Think Out Loud

Mayor Ted Wheeler on the challenges and opportunities facing Portland

By Rolando Hernandez (OPB)
Sept. 12, 2023 10:02 p.m.

Broadcast: Thursday, Sept. 14

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, during an interview with OPB’s Dave Miller at Portland City Hall, Sept. 14, 2023. Wheeler announced on Wednesday that his will not be seeking a third term as mayor.

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, during an interview with OPB’s Dave Miller at Portland City Hall, Sept. 14, 2023. Wheeler announced on Wednesday that his will not be seeking a third term as mayor.

Sheraz Sadiq / OPB


On Wednesday, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler announced he will not seek a third term as mayor in 2024, and instead focus over the next 15 months on addressing the city’s “critical challenges” such as homelessness, public safety and economic recovery. Last month, Mayor Wheeler asked for nearly 100 Oregon state troopers to help tackle crime in the city. He made his suggestion at the first meeting of the new task force convened by Gov. Tina Kotek to develop a plan to revive Portland’s downtown business district. Meanwhile, city officials have yet to enforce a daytime ban on camping that started in July, the same month that the first of six large outdoor shelter sites for people experiencing homelessness opened in Southeast Portland. We’ll talk to Mayor Wheeler about his vision for the city, the challenges it faces and the voter-approved overhaul of how it is governed.

Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller, coming to you today from Portland City Hall. We are here to talk with Mayor Ted Wheeler. Yesterday, he announced he will not seek a third term. He says he’ll focus instead on addressing Portland’s critical challenges, including homelessness and public safety and downtown’s economic recovery.

Mayor Wheeler, thanks for making time for us and making space for us in City Hall.

Mayor Ted Wheeler: Thank you. We’re glad you’re here.

Miller: When did you decide you didn’t want to run for mayor next year?

Mayor Wheeler: I made a final decision about a week ago. I was leaning fairly strongly in the direction of not seeking a third term, but there were a number of people whose advice I trust that I wanted to bat back and forth different ideas. But at the end of the day, I decided I can’t do it all. I can’t manage the crises we have here in the city of Portland while fundamentally changing the form of government in response to the voters voting to create a new city charter. I couldn’t do all that and run a political campaign at the same time. Those two things just don’t mix.

Miller: Four years ago, there were a lot of crises that you were managing - a lot. There wasn’t fentanyl on the streets the way there is now and there was not a city government overhaul, but it wasn’t like things were all rosy in the rose city. What’s different about you now?

Mayor Wheeler: Well, first of all, I would say that I have platinum armor. From the moment I took office, I’ve been engaged in crisis management. A few weeks in, I got my first calls to be recalled. You’ll remember we had an unprecedented series of weather. Ice storms came in and shut the city down. After that, we had conflict between the Proud Boys and Antifa. After that, we had the max train violence. After that, we had the passing of our beloved friend Nick Fish that left us scrambling to figure out how to run a government with four commissioners. After that, of course, we’ve had the global pandemic economic shutdowns. We have had an explosion in the homeless crisis and these new drugs that you just mentioned, Dave - P2P meth, fentanyl. They’re wreaking havoc on our streets…

Miller: But a lot of what you’re mentioning was in your first term or at the beginning of or at the end of your first term.

Mayor Wheeler: Absolutely. What’s different now though is in addition to managing those crises…and we’ve reinvented city government during my term to create new strategies, new programs, new collaborations to do that. But we’re also fundamentally changing the form of government in response to the voters overwhelmingly passing charter reform. So we’re managing crises on one hand. And then on the other hand, we are completely reinventing the way the city of Portland is governed.

Miller: I can imagine, though, that cutting two ways for you - because after one in three quarters terms of being a kind of the biggest lightning rod in city government - without the actual authority that many Portland may mistakenly think that you have, I could imagine that the idea of wielding much more executive power as a new kind of Portland mayor would be really enticing, especially for somebody who has been a so called weak mayor. Not you as an individual, but holding the position that just has a lot less executive power. I mean, setting aside the question of how much time you have in a day, isn’t that enticing to you?

