Portland Mayor Sam Adams: Exit Time

I
n his waning days in office, Portland Mayor Sam Adams is enjoying record approval ratings. In 2010, two polls showed Adams with disapproval ratings exceeding 45 percent. Today, his approval rating is in the high 50s, a reversal of fortune that skeptics chalk up to a “halo effect.” But Adams also receives enormous credit for balancing one of the most challenging budgets in Portland history and swooping in with a plan to shore up Portland Public Schools and public safety.

In the same way some Republicans loathed President Bill Clinton for the shame of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Sam Adams may never regain the trust and confidence of the “value voter.” His affair with legislative intern Beau Breedlove so scandalized the Mayor’s Office that he was the target of two recall efforts. Adams survived, but decided against running for re-election. He said he made the choice to focus on the goals for the city, not a re-election effort.

Adams’ biggest supporters (and he has plenty) lament the “missed opportunity” of another term for one of the most nimble minds, hardest working and politically astute characters in Portland politics. Whether it was Adams’ support for sustainability, the arts or public education, Adams’ vision for a city that benefits “all citizens” is a force to be reckoned with. Adams inherited an economy shed- ding thousands of jobs per month. Forbes Magazine now calls Portland one of the most promising cities for job creation.

Mayor Adams declined to answer any questions regarding Beau Breedlove or the impact his relationship had on his ability to govern. “We’ve been over that before,” he said. Indeed we have. Adams’ personal transgression cast him with the likes of the charming and cunning Sisyphus, the Greek character condemned to an eternity of rolling a boulder up a hill then watching it roll back down again. Leaving the Mayor’s Office means Adams will finally be free of his critics and the Council, to work at his speed and intensity. With jobs offers in the private and public sector and a thriving relationship with journalist Peter Zuckerman, Sam Adams is just getting started.

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Sam Adams

That is sad.

We go back to days long before. I think I met you when you were the aid to Mayor Katz, correct?

Yes. I was chief of staff to Mayor Vera Katz, and before that, her campaign manager for mayor.

So if you had one phrase to describe what your relationship with City Hall has been like, what would you say?

An amazing education. I would say it’s been a great education, and honestly, an amazing privilege. I was a small-time kid from Newport who used to deliver Portland-based newspapers. Did I ever think I’d be mayor of the city of Portland, Oregon, a city that I didn’t come to until I was 15? No. It’s been a privilege to work for big-hearted Portlanders and Oregonians.

Everyone who has known you has always described you as very tena- cious, very driven and the kind of guy who goes after something and gets it. And so when you think about it again does it really surprise you that you became mayor—given your bio?

I would say that’s genetic. That’s more genetic, yes, probably.

All right, there’s been some city business that has been taking up an awful lot of your time lately. I’ve been fascinated by the [Ron] Frashour case. I remember covering these very difficult use-of-force cases even when I was a TV reporter.

I think you covered the [Douglas] Erickson case.

Exactly. There is this discrepancy behind what the Mayor’s Office wants, what the Portland police want, versus what the union wants. What does it teach us?

You know back in the Erickson case—which was an example of a police officer shooting, over 20 times I think, at someone fleeing the scene unarmed—back then that was within policy and back then that was within the Oregon law. So we changed the policy and we changed the law in 2004 when I worked for

Vera Katz. It said that local policy matters when the arbitrator makes decisions about whether my decision and the chief’s decision regarding discipline is fair and appropriate—that law has never been tested in the courts. And that’s what we’re trying to do is to say whether the arbitrator has to follow the ’04 law or not.

I want you to talk about the industrial part of the Portland Plan, your footprint for growth. So much attention is being paid to industrial jobs. Is this a viable way out of the recession? Industrial jobs?

Absolutely. When you look at the profile of the Portland region, it’s obvi- ously smaller, but the profile features match that of Germany. We still think of things, of innovations, design them, make them and export them. We’ve doubled our exports in the last 10 years. Now our goal under our economic development strategy under the Portland Plan is to double them in the next 5 years. We’ve focused on 4 industries here locally in this region that are glob- ally competitive: athletic and outdoor wear, sustainable industries, software (especially open source software), advanced manufacturing. We make every- thing from ships, to rail cars, to some of the most sophisticated chips, to some of the best food in the world and some of the best beverages in the world. We can compete—we have to compete on exports around the world, or guess what? We don’t maintain and enhance this quality of life that we have and we become this sort of virtual economic suburb to both San Francisco and Seattle. This is within our power—to be the smartest, scrappiest, most fun, small global city in the world.

You’ve spent the last several years working alongside businesses. You’ve made a lot of economic trips to bring business to Portland. Do you buy the rap that this is a difficult place to do business?

I’m about continuous improvement. Figuring out where we’re at, where the competition is and how we innovate them, hustle them, how do we charm them, whatever it takes. And so for me, I ask the question differently: Where should we be improving in terms of our economic strength? I’m the first to say our quality of life is not matched by an equal quality of local economy, but it is within our ability to have it all. I mean this is a city that recently was rated one of the hottest places for job creation in the region by Forbes Magazine. And the only city—you know, I should say one of the few cities that also reduced our greenhouse gas emissions by 26% against 1990 levels. So we can’t just fall into this sort of lazy trap of thinking that it’s quality of life or economic devel- opment. Portland figures out how to make both happen. It’s the environment or economic degradation.

After spending about 2.3 million dollars on the Oregon Sustainability Center, you decided to shut it down. Why?

