Coming off its first month of signature gathering, the campaign to boot Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler from office says it has gathered roughly 6,000 signatures - 7% of the way to the campaign’s stated goal with two months to go.
The campaign needs to collect at least 47,788 valid signatures by Oct. 6 to force a recall election. The campaign’s field director had said in early July that leaders were aiming to collect 90,000 signatures to be safe. In a release on Wednesday, the campaign said it had gathered 5,926 signatures as of Aug. 6.
Ballot initiative experts say all signs now point to the mayor sticking around to finish his second term, and the recall campaign fizzling fast.
“They’re roasted, toasted like the turkey on the table,” said Ted Blaszak, an Oregon-based ballot initiative consultant.
The push to oust Wheeler officially kicked off July 9, spurred by Portlanders who had soured on the city’s leadership and felt the mayor had egregiously mishandled protests and a homelessness crisis. The mayor had won reelection in November earning 46% of the vote to challenger Sarah Iannarone’s 41%. Public record advocate and lawyer Alan Kessler, who served as Iannarone’s attorney during the campaign, began planning for the recall weeks after the election.
Blaszak, who said he has qualified upwards of 30 measures in the state, noted the first few weeks of signature gathering should be some of the easiest for a campaign like the ‘Total Recall’ effort. He said it’s typically the time when those who are the most excited about the initiative would flock to the volunteers stationed at farmers’ markets and main streets to sign.
But that didn’t seem to happen this time around.
Blaszak said the campaign has about a quarter of what it should have at the four-week-mark in order to have a shot of getting on the ballot. He said, in his experience, a promising campaign should have upwards of 25,000 signatures at this stage.
The recall campaign indicated in a Wednesday press release that it knew the campaign was in jeopardy. The release stated signature gatherers had collected “significantly fewer” names than expected and needed to get 20,000 in the next two weeks to “realign with goals.”
Campaign organizers also said they would not be spending any money from new donations until they felt they had a clear path to victory. Instead, they were asking supporters to pledge donations, which they would only collect if they feel “certain the goal of 65,000 signatures is still possible.” The campaign has, so far, collected $90,000 and has a little over $45,000 on hand, according to their campaign finance filings.
Campaign Manager Audrey Caines said she believes the lackluster showing is partly the result of not having enough money to hire paid signature gatherers, which she said was a winning tactic of most successful ballot initiatives. But she also said unexpected public health dangers deserved some of the blame: namely, unusually high temperatures and a surge of delta variant, which prohibited large gatherings.
Another heat wave that started on Tuesday threatens to wreak more havoc on the campaign’s plans. Caines said they were not asking their paid signature gatherers to go out if the temperatures hit 95. Forecasts show Wednesday through Friday will have highs in the triple digits.
She said she believed the campaign still had a shot as Wheeler remained deeply unpopular. The summer has given Wheeler’s critics plenty of new material to point to, including a record-high number of shootings and a recent return of armed far-right groups clashing violently with counterprotesters with no police in sight. Wheeler is in charge of the police bureau and his handling of the force partially launched the effort to recall him from office.
To get back on track, Caines said the campaign had two options. They are looking to either have donors pledge a total of $75,000 by August 21, so they could pay people to gather signatures. Caines said the campaign currently has four paid signature gatherers. Or they need 200 volunteers to commit to gathering 100 signatures each in two weeks.
“That’s our best understanding of the best path forward at the moment,” Caines said. “At that [two-week] point, we’ll have to make a determination of next steps.”
Blaszak said he felt the difficulty the campaign was running into went beyond record-shattering heat, a resurgence of COVID cases, or a small campaign haul. He believed the root of the problem was the middle-of-the-road messaging.
“They were trying to come at it from both the left and the right, they were being vague,” he said. “I didn’t see them having a clear message.”
The campaign, spearheaded by activists on the left, often seemed to be catering to a voter somewhere in the middle of the political spectrum. The group’s pitch to voters made in the recall filing mentions just one specific: Wheeler loaning his campaign $150,000 of his own money during the mayoral race last year. (His opponent argued the loan violated the city’s campaign finance limits on self-funding, though the city auditor dismissed the complaint.)
Others said they heard the message of the recall effort loud and clear - they just didn’t like it. Early supporter Robert Jennings, 57, had originally told OPB that he planned to collect signatures throughout the campaign. At a signature-gathering event in early July, he had described himself as more moderate than much of the crowd, vexed with Wheeler for being too soft on protesters.
Jennings said he’d since dropped out of the recall effort, perturbed by some of the less substance-focused commentary he’d seen on Twitter from people associated with the campaign and frustrated he could not get an answer from campaign leaders as to how many signatures they had gathered.
“They’re approaching it from an angle that’s humiliating,” he said. “I don’t want to be grouped into this.”
The mayor’s office did not respond to an inquiry for this story. They have, in the past, citing a policy of not commenting on the recall effort.
Correction: A previous version of this story listed the incorrect date for when the Mayor Ted Wheeler recall campaign must deliver valid signatures. Signatures are due by Oct. 6. OPB regrets the error.