Mayor Wheeler: I think there’s pros and there’s cons to it. I think it is yet to be determined how the structure of government will function day to day. And that really is gonna depend on the strength of the personalities and the willingness to build coalitions of support for the mayor’s initiatives. Remember, the mayor, under the new form of government, doesn’t preside over the council as I do today. And the mayor will have to build a coalition of support on the council in order to introduce anything to the city council.

Miller: So legislatively, it’s very different, but in terms of the power over how the city functions day to day, the next mayor will have a lot more power through the manager.

Mayor Wheeler: I agree. But to be clear, I was very straightforward with why I’m not seeking another term. And let’s think about this for a minute. Let’s play it out. If I announced yesterday that I was running for a third term, everything I do over the course of the next year would be seen through the lens of, well, he’s just  politicizing this, he’s playing politics, he’s trying to get reelected. I need to focus on solutions, not politics.

But I also will tell you that there was more to the decision than what was in my letter. And I think that’s what you’re getting at. Is this really just a matter of time and priorities or is there more? My daughter, as you remember, Dave, was three months old when I was first sworn in as Multnomah County chair back in 2007. She’s been on this whole ride with me from the beginning. As it turns out she’s in the class of 2025. I’m looking forward to spending some time with her not having this job constantly intervene.

There is a mental and emotional toll that this job takes and I’ve been doing it for quite a while. And frankly, I think it’s appropriate at this point as we shift to a new form of government to have new leadership come in and take it where it can go. I think Portland’s best days are ahead of us. But I see new energy, new ideas coming to the table and some really great leveraging opportunities with this new form of government.

Miller: This idea that if you had announced that you were gonna run again for a third term, that everything you do between now and then would be seen through political lenses or seen as a political decision. The implication of that is that since you didn’t, you’re freer now or at least because you won’t be seen as political, you could do what you want. I mean, I should say that in the press conference that I watched earlier this morning, you sounded like your old self. You didn’t sound like “Wheeler gone wild.” Do you feel freer now to say things differently, to be more blunt about anything, about local governmental partners, about the issues we’re facing, about anything in the city?

Mayor Wheeler: Well, I have a fundamental belief, which is, it serves nobody’s best interest for the city or the county or the state or Metro or even our federal partners to bash each other in public. That’s really not what the public wants. It shakes their confidence that any of us know what we’re doing or how we’re gonna get things done because we do have to work together. So I do have those conversations. I have very blunt conversations with all of my colleagues, but I do it behind closed doors. I just don’t think it’s helpful to anybody’s interest to whine or argue or complain about other governments in public.

Miller: I take your point and maybe my question implied, are you now going to speak ill about your other elected officials? But I guess I’m thinking in a different way…

Mayor Wheeler: I’m going to continue to push them publicly, absolutely. There’s things we need from county government, there’s things we need from the governor and the state and we will be very clear and public about what those needs are.

Miller: And you have been with policy disagreements with the county, for example. But I’m just wondering if already you feel that anything is lifted off your shoulders? If you feel more free in any way because you’re not running for office? Because what you said earlier was that the decisions you make might be seen as political, but that’s an external thing. It’s not the way you yourself are going to act.

Mayor Wheeler: I can think of one. They’ll probably be myriads of ways that this impacts me, impacts my colleagues over the course of the next year and a quarter. One obvious way is I think I’m in a better position to negotiate with my colleagues on the city council about how quickly we transition to the new form of government. We can’t wait until January 1, 2025 to move to the new form of government. We have to do it sooner rather than later. That’s not only doing things like renovating the offices here in City Hall, which could cause great inconvenience to those currently located here. We obviously have to create the rank choice voting system and that is under way. But importantly, we have to appoint an interim city manager prior to 2025 and we have to move all of the bureaus under the interim city manager. Where this would have become problematic is if I was running for mayor and having all of the bureaus consolidated under a city manager who reports to me, that would be seen as a power grab. I’m sure of it.

But now I can work with my colleagues in a less politicized environment and talk about what we need to do to move this form of government successfully into 2025 with a new council and a new mayor.