I just didn’t have the support. My local colleagues on Council said, you know, we might be able to go forward if you find a major tenant. I did find a major tenant, in terms of a local company that was willing to sign up, but then didn’t have the support on Council. And I do know the meaning of not being able to count to 3 on any project. This fundamentally ran into a partisan buzz saw and there was no way to rescue it.

Does it impact our sustainability standing in the nation and have we fallen behind many other cities now?

I think it does. You know, we started out with the biggest collection of the most deeply green, sustainable buildings. That’s now been taken over by bigger population centers. We’ve always got to be on the leading, cutting edge so if it’s not this, it’s got to be something else that keeps us at the front of the pack. The competition is tough.

Reviewing your goals, Mayor Adams, what would you say were the high points?

Well, my announcement to run for mayor was at the height of the irrational, exuberant bubble. Then I took office when the region was bleeding the job loss of 25,000 a month, when the budget was already deeply in the red. So the challenge was to cut administration so that I could preserve front-line services and so that I could put more money into programs that help small businesses and business survive these very tough times—but also to help these folks that were unemployed. So the biggest challenge was dealing with the worst economic collapse since the great depression, and I’m proud of the City Council for getting through it. You know, yes, we’ve had to raise utility bills—so did every other city in the United States. What you didn’t see was an increase in basic taxes. A lot of cities bled their reserves and had to increase basic taxes, like sales taxes. And so we took a conservative approach. We cut and invested in ways that I think and hope will pay off.

And can we talk about the accomplishment that makes you the most proud?

The area of endeavor and accomplishment that makes me the most proud is around education. The most recent class of our scholarship program had recipients where over 80% were kids of color with tough backgrounds, and over 80% were first in their family to go to college. And it isn’t just about a scholarship. It’s about the surround of services that we do this with: Portland Community College and Mount Hood Community College, and now PSU and Lewis and Clark. We’re developing it and it gets bigger and bigger, and I hope the next administration continues that. We’ve changed lives, we’ve inter- rupted poverty, we’ve given people not just hope, but actually the tools to be more successful—and if they’re individually more successful, so is the city.

Do you recall a single, best experience?

Oh I have so many. I would say that I’m so lucky. As mayor you get a lot of feedback, good and bad— Especially in this town.

It’s very intense. I love it. Even when people are yelling at me at Fred Meyer, and someone comes up and hugs me sort of randomly and tells me why later. I would say that I really like the everyday interactions, and when people come up to me and engage on an issue I love to hear how they describe it, how they think about it. That’s how I get my energy. I’m a geek in terms of statistics, but I also want to talk to the people involved, face-to-face, and I want to see things first-hand. I think that’s my upbringing in Oregon and in Portland. You know, one of the most touching things is that I recently got an award for my work helping the janitors in Portland get basic healthcare and basic wages. They handed me a Pendleton blanket from the great Pendleton Woolen Mills that was embroidered with the words, “Thank you for being the janitors’ mayor.” My great grandma from Ireland worked for 17 years cleaning the Catholic cathedral here, before I even lived in Portland… You know, I teared up.

Are you at all emotional about leaving office?

I’ll miss being mayor. This is the best job in the world. But after 31 years of working 6 and 7 days a week in various positions of public service and campaigns, it’s also time for me to do something else for a while. It’s time for me to spend some time with my family and my partner, Peter.

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AFM Winter 2013

First your legacy—what do you think it will be to the city?

I don’t give a damn about legacies. What I give a damn about is what we got done that helps the here and now and makes other opportunities for existing folks and future folks. It’s not only the quick sort of fixes and the quick changes, but it’s doing it in a way that sets up more improvement and more progress. This is a city with high expectations and high involvement, and that’s the raw material of a great city. I’m very optimistic that a lot of the stuff we put in place will continue to be improved upon by people to come.

I want to ask you about Peter because I’ve met him, a delightful man. He’s smart and unbelievably charming. Do you expect to one day be able to marry in this great city?

Doggonit, we’d better. I think society, government at least (churches are sepa- rate and different), should recognize committed, loving couples that are trying to have a life for themselves and take care of each other and have security, and in doing that be able to give their best to their city. I think Portlanders and Oregonians have the right to marry regardless of whether they’re straight or LGBT. I think it’s what’s fair and I think it will be good for society.

Other plans? I want to hear what you’ve got professionally on tap. I’ve been hearing all kinds of great rumors, but I’d love to hear it from you.

Well, let me be the first to tell you. I’ve made a decision… psych! I have not made a decision. I find it’s honestly a little odd being a city mayor and sitting down with somebody who wants to hire you because I don’t know if their issues will come before me in the next 77 days. I am reluctant to make a decision for that reason. I’m so, as you know, focused on what I’ve promised to deliver so it’s hard for me to take energy and look for the future. I’ve got to make a decision. I’ve got to make it pretty soon. I want to stay in Portland. I’ve had some offers in Portland and I’ve had some offers elsewhere outside of Portland, but no deci- sions.

Any in government again? Would you consider it?

So far, one in government, not local.

Would you be willing to move—your relationship, your family—start over in a brand new city? That wouldn’t be my first choice, but I support myself financially, my partner Peter supports himself, and I don’t have any sort of trust fund. I’m retiring, but I’m too young to collect any pension. I’m vested for a pension but I don’t get to collect it for another 20-odd years. So I will be looking for work at some point, and yeah, it’s kind of weird in a job interview when they call you “Mayor.” It’s a little odd. I’m looking forward to a change whatever it might be.

Links

Government: www.portlandonline.com/mayor
Twitter: twitter.com/MayorSamAdams
Facebook: facebook.com/PortlandMayorSamAdams

About The Author: Sheila Hamilton