In recent days, it’s become abundantly clear: Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler are not getting along.
As the state faces a global pandemic, economic devastation and renewed outrage over racial injustice, two of its top elected officials have spent recent days second-guessing each other’s leadership choices and lobbing accusations at one another through successive press conferences.
The clash ostensibly began over National Guard troops — Wheeler had asked for their support to help address mass protests but met pushback from the governor’s office. The ensuing back-and-forth has led to indignant messages between staff, and phone calls between Wheeler and Brown themselves.
On Monday, after Brown publicly suggested the mayor wanted troops to confront Portland protestors on the street, Wheeler’s communications director, Eileen Park, texted Brown’s top spokesman.
“I just watched the governor’s remarks,” Park wrote. “The Mayor never asked to put the national guard in direct confrontation with protestors. That’s alarming and incendiary.”
Wheeler shot back in a Tuesday morning press conference, going out of his way to accuse Brown of mischaracterizing his position, and in doing so linking him to the hardline stance President Trump has taken.
“There is a danger in mischaracterization, and so it’s important that we get our facts straight,” Wheeler said.
But if the issue is fresh, the coolness in Brown and Wheeler’s relationship is not. Though both declined to be interviewed for this story, conversations with a half dozen political insiders offer a picture of two elected officials with similar politics and very different leadership styles.
The governor has a reputation of being a collaborator, which at times is interpreted as overly cautious and deliberate. The mayor is more prone to act unilaterally and with less consideration, a trait that has at times rankled colleagues in both Salem and Portland City Hall.
The two have long been part of Oregon’s political establishment. Their different leadership styles were less relevant years ago, when Brown was the secretary of state and Wheeler was the state treasurer, and both were eyeing the governor’s office. But once political scandal catapulted Brown to the governorship, and Wheeler consequently pursued the mayor’s office, the opportunities for disagreement increased.
Now the fractured dynamic is coming to light precisely when Oregon could most use unified leadership.
Virus pressures take differences public
The clash in styles first publicly showed up in March, after days of disagreements between the two about whether to shutter Oregon’s economy to stop the spread of COVID-19. The governor and mayor planned a Friday night press conference together in a show of unity.
Instead, they wound up memorializing how disconnected they actually were.
As the event unfolded, Brown declined to issue a stay-home order for the state and suggested Wheeler was on the same page. But the mayor took people in the room, including Brown, by surprise, announcing he was ready to declare a unilateral order closing down Portland if the governor didn’t act by the following Monday.
The bizarre event — broadcast around the state — was the clearest picture Oregonians had seen of the tensions between two of the state’s most powerful elected officials. They’ve gotten more proof since then.
This Monday, after three nights of protests and vandalism in the city of Portland, Wheeler held a press conference alongside U.S. Attorney Billy Williams to address the ongoing demonstrations. But when Williams raised the issue of bringing in the National Guard help, the event quickly evolved into an examination of Brown’s unwillingness to use the troops.
“We need leadership,” Williams said, in a statement that seemed designed to place pressure on the governor. “We need action now.” Wheeler followed up, describing how he’d asked the governor for national guard assistance three times, but was rebuffed.
Following the press conference, the mayor’s staff quickly sought to smooth things over with Brown’s office, according to public records obtained by OPB.
“Just some context of what happened this morning at our a.m. conference,” Park, Wheeler’s communications officer, wrote to her counterparts in Brown’s office. “… We did not plan to bring up the subject of the National Guard. But when Billy Williams brought it up — it prompted a series of questions from reporters, so the Mayor had to share what happened as delicately as possible.”
Later that afternoon, Brown held her own press conference alongside several Black elected officials. Wheeler was not invited.
About 20 minutes before Brown’s event was scheduled to start, Park, Wheeler’s communication staffer, reached out to her counterpart in Brown’s office in a text message: “mind giving a heads up about what the press conference is about?”
Brown’s event was supposed to be a broader conversation about the issues of racial justice, according to the governor’s spokesman. It was the first time the governor addressed the protests that have erupted throughout the state. She used the platform to discuss larger issues driving them and promised to help the state rebuild with a strong focus on ensuring racial equity and justice.
But the governor sounded frustrated when she talked about the mayor:
“Mayor Wheeler asked me over the weekend to mobilize the National Guard and put them in direct confrontation with protesters,” Brown said, appearing to put Wheeler in league with Trump, who had just called for swift crackdowns to protests nationwide after a phone call with governors.
Brown ultimately announced she would send 50 members of the Oregon National Guard to help the city of Portland. They wouldn’t be armed, and they wouldn’t be in direct contact with demonstrators.
“Our goal — and the goal of the overwhelming number of protesters — should be to reduce violence,” Brown said. “You don’t defuse violence by putting soldiers on our streets. Having soldiers on the street across America is exactly what President Trump wants.”
Shortly after the press conference ended, Park wrote Brown’s communications team an inquiry about the governor’s remarks. Later, that night, however, she sent a more forceful note to Brown’s spokesman, calling Brown’s comments “alarming and incendiary.”
Wheeler forcefully rejected Brown’s account the following morning, accusing the governor of mischaracterizing his request.