Miller: When I was writing questions for you yesterday, I literally wrote, “I want to turn to homelessness.” And then I realized that I’ve probably said that line to you 10 times or more over the last seven years. Maybe [also] said “I want to start with homelessness.” Why is this issue so intractable?

Mayor Wheeler: Because homelessness is a manifestation of many different crises all rolled into one. People are homeless for different reasons. The solutions therefore have to be multi-faceted. For example, some people are homeless because they’ve lost a job or they’ve been forced out of a living arrangement and they can no longer afford to live here in what’s a relatively expensive city to live. Other people have unaddressed behavioral health issues or substance use disorders. Others still are disabled or they have health problems, others still just don’t have the skill set they need or the job experience to be successful in the current economic climate. They need job training and skills development. People are homeless for a lot of different reasons. So we are creating multiple approaches.

I wanna really highlight one of the key challenges. The city has nothing to do with homelessness or human services traditionally and historically. . We don’t have the people we don’t have the expertise. We don’t get the federal funding or the state funding for those purposes. But under my administration, we have moved significantly towards connecting people on the streets with services they need to get off and stay off the streets. And that means including looking at our larger scale campsites, setting up our own contractual relationships with service providers who do provide those services. That’s one of the challenges. But I think it’s a necessary step for us to take, to address homelessness.

Miller: The city’s daytime homeless camping ban has been on the books since July. Your office has said that the summer has been the education piece of the rollout of the ban and enforcement will happen at some point, it seems in the fall. Your office has not given us a timeline yet and says that it doesn’t make sense to give an arbitrary date. But at some point, your office says this will happen. And then what? I mean, how do you imagine enforcement is going to work and what do you think enforcement will actually lead to?

Mayor Wheeler: Yeah. Good question. And so here’s the way we see it in my office. First of all, you’re right, we’re informing people, we have some legal obligations to identify specific sites. So we drafted maps [and] we’ve been handing those out to service providers. We have, I believe, a moral obligation to work with those organizations that will be directly impacted by this. Think about the county libraries, think about day centers, think about others who provide safe spaces for people during the day. They will see an increase in volume in the need for their services. So we’ve been working closely with them.

Miller: Something that they said they’re worried about.

Mayor Wheeler: Yes and legitimately. And then the Portland Police Bureau, of course, they will have to enforce all of this. And then we have other service providers who are just doing outreach, like Urban Alchemy. They’re not enforcing anything but they’re out there trying to make connections with people, build trust and help them get off the streets before we have to deal with this at all.

We are, within a matter of weeks, I’m being told by my staff who are the subject matter experts on this, when we will begin enforcement.

Miller: So within a month, you can say.

Mayor Wheeler: I think that’s a realistic timeline, maybe slightly longer, but that’s a realistic timeline. But what the public should expect is not a blanket citywide enforcement because we do not have the capacity to do that. And I wanna be really clear, but the police see this as giving them more flexibility and an added tool to address the problem spots more quickly. And so that is gonna be the initial focus.

I’m fighting hard for us to have more police presence in the city as well as more officers generally all across the city. And as we build that capacity, which we are slowly doing, then we will be able to enforce more broadly.

Miller: Obviously, that interaction is just the beginning of the enforcement of the ban, that the two versions of the penalty - if I understand it correctly - are either a fine that very likely somebody wouldn’t be able to pay, or jail time, which the DA told KGW [that he] doesn’t see being used realistically. So, where is that? And there’s also, I think, implicitly a sweep or somebody being moved along. So if a fine is maybe not gonna be paid, if jail time is often not a likely scenario, then where does that leave us?

Mayor Wheeler: Well, again, keep in mind this is one of many strategies that we’re pursuing. In an ideal world, what happens is our task sites grow to the scale…

Miller: The larger city sanctioned camps. I should say, well, camps singular, [with] plans for more.


Mayor Wheeler: Correct. And right now we have 137 people in our first site. We have a full waiting list. We’re bringing people in, in small numbers, which is the best practice, but it’s very successful. In an ideal world, we tell people, look, you can’t camp here because I wanna get rid of all of the unsanctioned camps everywhere in the city. That should be our goal. You can’t camp here, but we have this opportunity for you over here. You’ll be assigned a case manager, you’ll be connected to services, whatever they are and you will be navigated to housing that is reserved for this population. We have to get that to scale. That’s the ideal.

