Four years ago, Chloe Eudaly harnessed the anger of renters to vanquish the city’s ruling class and beat an incumbent on the Portland City Council.
Now she’s the one in political peril after upsetting the homeowners who dominate the city’s powerful neighborhood associations.
Eudaly’s most notable rival is Sam Adams, the former commissioner and mayor who is trying to revive his political career. He contends that the city needs his long experience combating “floods, snowstorms” and the Great Recession to deal with the new economic wreckage of the coronavirus.
At the same time, a newcomer to elective politics, Mingus Mapps, is appearing on campaign signs around town and raising more money than his rivals. He used to work with those very neighborhood association leaders and is promising a more diplomatic presence on the council.
Those are the three major protagonists in a race that has been almost as big on personality as it is on issues. As Mapps put it: “How Shakespearean this election has been.”
Eudaly has been a consequential leader. She pushed through new tenant rights that required relocation aid to tenants facing large rent increases or no-cause evictions. The new rules also prodded landlords to accept tenants with criminal or financial problems in their past. Those policies endeared her to many of the activists who put her in office. But it's also angered many developers and landlords and others in the business community.
She took on neighborhood associations by seeking to reduce their official advisory power while giving more of a voice to non-geographical organizations that would, she said, better represent people of color and lower-income Portlanders.
Eudaly was forced last fall to delay proposed changes amid angry complaints from neighborhood activists and critical news coverage. A Willamette Week story revealed that Eudaly in an email criticized Commissioner Amanda Fritz – a longtime supporter of the neighborhood associations – for "gross mismanagement" and said "this will get uglier" if Fritz continued to mobilize the associations against her.
Adams said Eudaly’s attempts to revamp the neighborhood associations “blew up in her face.”
And Mapps said that Eudaly “tends to be ideologically driven as opposed to being solutions-oriented – you know, a great movement politician.” But he charged that Eudaly doesn’t work well with people who disagree with her. She “is not a good manager, and that’s dangerous for our city” in the middle of a pandemic, he said.
Eudaly said she attracts over-heated criticism because she’s tackling tough issues.
“I’m a very fair-minded person, almost to a fault,” she said. At the same time, she added, “I’m very passionate about issues and I bring a sense of urgency to my job so I can see how people who ultimately don’t agree with my policy positions or solutions don’t feel listened to.”
Eudaly, a former independent bookstore owner who is turning 50 in May, said she became politically active after she struggled to find housing she could afford because of rapidly rising rents. A single mother, she has a 19-year-old son with cerebral palsy who uses a wheelchair and communicates through a device that tracks his eye movements.
“The system was not created for people like me to join it,” said Eudaly, who had to sell her business and learn parliamentary procedure and the nitty-gritty of overseeing bureaus she didn’t initially know much about it.
“I’m more adept and experienced and confident in this role,” she added, “but I’m still fighting for the same people and the same things.”
Unlike in her first race, Eudaly now attracts plenty of establishment support, including from Oregon’s two U.S. senators, the Portland teacher’s union and the man she defeated four years ago, former Commissioner Steve Novick.
“Chloe has done what she set out to do and what she campaigned on,” said Novick, now a lawyer for the Oregon Department of Justice. “She ran as a tenants’ rights advocate. She’s delivered tenant rights.”
Novick acknowledged that Eudaly might have been prickly at times, but he said some of that might have more to do with Portland’s system of government. Besides setting policy, commissioners also directly run bureaus assigned to them, leading them to compete for resources for their own fiefdoms.
There’s little doubt that Eudaly can see her foes in stark terms. She said the large number of high-end rentals built in recent years did nothing to lower rents and that she would like to see Portland “be as unattractive to Wall Street investors as we can make it.”
That’s a view criticized by many in the business community who say increasing supply is an important component in making housing more affordable. They point to a recent economic study for the Portland Business Association showing that rents for less-expensive units also stopped rising as much as the overall supply of apartments increased.
Any hope that Eudaly had of cruising to a relatively easy re-election were dashed when Adams entered the race – although he’s a political wild card, too. The first openly gay mayor of a major city, Adams is certainly the most well-known candidate in the race, and he still has many influential supporters.
But his mayoral term was marked by a scandal involving a sexual relationship with an 18-year-old that he had lied about. His reputation damaged, Adams didn't seek re-election in 2012. Five years later, he lost a job at the World Resources Institute in Washington, D.C. after a former mayoral aide filed a sexual harassment complaint. Adams denied that charge and returned to Portland last year. (Willamette Week did substantial reporting on the former staff member's allegation and that found problems with the man's account. The city never investigated because neither the aide nor Adams worked for the city when the complaint was filed.)
Adams, 56, said he has learned from his mistakes and is now a more balanced person. He said he meditates, has participated in group therapy and now has a more stable personal life. He lives with his partner of 11 years.
