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Hales: Former Commissioner Trying To Stand Out In Crowded Field

Hales addresses a group of supporters.

April Baer / OPB

In about six weeks, Oregon voters return their primary ballots. The largest city in the state is deciding a contested, wide-open mayoral race that has the potential to affect regional politics for years to come. This week, we’re profiling three of the prominent candidates for Portland mayor. April Baer reports today on Charlie Hales, a former city Commissioner who left City Hall ten years ago for a private sector job.

Charlie Hales is standing on a desk. This is not characteristic behavior for the 56-year old who’s divided his career between City Hall and work in building and public works.

April Baer / OPB
Hales atop a table addressing supporters.

Hales told the crowd, “I get pretty passionate about Portland, but it’s a relatively quiet piece of fireworks in my case.”

Hales’ mother was a Southerner, his father an engineer.

“The tradition in our family is pretty understated. The theatrics of politics don’t come naturally to me,” he explained.

But here he is, working to fire up a roomful of supporters for the final six weeks of the primary campaign. He talks about his City Council advocacy for parks in East Portland, tough votes to funnel city money to schools, and his time as a vice president at engineering giant HDR.

Hales told them, “One of my opponents has a resume from the public sector, the other from the private sector, I have a resume from both, so I should win it in a cinch. But it’s not about resumes, it’s about leadership.”

April Baer / OPB
This map shows Portland neighborhoods the Hales campaign considers key to the campaign. Voter turnout will be critical in May's primary.

Hales is trying to stand out in a field of 23. But his main rivals are state lawmaker Jefferson Smith, and Eileen Brady, primarily known for co-founding New Seasons Markets.

Those who knew Hales during his decade as a city commissioner say his greatest strength isn’t the way he works a room, but the way he works the bureaucracy of City Hall. Ed Tenny had several jobs at the City including a stint running the Water Bureau. He knew Hales before he ran for council, and after, when both worked at HDR. But Tenny says he likes the skills Hales showed as a city commissioner.

Tenny said, “A mayor here has to be able to talk down the hall, sit down with each of the other four members of city council and get them to come along. And if you have someone in there who doesn’t have the skills to do that, what you end up with is five little mayors.”

Hales talks on the stump about his efforts to bring a modernized streetcar system back to Portland, and — in his work at HDR — exporting that model to cities around the country.

While Tenny and others involved in public life might be a natural constituency for Hales, to stay alive he also has to win over voters like Mary Nichols of Southeast Portland.

April Baer / OPB
Mary Nichols is a Hales supporter from SE Portland.

Nichols is a mother of six.  She has her own marketing and social media business. Nichols says she hasn’t really ever been involved in politics before this year.  She’s got a lot of clients in the sustainable food industry, and might seem like a natural supporter of someone like Eileen Brady. But Nichols says she researched the candidates.

She explained, “I went onto all of their websites, I scoured their social media, a three or four day intensive mind meld of what they were all about. For me, it always came back to Charlie.”

Nichols says she was attracted by Hales’ intelligence and public/private experience. Now she’s volunteering for his campaign.

But in any election, experience can sometimes function as a double-edged sword. Paul Gronke is a professor of Political Science at Reed College. He says voters sometimes prefer a fresh face.

Gronke explained, “Sam Adams had a stellar resume, long experience in city government, and I think there was some disappointment in how the last four years have gone.”

Of course, Adams and Hales had very different kinds of careers at City Hall. And Gronke adds he does think the voters will be looking for some stability, given the tough times the city has endured recently.

Hales says he offers voters real City Hall know-how.

“Because local government’s about real stuff: parks and streets and schools and police, and things that affect daily life in very practical ways. I’m glad there are people interested in running for Congress or for Governor. I’m interested in life at street level in my neighborhood. That’s where I live,” he said.

But with two other bright, financially viable candidates in the race, voters have to decide what kind of experience matters to them as they mark their ballots.

Tuesday, we meet a candidate with a knack for engaging young voters, State Representative Jefferson Smith.