But let’s also be honest, there are people who just will not go into any kind of a shelter, to an alternative location or an alternative scenario. We have to be able to move those people. And this allows us to do that. And by the way, I’m not saying…

Miller: …to move them on from where they are but to move them where? Or are you saying that sometimes just not here is better than knowing where else they’re gonna go?

Mayor Wheeler: At some point, you have to start somewhere. And so I am perfectly fine telling people, look, we’ll help you if you want the help. If you don’t want the help, you can’t be here, period. And I think that’s a very reasonable standard. Now, ultimately, the compassionate part of this, the service delivery part of this, has to get to the scale to support the problem. And that’s why we’re working very, very hard to build that collaboration with our county government in the Joint Office of Homeless Services.

Miller: How would you see that’s going right now? It’s been a rocky relationship for understandable reasons for years in different ways. But I don’t think that there is an issue where there’s been more tension than homelessness. What’s your description? Where do you think you stand right now?

Mayor Wheeler: I think we’re in a better position than where we were a couple of months ago. You’ll recall that as we rolled the task sites out, we really started talking about it publicly in earnest. About six months ago, there was great reluctance that the county government, the state government - they said we want a proof of concept. And we said, well, what does that mean? And they said, we want you to identify a location. We want you to have a service provider that’s qualified to do this work and we want you to show that people would use this site if you created it. Well, all of those boxes are checked now.

As I say in the interim, we went out [with] our own staff, our mayoral staff, and contracted with service providers. But now we need access to the support of housing measure dollars that voters voted for at the metro level. The city doesn’t get any of it. It all goes through the county government. We need the county government to see that this model amongst many others is working really, really well. But they have the expertise around mental health, around public health, around substance use disorder treatment. They can navigate people to housing. We need that collaboration.

Miller: How anxious have you been? A lot is riding publicly in terms of your relationship with the county on the functioning of this one site. I mean, if it is seen as a failure, a lot more things are not going to happen.

Mayor Wheeler: I could not agree with you more. This is very important but maybe not for exactly the reasons people think. This is not a legacy play for me. I actually hope in the not too distant future, we don’t need to do this anymore. What I’m concerned about right now is the future viability of this city [and] the public’s belief that we can actually help people who are vulnerable and stop the people from dying on our streets that are currently dying by the dozens every single year. For me, this is as much a moral question as it is a political question. And now that I’m sort of out of politics, for me, this is just about doing the right thing and doing it in a way that we were told by chronically homeless individuals they need us to do it in order for them to be successful. This is totally informed by the people who are using the services. And so far, judging from the overwhelming enthusiasm we’re seeing from the chronically homeless population, they want access to these sites.

I believe we’ve settled on a really important solution. But I wanna be clear, it’s not the only solution; there’s shelters, there’s transitional housing, there’s many good nonprofit and private sector treatment facilities out there. Our state is really struggling around behavioral health and I’m working with the governor and others to really advocate for improved behavioral health services in the state of Oregon...

Miller: I want to turn there right now and you mentioned people dying in the streets of Portland. But one thing…[voices overlapping]. You can finish, it’s your show. You go ahead.

Mayor Wheeler: The last thing I just want to point this out, this is unique, the job of mayor has really changed in the seven years that I’ve been mayor. Here I am advocating for and developing a human services structure from scratch, recreating our livability structures from scratch, creating new public safety solutions from scratch.

Miller: Do you think that this makes sense? I mean, a lot of these things are things that normally a county would do. You’re also asking the state to do things that we’ll get to in just a bit in terms of public safety. I mean, should the city be doing this?

Mayor Wheeler: No, to be honest, the city should not. The city government’s responsibility is public safety, maintaining our public right of ways, improving our park system. Every dollar that we spend on homelessness comes out of what’s called our general fund account. That account is what funds first responders in public safety - our police, our fire, our 911 emergency call center, our emergency management response function. So every dollar we are spending in that arena is coming right out of our first responder capability and nobody else provides that first responder function. We are responsible for it.

