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Reflecting On Mayor Sam Adams' Legacy

The Regional Arts & Culture Council celebrated Mayor Sam Adams' contributions at its pARTy in the name of Art event.

The Regional Arts & Culture Council celebrated Mayor Sam Adams’ contributions at its pARTy in the name of Art event.

Regional Arts & Culture Council

This week marks the last time Portland Mayor Sam Adams is scheduled to preside over City Council meetings. He served as mayor for four years.  But before that, he served the city as councilman, as lieutenant to a three-term mayor, and as a policy aide in Salem. April Baer looks back on Sam Adams’ legacy. 

Hundreds of people, from the director of the Portland Opera to TV stars from Portlandia, attended a party earlier this month saluting Adams’ work on behalf of the arts over the past twenty years. 

Eloise Damrosch, who heads the Regional Arts and Culture Council, told the crowd that night Adams has pushed Portland in completely new directions when it comes to the arts, “from local music on the city’s phone system, to helping to develop MilePost Five.”

Portland Mayor Sam Adams was a featured guest -- and literal big cheese -- at the Regional Arts & Culture Council's pARTy in the name of Art event.

Portland Mayor Sam Adams was a featured guest — and literal big cheese — at the Regional Arts & Culture Council’s pARTy in the name of Art event.

Regional Arts & Culture Council

MilePost Five is a development of live-work space for artists.

Damrosch also credited Adams as the leading force behind last month’s successful ballot measure for arts funding. He raised the amount of money for art linked to public construction projects, and he created a public match for workplace giving to the arts. 

“We will be thanking Sam for this leadership for many years to come,” Damrosch said. “Starting from Day One, Sam set about to make significant steps forward.”

But very early in his term as mayor, Sam Adams was in serious political trouble. 

In his first month in office, Adams had to acknowledge he had lied about a sexual relationship with a young man who was 17 when they met.  Adams survived calls for his resignation and two unsuccessful recall efforts, to lead the city through the recession and beyond.

“I always saw Sam as someone who really cared about jobs and the economy in ways I suspect didn’t always resonate with some people in Portland, at least,” said Bill Wyatt, who met Sam Adams in Salem during the ‘90s. Wyatt was chief of staff for John Kitzhaber, and Adams worked for then-state state Rep. Vera Katz.

Wyatt said he always felt Adams’ approach on economic issues was informed by a hard-scrabble upbringing in Newport. 

By the time Adams became mayor, Wyatt was running the Port of Portland. The two ended up across the table on several issues over the years, including the Portland Harbor Superfund site, the Willamette River Plan and planned development on West Hayden Island. Wyatt said he found Adams as mayor a tireless advocate for the city — “Very savvy, very quick-witted. Very deal-oriented. Let’s make it happen, and let’s make it happen right now.”

Wyatt said Adams was always available and and fearless about reaching down into the city’s bureaucracy to apply pressure to get something done. 

But that tenacity and also earned Adams a reputation as a fearsome presence at City Hall. 

“I would not have been able to work for Sam when he was chief of staff for Vera Katz,” said Joann Hardesty, who first met Adams at the Capitol, then ran into him again many times when she worked for the county, and later, as an activist on economic and social justice issues. 

“I would go in and he’d have employees standing at attention and he’d be reaming them, giving them the riot act,” Hardesty said. “I mean he was just a vicious, vicious boss!”

But Hardesty saw changes in Adams over his mayoral term. Adams initially resisted getting involved in safety issues, but when a wave of officer-involved shootings undermined public confidence, Adams stepped in, Hardesty said. He interacted directly with a group that frequently criticized the city’s actions, the Albina Ministerial Alliance.

“He made himself and the police chief accessible to the AMA coalition on a quarterly bases,” she said. “We’d sit down and check on progress, changes within the Portland police bureau, check on recent shootings.”

Hardesty said Adams’ reliance on personal relationships opened up some new fronts with the community. She gives him credit for trying to enforce the firing of an officer who shot an unarmed black man two years ago. 

But she’s dissatisfied with one of Adams’ final acts in office: an settlement deal with the U.S. Department of Justice over the police bureau’s use of force. 

Speaking to OPB’s Think Out Loud, Adams characterized the DOJ’s intervention as something he, City Commissioner Dan Saltzman and community leaders all asked for. 

Adams saiD, “We invited the U.S. Department of Justice in, and I’m glad they came. One of the hopes I had was — the Police Bureau was getting thrown so many requests for reform. One group would say this is best practice, one group would say that is best practice. And it was all well-intentioned. I wanted the DOJ to tell us what is best practice.” 

Of the personal scandal that threatened to destroy his mayoral term early on, he said this: “I wouldn’t let it affect the results, and I think the results speak for themselves.”

But Adams also said it also changed the way he worked “In a positive way, it required me to depend my reliance on partnerships, and teamwork.”

Adams isn’t above poking fun at his active social media presence. To him, it’s a function of monitoring the public’s opinion of his work. 

“Oh, you always pay attention to it,” he said. “That’s why I have 60,000 Twitter followers and seek out more. I like the dialogue. My style is a geek and a wonk but I want to see things on my own, face to face.” 

Sandy McDonough is director of the Portland Business Alliance, a group that hasn’t always  seen eye to eye with Adams. But McDonough said there’s no question Adams brought a consummate knowledge of government functions and budget to city hall. He was also, she said, singularly focused the image of downtown.

When downtown storefronts were empty Adams was all ideas, McDonough said: “When we had the changes in the mall, Saks was leaving and we were trying to figure out what we should do. Sam decided we should have H&M in downtown Portland. And he showed up at their offices in New York City, without an appointment, and said, ‘I’m Sam Adams, I’m the mayor of Portland, and I want to come talk to you about being in Portland.’ And H&M of course, was transformational for downtown.”

McDonough said she got dozens of late-night texts from Adams with with big ideas. 

Travis Williams with Willamette Riverkeeper worked with Adams’ administration on exhaustive, complicated issues like the Portland Harbor superfund cleanup. While Adams didn’t have an advocacy background, Williams said he never felt the Mayor was captive to any one interest. 

Travis Williams explained, “He and his staff were open and communicative on a variety of issues. My sense is that he also had the capacity to try to bring others in on contentious issues. I think that’s a testament to him trying to do the right thing, but to do it in a way that he could bring others along.”

Adams’ initiatives didn’t always work out. The Rose Quarter and West Hayden Island top the list of unfinished business. 

Adams isn’t saying what his next chapter will be. 

“I will always have a piece of my life in public policy issues,” he said. “I just can’t not. I’m drawn to that. I haven’t  decided what I’m going to do, but After 31 years of working for govts and campaigns, I’m looking for something in private sector at this point.” 

Adams said he’s received several job offers from around the country.

And he has not ruled out a return to public life.

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