Portlanders want change.
Recent surveys show a historically large swath of Portland believes the city is being steered in the wrong direction. Three and a half months out from the primary, a push for a new approach has cropped up in candidates’ policy platforms, Facebook pages and TV interviews.
You’ll hear the same case made in the living room of former mayor and current City Council candidate Sam Adams.
Adams confounded many political observers last month when he opted not to try for either of the two open seats on the City Council, but instead pit himself against Commissioner Chloe Eudaly in the May primary. Asked the question on every local politico’s mind (“Why?”), Adams said he was responding to a public clamoring for something different.
“I came back full-time to Portland without the intention of running for office,” Adams said. “But what I had been observing from afar … the challenges that are facing Portland seem to be overwhelming us. And people are not only very frustrated with that. Some are shrugging and beginning to think that, ‘Well, maybe these are things we just can’t fix.’”
In the other races on this year’s city ballot, he continued, candidates are poised to deliver on this “change mandate.” In the race for the seat left open by Amanda Fritz’s retirement, he pointed to front-runner Carmen Rubio, the head of advocacy nonprofit Latino Network, who would be the second woman of color elected to City Council. In the special election for the seat formerly held by Commissioner Nick Fish, who died earlier this year, Adams said he’d noticed a “very diverse, high-quality” crop of candidates for whom he “wanted to leave space.”
“And that led me to position number four,” he said.
Off to the races
This election season, local analysts foresee contenders in all four City Hall races fighting to position themselves as the candidate who can act decisively on the most pressing issues the city faces: an affordable housing shortage that fuels a homelessness crisis, gridlocked and crash-prone roads, a growing gap between rich and poor Portlanders.
But nowhere is this fight gearing up to be more bitter — and potentially more bizarre — than in the race for the only office with an incumbent.
“Sam and Chloe will fight like hell to try and define themselves as the leader of a force of change,” said Len Bergstein, head of the consultancy firm Northwest Strategies, a matchup he went on to call “absolutely nuts.”
The candidate most likely to run an insurgent campaign against the status quo — a former bookstore owner with little elected experience — already has an office on the second floor of City Hall. And the candidate who has spent nearly a third of his life in the place — who Bergstein refers to as “the most establishment City Hall character you can think of” — is trying to claw his way back inside.
Starting in the 1990s, Adams successfully climbed his way up the City Hall hierarchy, moving from a post as former Mayor Vera Katz’s longtime chief of staff to city commissioner to mayor, a victory that also crowned him the first openly gay leader of a major U.S. city.
This means, he said, he’s entering the race with an “experienced outsider perspective.” But he’s also bringing with him some notable baggage. Soon after Adams became mayor, Willamette Week broke the news that Adams had been involved in a sexual relationship with a former legislative intern who was 17 when they met, a charge Adams had bluntly denied before entering office. Adams later admitted he had lied, but said the relationship didn’t become physical until Breedlove turned 18, Oregon’s age of consent. Adams opted not to seek a second term and ran the City Club of Portland for several years before moving to Washington, D.C., to work for an environmental think tank. He returned to Oregon last year.
The race is just beginning. At least seven others have filed to run against Eudaly, notably former city employee Mingus Mapps, who analysts say very well could build a support base of voters dissatisfied with the two most recognizable names on the ballot. And more candidates could join. Filing for city elections doesn’t end until March 10.
Moving Portland forward
Still, in interviews this month, the two candidates who had garnered the most attention so far had their fundamental pitch ready for voters: They each see themselves as the candidate best equipped to move Portland forward. Their opponent? Not so much.
“We’re poised to have the most diverse and progressive council that Portland has ever had,” said Eudaly, noting she is just the eighth woman elected to the Council. “Sam running against me feels like a step backwards.”
It’s a point Eudaly was making within hours of discovering Adams had filed to run against her. (It’s also a point that greatly irks Adams: “City Council isn’t ‘Downton Abbey,’ and city commissioner seats are not hereditary … . If there’s this inference that I should step aside, that also applies to Mingus Mapps.”)