So ultimately, the city, the county, Metro, the state, we need to get onto the same page. We need to have a collaborative plan and I am offering what I believe is at least one turn key solution that is already proving that it can be successful.

Miller: I want to turn to the recent unanimous vote to criminalize public drug use in Portland. This is after a kind of weird quirk of state law was - maybe discovered is too strong a word but maybe it’s not too. I don’t think that a lot of Oregonians were aware of the ways in which a relatively old state law hampered cities from preventing people from, say, smoking meth in public post Measure 110. But [it] didn’t prevent them from drinking a beer in public.

Let’s say that lawmakers do grant you and other cities the ability to pass ordinances like this and enforce them. What do you think the effect would be?

Mayor Wheeler: So the effect would be immediate in what I would describe as hotspot areas. And in downtown Portland, we have fewer hotspot areas than we did even a year or six months ago, but we still have them. And right now, as we drive by and we see people using illicit substances, that’s not necessarily something that the police can intervene in under current state statute and Measure 110. We need to change that, and I will acknowledge that like the other ordinance we were discussing earlier, you maybe can’t enforce it citywide all at once with the police resources we have. But it would absolutely give us a critically important tool for the police to be able to intervene and break up some of the drug problems that we’re seeing openly exhibited on our streets.

I think it’s unbelievable that you can’t drink a beer in a public facility, in a public space, but you can shoot up heroin. That’s ridiculous. It makes absolutely no sense. We need to fix that. The problem is we can’t do it alone at the city level. We’ve already passed our ordinance, but it will not become the law unless an administrative judge says we can enforce it or until the state legislature takes it up and removes the preemption on local government’s ability to regulate use of illicit substances. This is something I’m gonna fight hard for in the next legislative session.

Miller: I want to turn to the new-ish governor convened task force for reviving Portland Central City after the first meeting three weeks ago. At the first meeting, you floated the idea of having 100 state police officers patrolling Portland, about one-fith of the total state police force. You also are asking for federal law enforcement to have a bigger presence here. What do you think that would accomplish? What is the law enforcement piece of what you see of the Portland solution?

Mayor Wheeler: Yeah, this is an important point and I’m glad you asked. Let me start with the federal piece because I think maybe I did not describe that as carefully as I could have. And I think people went back to 2020 in the federal officers and homeland security…

Miller: For understandable reasons.

Mayor Wheeler: Of course. But that’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking specifically related to drug trafficking. For example, in the city of Portland, the fentanyl that’s coming into the city of Portland in overwhelmingly large amounts, this is a federal issue. It’s even an international issue. The components come from China. They are shipped to Mexico and then they are combined in laboratories in Mexico and shipped across the border by some of the meanest cartels known to man. And we need federal support to be able to break up those supply chains.

What we need at the local level with the call for 96 state troopers is to help us with the downtown area, in particular, where we have this problem with fentanyl and P2P meth. And also to help us with traffic enforcement. And I wanna be clear, we picked that 96 officer number because that is our proportional share based on population here in the city of Portland. We pay for the state police and I’m keenly aware that other communities all around the state rely on the state police, but we pay for that service as well and we need them right now, even as a temporary stop gap measure until we can have enough police officers and enough patrols on the street to make a difference.

And I would go further and say it is of critical importance to the state at large that Portland be a safe place to live.

Miller: Why? I mean, so let’s say people from all over the state right now - what [does] somebody in Eugene or Ontario or Redmond, or rural areas, even maybe more specifically, get from safer streets in Portland? If police would make streets safer.

Mayor Wheeler: The governor has said publicly that if she travels around the state, what she hears more than anything else from people in other parts of the state, is Portland needs to be fixed. Portland needs to get its act together. And the reason is we’re the economic engine of this state. If Portland fails, there really isn’t much of a business case for the rest of the state. We’re all in this together and we can all argue later about what caused it, whose fault it was, who did what wrong, and that’s fine and I’m certainly open to that criticism. But now the question is, what is it gonna take to fix it? And we are pursuing the strategies we believe are the right strategies, but we need more support and we need an acknowledgement looking at the way businesses work here. There’s no business case for Cruise Parkway if Portland collapses economically, there’s no business case for it. And it’s gonna make it harder to recruit people to any company anywhere in this state. If the perception is that Portland, once being clean, livable, exciting, and an arts and culture hub, all the things that people love about Portland - if those things start to diminish, it’s gonna get a lot harder for everybody to be able to recruit and successfully run businesses in this state.