“On an issue as fragile as this we have to, as leaders, get the facts straight,” Wheeler said. “The idea that I would ask the governor for the National Guard for the purpose of direct confrontation with demonstrators on the very same day that Donald Trump is saying that the military should be deployed into states to crush even peaceful demonstrations, that is potentially incendiary.”
Questioning a mayor’s relationships
At the heart of the flap over the National Guard, sources say, is a lingering resentment on Brown’s part over how Wheeler often appears to be demanding help from the state without feeling like he needs to justify his requests to the governor.
The urgency of those demands, multiple people said, is anathema to a governor who likes to discuss her options widely before making a decision.
The tension is compounded because Wheeler, who commands the state’s largest police force, has required backup from Oregon’s dwindling supply of state troopers to handle protests in Portland. At the same time Brown announced she’d deploy National Guard troops, she also said that 100 troopers — roughly a quarter of the Oregon State Police’s total trooper count — were being sent to Portland to help.
Brown in recent days has repeatedly suggested that Wheeler shouldn’t need assistance. She and her staff contend Wheeler has let his relationship with neighboring law enforcement agencies erode, forcing him to rely on state resources.
“In other cities across Oregon, local mayors have very collaborative relationships and are able to share law enforcement personnel between cities and counties,” Brown said at the press conference Monday. “This used to be the case in Portland. I encourage the mayor to rebuild these collaborative law enforcement agreements with neighboring counties.”
Brown’s comments are a reference to Clackamas and Washington counties’ decision last year to end long-standing mutual aid agreements for assisting the City of Portland in law-enforcement actions when needed. The counties took that step after Washington County was held liable for its deputies’ actions while assisting Portland police with a search warrant, and injuring a man in the process.
“It is very difficult and increasingly untenable for me to pull state resources that are dedicated to other parts of the state away from those communities before the city has requested and received the support of neighboring agencies,” Brown wrote in a letter to Wheeler on Tuesday.
Brown’s concern appears to be at least partly overblown. According to the Portland Police Bureau, both Washington and Clackamas counties have been assisting the city with the ongoing demonstrations.
Records obtained by OPB show that the city formally requested Washington County’s help on May 31 — a day before Brown raised the issue — and agreed to hold deputies harmless for any civil claims that arose from that help. Washington County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Sgt. Danny DiPietro said deputies are fielding regular calls for service on the city’s west side from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. through June 7, to free Portland police officers for crowd control.
“Our working relationship with PPB is great,” DiPietro said. “We appreciate them. We have nothing but respect for them.”
He noted, however, that this was the first time Washington County had assisted in this manner since canceling the mutual aid agreement last year.
Other area police departments have also pitched in during the protests, including a Gresham police officer who fatally shot a man in Southeast Portland while assisting Portland police.
Rivals from years ago
Beyond the specifics of their current clash, Brown and Wheeler bring more long-standing issues to their relationship.
Political insiders point to long-ago skirmishes between the two politicians. One example dates back to when Wheeler served as treasurer and Brown was secretary of state — and both had designs on the governor’s office.
Wheeler took office in 2010, meaning he expected to still be serving as treasurer in 2018 when the governor’s office would open up. But a legal opinion spurred by Brown’s office ensured that wasn’t the case. Since Wheeler was initially appointed to serve out the term of Treasurer Ben Westlund, who died in office, the opinion ensured his term would end in 2016 at the latest.
The end result: Wheeler would not be a sitting treasurer, and possibly be in a weaker position, if he chose to run for the governor’s seat in 2018 — potentially against Brown.
More generally, sources also suggested Wheeler does not believe Brown is ideally suited to the governorship.
There’s an anecdote that has circulated among Wheeler’s staff to that point. It dates back to early on in Brown’s administration, not long after she took the governorship when former Gov. John Kitzhaber resigned.
At the time, Wheeler was a state treasurer who’d just watched his own ambitions for governor stymied by Brown’s ascension. The story goes that a member of his staff went to Brown’s office for one reason or another. In the office sat a whiteboard that had the word “Vision” in large letters at the top, but was otherwise completely blank.
It is hardly a fair or particularly indicative story, but Wheeler fans still share the anecdote.
Despite their differences, observers say it’s hard to point to ways that the strained relationship between Wheeler and Brown has led to trouble for Oregonians.
Following the bizarre March press conference, Brown closed the state’s economy, and experts say Oregon’s COVID-19 infection rates are likely far lower as a result. After this week’s snafu over the National Guard, 50 troops came to Portland, with some photographed sitting in a government building on Tuesday evening with seemingly little to do.
“The Mayor and Governor speak frequently, and when they make critical decisions they don’t shy away from honest and sometimes tough back and forth until they come up with a plan of action,” Charles Boyle, the governor’s spokesman wrote in an email. “In this case, they ultimately agreed on a plan to ensure the safety of Oregonians making their voices heard on critical social justice issue.”
There’s also evidence that the recent contentiousness between Wheeler and Brown is easing up a bit.
On Wednesday morning, both appeared in separate press conferences. And for the first time in days, neither one had anything bad to say about the other.