature gathering, there were early signs the campaign may have a broader appeal than some expected.
Roughly 20 volunteers gathered in a backyard of an office in the city’s Kerns neighborhood for training on how to collect signatures. There were familiar faces in the Portland activist scene and familiar condemnations of what critics on the left describe as Wheeler’s cozy relationship to big business, his poor treatment of homeless individuals and his struggles to control the police force he oversees.
But Robert Jennings, 57, wasn’t there for any of those reasons. In fact, he disagreed with some of them.
He felt the city was dirty — intolerably so.
“I’m just appalled at the way the city is, and the way the mayor is letting it fall apart under the guise of COVID,” said Jennings, a southeast Portland resident. “The trash, the vermin, the idea of just waiting it out, and not taking care of the aesthetic value of what when I moved here was the most beautiful city in the country.”
Jennings, who has lived in Portland since 2014, said he didn’t share the politics of many of his fellow volunteers. For one, he noted, he was the only one in the backyard not wearing a mask. And, while many on the left hold Wheeler responsible for the police misconduct at racial justice demonstrations last summer, he felt Wheeler had been too soft on demonstrators.
“I’m not a Republican, but it’s just awful,” he said. “I just want Wheeler out.”
He said he planned to recruit his friends to volunteer.
If the campaign collects enough valid signatures, Wheeler has about a week to decide whether to resign or face a recall election. Assuming the team hands the signatures in on the deadline and Wheeler wants to stay in office, Hansen said an election would likely be called for mid-November.
The ballot would contain just one question: Do you vote to recall Ted Wheeler from the office of mayor?
If a majority of voters say yes, Wheeler would need to vacate the office immediately. A special mayoral election would take place within 90 days.
Wheeler’s fiercest critics have been pushing to get him out of his office since he secured a second term last November. The mayor eked out a victory against challenger Sarah Iannarone, winning 46% of the vote to Iannarone’s 41%. The rest of the votes went to write-in candidates.
Public record advocate and lawyer Alan Kessler, who served as Iannarone’s attorney during the campaign, began the recall push weeks after the election. He said he expects the effort to have wide appeal across the political spectrum.
If you’re upset that there are too many needles on the streets and a faint smell of urine clings to the sidewalk, Kessler wants you to blame these livability issues on the fact that the mayor has not sufficiently funded safe needle exchange points or public bathrooms. If you’re concerned that children breathed in tear gas in their North Portland homes during the height of protests, he says, you can blame Wheeler for failing to ban the chemical. (The mayor ultimately banned CS gas, a widely used form of tear gas, last September.).
“Whichever political side somebody is coming at this from, there’s something to hate about Ted Wheeler,” he said.
Kessler originally formed the “Total Recall” PAC to try to recall both Wheeler and Commissioner Dan Ryan, who angered many on the left when he voted against further cuts to the police budget after advocating for them on the campaign trail. Kessler said Ryan was dropped from the recall effort because people had not remained nearly as outraged at him as they had at Wheeler.
Audrey Caines, campaign manager for the recall, said the campaign is focused only on ousting the mayor. They will not put forward a candidate to try and replace him.
“We have the one goal, which is to get Wheeler’s name on the ballot,” she said. “We don’t have our hands in anything else.”
What if they succeed?
No one has publicly announced plans to run if Wheeler is recalled. But that hasn’t stopped political insiders from speculating about who might should the opportunity arise. The list of would-be mayors mentioned includes Former Mayor Sam Adams — now an aide to Wheeler — Multnomah County Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson, and city Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who will be up for reelection in 2022.
It’s also possible someone could file for one of the three city council races that will be taking place in 2022 — and later switch to the mayoral race if the recall succeeds. Hardesty and Ryan, who won his seat in a special election last year, will both be up for re-election as will city Auditor Mary Hull Caballero. Candidates can file for those positions as early as Sept. 9.
And, for the first time, it’s possible a candidate will be able to switch races and still hold onto at least some of the money they collected through the city’s publicly financed election program.
The city’s Open and Accountable Election program, which matches candidate’s small-dollar donations sixfold, is currently silent on the issue of what to do if a candidate who has qualified to collect public money wants to switch races. Susan Mottet, the head of the program, said its advisory group recommended in June that the city council change city code to give the program leeway to clarify how a candidate using the program could switch races. She said the new rule could potentially require candidates to get permission from donors to apply the 6-1 match to the new race.
Mottet said she learned this was a gray area in the program rules last year after the city called a special election following the death of Commissioner Nick Fish. The program realized some publicly-financed candidates might want to switch from running for other open seats into the race to replace Fish. Ultimately, no one did.
She said she’s hoping the council will vote on the amendment as soon as next month — a vote that could get more complicated with the messy politics of a mayoral recall.
She emphasized the amendment was not meant to be political.
“The whole reason it’s even on the agenda is because of Commissioner Fish’s seat,” she said. “It was already being considered by the open and accountable elections commission before a mayoral recall was even a twinkle in anybody’s eye.”
As the recall effort gets underway, she said she has gotten clarity on one other issue: the mayor will not be able to use public funds to fight a recall if it makes the ballot.