Eudaly has since expanded her anti-Adams argument. He is more than just a white man gunning for her post, but an embodiment of an older style of politicking — responsible, she said, for failing to use the levers of City Hall to protect renters and communities of color from displacement during the early years of the housing crisis. These are groups, she pointed out, that she has championed since day one in office.
“I represent the Portland that’s been clinging to the site of a sheer cliff, trying to survive,” she said. “He represents a kind of a network and class of people that got us to where we are right now.”
During her three years in office, Eudaly has earned a thorny reputation in certain circles, particularly neighborhood associations still reeling from her attempt to restructure them. She can be cutting in her commentary, particularly on social media; just last week, she called out Adams’ new campaign manager, Inna Levin, for friending her on Facebook, condemning the request as “pretty shady.”
But Eudaly has also been a powerful advocate for the core group of renters that fueled her surprise victory in 2016 against an incumbent, Commissioner Steve Novick. Soon after arriving in office, she passed landmark legislation to deter landlords from evicting Portlanders without cause, followed by new rules to ensure a more forgiving screening process for renters.
“Everyone’s got their own opinion on me, but one thing that can’t be disputed is that I have come here and done what I said I would do,” she said.
She suspects this has disgruntled a fair number of powerful Portlanders, who may feel they have an ally in Sam Adams.
“Some people are part of the establishment, part of the kind of old boys network,” she said. “And there are people out there that really miss those days when they had a guaranteed three votes for their business interests, let’s say.”
“I don’t think Portland wants to go back to that,” she added.
‘Campaign of ideas’
But, Adams argues, Portlanders aren’t all that happy where they are, either.
Cue his “campaign of ideas and innovations.” Mid-interview, Adams, who earned a reputation as something of a policy wonk during his long stint in city government, launched into a stream of proposals — some seemingly prepared, others less so.
He thinks the city should build more co-living facilities, with common kitchens and bathrooms, to create cheaper housing. Invent a system of “street medicine” and license medics to treat people living outside. Ask each neighborhood to start a “honey-do list” in the style of his grandmother with tasks they want to check off — say, fix the aging dikes near the airport or clear out the blackberry brambles crowding the Columbia Slough in Kenton, and hire hands to do it through the Portland Clean Energy Fund. Convince commissioners to hold a weekly brainstorming meeting on how to tackle the city’s homelessness crisis. Legalize boarding houses.
John Horvick, a pollster with DHM Research, said he’s conducted a series of recent surveys showing the number of people who said they believe Portland is moving in the right direction was in the high 30s to low 40s. He said Adams’ ideas could be an asset for him.
“When I do focus groups here in Portland and just talk to people about local issues, there is a frustration often that the problems are building, and we’re not getting things done. And people will say — fair or unfair, right or wrong — ‘That Sam guy, he got things done,’” Horvick said. “But those things were not always popular. He pushed forward a street fee and then walked back from it when it wasn’t popular to fund transportation.
“… He has a reputation of a lot of ideas. But not always a clear vision or direction.”
Horvick said these concerns will pale in voters’ minds next to the relationship Adams has admitted to having — and lying about — with a teenager.
“With Sam, that scandal stays with him,” Horvick said. “It’s a question of morality. It’s not just whether he balanced the books or he chose the wrong sort of agenda, but it’s whether or not people feel like he’s a trustworthy person. That is by far and away the weakness that remains with him.”
Adams is wagering that Portlanders are willing to forgive, even if they haven’t forgotten.
“Every candidate brings their humanity into public service, everyone running this race has their pros and cons,” he said, noting while the relationship was “stupid,” authorities investigated and chose not to charge him with a crime. “Portlanders are fair-minded people.”
Eudaly counts herself among them.
“I think everyone deserves a second chance,” she said.
Just don’t ask for it in her race.
“The humble thing would’ve been to run for an open seat and ask the voters for a second chance,” she said. “Running against me? It doesn’t feel like that.”