“I was a different person at the end of my time as mayor than I was at the beginning,” he said “That has to do with a lot of introspection and that has only continued in having the opportunity to work outside of Portland and around the country and around the world. It was a deeply humbling experience. It was an opportunity to grow.”
Adams has kept much of the network he developed during his two decades as mayor, commissioner and chief of staff to Mayor Vera Katz during her three terms.
“I know Sam has had his issues, for sure,” said former longtime City Hall aide Austin Raglione. “I believe Sam is trying hard to make amends for his behavior…I have just admired his worth ethic. I think he is really smart and knows how to get from Point A to Point B.”
Eudaly, however, told OPB earlier this year that she would have understood Adams’ decision to run if he’d sought forgiveness by running for an open seat, not one already occupied by a progressive woman: “Sam running against me feels like a step backward,” she said, noting that she’s part of the first-ever female majority on the five-member Portland council.
As mayor, Eudaly charged, Adams failed to protect renters and communities of color from the rapid rise of housing costs that followed the recovery from the Great Recession. “In retrospect, I think Sam helped set the table for our housing crisis,” she said, by failing to “protect communities of color who were seeing extraordinary rates of displacement and cost-burdened renters.
Adams said he sought to shift city funds from the administrative costs to programs aimed at reducing homelessness and helping people stay in their houses as the city recovered from the recession. But as the job and population growth boomed in the metropolitan area during the recovery, city programs had little effect in stemming rising homelessness and declining housing affordability.
In his comeback race, Adams remains a gusher of policy ideas reminiscent of his high points as mayor. He says the city should allow the broad use of co-housing developments throughout the city to help reduce the cost of new public subsidized housing. And he wants to push owners of shopping malls and other big retail developments to convert parking spaces on the edge of their properties into housing.
If both Adams and Eudaly run into resistance among voters, Mapps could be the beneficiary. A former political science professor, the 52-year-old is a gregarious newcomer to elective politics.
Mapps would be only the fourth African-American to ever serve on the council, and he’s spent more time on the campaign than his rivals. He started in September, which helped him raise more money – about $170,000 at last report – than his rivals. Most of his funding comes from city taxpayers since he, like Eudaly and Adams, have opted into the public finance system that rewards candidates for only accepting small private donations.
Ironically, a city job that Mapps held only briefly before being fired last year now appears to have given him a leg up in the race. He was the top bureaucrat overseeing the neighborhood associations in the Office of Community & Civic Life, giving him a chance to get to know many of Eudaly’s sternest critics. He said he left the job because of disagreements with the bureau’s top management.
Eudaly runs the bureau, although she said she had no role in his firing. She said she sought to reduce the influence of neighborhood associations by giving advisory powers to other non-geographical affiliations involving such things as race or being a tenant. The issue became particularly inflamed when a Eudaly policy aide, Jamie Duhamel, mocked the neighborhood associations as dominated by white privilege in a series of text messages that became public.
Mapps campaigns on the idea that Eudaly thinks the “neighborhood associations are part of the problem. I think the neighborhood associations are part of the solution.”
At the same time, Mapps doesn’t argue that the city needs to get a wider range of people involved in helping shape city policy. He just said he can do it in a more diplomatic fashion.
As he courts support from neighborhood activists, he expresses skepticism about the city’s plan to allow denser development in single-family neighborhoods – a policy many of neighborhood associations have staunchly opposed over fears it will change the character of their neighborhoods.
Two other candidates, out of the eight who filed for the seat, could also be a factor in the race.
Seth Woolley is a longtime Pacific Green Party activist who twice ran under that party’s banner for secretary of state. A 39-year-old software engineer, he helped put a measure on the city ballot in 2018 imposing strict limits on political donations to city candidates. The measure passed handily, but the Oregon Supreme Court is considering whether these limits are constitutional.
Woolley also wants the city to work more closely with grassroots groups to crack down on air pollution in the city, and he says he wants to use his software expertise to provide more transparency for city records and data.
Keith Wilson, 56, owns a Portland-based trucking company and his campaign signs can also be seen around Portland.
Defying the stereotypical image of a freight-business owner, Wilson said he is a liberal Democrat who supported the “cap and trade” climate bill that has been so controversial in the Legislature.
Wilson said he is committed to electrifying his fleet and wants to do the same for the city. However, he part ways from the other major candidates on homelessness, saying the city should do more to crack down on camping in the city. But he joins them in backing the Metro measure to hike taxes on larger businesses and the well-to-do to provide more money for homeless services.
The other three candidates in the race are Robert MacKay, a commercial driver and attorney; Aaron Fancher, a janitor, and Kevin McKay, who is in banking. None of them filed a statement for the Oregon Voters’ Pamphlet.
There’s a strong chance the race won’t be settled in May. If nobody gets more than 50%, the two top finishers will hold a runoff in November.