And by the way, the tax structure is problematic too, but I won’t go there unless you want me to.

Miller: No, we only have so many minutes left.

I want to turn to just the amazing share of unused office space right now. A real estate report found, a few months ago, that the downtown office vacancy rate was more than 25%. And it’s not just because of fentanyl and homelessness. This is a nationwide issue and it’s obviously due to this change in work culture that was precipitated by the pandemic but might be permanent. And employers don’t necessarily want to force their employees to come back to work half time or all the time because it’s competitive employees, many of them like working from home. Where does that leave you?

And it’s also, I should say, expensive to retrofit. Even if the city does systems development charges reductions we’ve heard on our show, it’s really expensive to turn normal office space into residential space. So, where does that leave you?

Mayor Wheeler: It leaves us in a difficult spot but not with an insurmountable challenge. And here’s the way I describe it. Number one, we’re seeing cities that were tech heavy hardest hit by the slow recovery because it’s easier to be remote when you’re in a technology-based industry. The second thing I would note is that you’re correct, we actually do have funding that is now available and we are working actively with some property owners who are interested in converting their office space to housing. But as you say, not every office structure is gonna fit the bill. So I really see that as a fairly minor, though important, part of the transition.

The longer term question is what is the purpose of a city and how do you make it thrive? Number one, we need to diversify our economy and include things like the sports and entertainment district, have that become a bigger part of our economic competitiveness. And that’s why I focused on that particular area. The green economy, green infrastructure, green manufacturing, energy solutions and the like should be a bigger component of our economy than it currently is.

Then there’s just the last piece for right now. And this is sort of the one thing that’s not like the others. People do better when they collaborate. I brought our employees back with the full support of our city council. They’re required to be back three days a week. And in fact, 60% of our workforce worked throughout the entirety of the pandemic. There was a lot of pushback to that and a lot of challenges to that. But now that we’ve done it and we’ve been doing it for a number of months now. The feedback I’m getting is overwhelmingly positive. People are feeling isolated, endless zoom meetings, sitting at home alone in your slippers, that’s not how we’re wired. We are social creatures…

Miller: What happens when you make this pitch to local private sector leaders? What do you hear?

Mayor Wheeler: I hear a couple of things. Number one, our lease is up and we can get a better deal somewhere else…

Miller: In Tigard? Or…

Mayor Wheeler: Yeah, exactly. And believe me, there’s people competing for the businesses that we currently have here, they’re looking for consolidations, they’re looking for smaller footprints, maybe rotating employees in on certain days. The main thing we hear is we can’t recruit people. If we force people into the office, they will not come to work for us, they will go and they will work somewhere else. And I think in some industries that is probably true, but in a lot of cases, what I’m seeing just here objectively in downtown is [that] more and more people are coming back. They’re getting a little tired of working at the kitchen counter and they miss those interactions and the creativity and the free flowing conversations that happen naturally when you’re together. It’s never gonna be five days a week again. Let’s not kid ourselves. The structure of the work day has changed permanently and it will probably continue to evolve in other interesting ways. But I think it is important that people who can bring their employees back, as much as possible, to be able to help make our city work. If this city is activated, it will address some of the other issues that people see around liability and what not. And that’s why we invest so heavily in activations in different events, supporting people coming into the city on certain days.

I would like to see the city core thrive. The arts and culture community is gonna be very important to our recovery. People will come into town, they will participate in these activities, they will go out to restaurants and bars. We have to make sure Portland remains an exciting and interesting and dynamic city with a robust arts and culture community and economic opportunities for people who want to be here.

Miller: Mayor Wheeler, thanks very much.

Mayor Wheeler: Thank you.

Miller: Ted Wheeler is the mayor of Portland. He will hold that job for the next 15 months.

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