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July 22nd, 2009 MARK ZUSMAN | News Stories
 

Sign It

What to do when the recall petitioners ask for your signature.

     
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DO AS HE DOES: Ex-Mayor Tom Potter is one of the few prominent Portlanders to sign the recall petition. Join him.
IMAGE: Jonathan Hill

Recall campaigns are nasty, brutish and short. They also tend to be awkward, divisive and unduly influenced by money.

Yet, after wrestling with this issue, we have come to see the value for Portland in such an election.

That’s why we are endorsing Jasun Wurster’s efforts to gather 32,183 signatures to put the question of recalling Mayor Sam Adams on the ballot.

Not to punish, and not out of rancor; rather, to help our city get back on track.

Given what we now know about the circumstances of Adams’ victory in 2008, there is little doubt voters were deprived of a fair election. In other words, now that we know what Sam Adams prevented us from knowing earlier, shouldn’t we get to decide if he should run our city for the next 3 1/2 years?

And crazy as it sounds, Adams himself should sign the petition. If he is confident most Portlanders want to move on, what better way to prove it than giving them a chance to agree with him?

Plus, it may be the only way we will ever clear the air of the Adams-Breedlove funk that has settled over this city’s summer like a November fog.

Let’s give Adams’ defenders their due. Maybe it is time to move beyond the storyline of Adams the lewdster and Beau Breedlove the opportunistic rascal. Perhaps we should accept Attorney General John Kroger’s calculation that crimes could not be proven. Besides, it could be that everyone lies about sex and our obsession is nothing more than starchy prudery.

Let’s say these arguments have merit. Let’s even concede they’re compelling. But they still ignore the root truth: For more than 16 months, Adams covered up something he felt voters couldn’t handle. And he did so not with a simple lie, but with an artfully constructed deception. He cloaked himself as the victim of anti-gay bias—a skillful spin that won him points in this famously liberal city.

That doesn’t seem quite right.

Adams’ behavior does not lack for company. Just last month we learned about South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, who vanished for a week after telling his staff that he was hiking on the Appalachian Trail. When confronted by a reporter, the Republican governor acknowledged that he actually had been in Argentina with his amante secreta.

In the same month, Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) confessed to an extramarital affair with a member of his campaign staff.

Like Sanford and Ensign, Adams repeatedly lied about his 2005 fling until confronted with evidence too unyielding to ignore. Like Ensign, Adams gave his paramour money. In Ensign’s case, his parents explained that it was not hush money but simply “consistent with a pattern of generosity by the Ensign family.” Adams, who helped Breedlove get a job and gave him $750 late last year, gave a similar explanation: It’s just what friends do.

Ensign was a member of Promise Keepers, a ministry that promotes strong marriages. Adams demonstrated an equal degree of hypocrisy—his mayoral campaign ran on a slogan of “Bringing Ethics back to City Hall.” (In retrospect, the chutzpah is stunning: Tom Potter—who has endorsed the recall—may have been a limp-ish mayor, but he was never criticized for unethical behavior.)

Adams’ behavior arguably went beyond Ensign’s or Sanford’s. Even if Breedlove was doing most of the pursuing, our mayor was still courting Breedlove while he was a minor, though he apparently had the sense to wait until Breedlove was just 18 before he pounced. Worse, Adams did more than just lie—he slimed the man who first raised questions, calling the concerns of Bob Ball (who is gay and, at the time, harbored political ambitions) a “nasty smear by a would-be political opponent…sleazy misrepresentations or political manipulation.”

How to explain Adams’ conduct? Columnist David Brooks, who wrote the 2001 book Bobos in Paradise and now pens a column for The New York Times, may have put his digit on it in a recent interview with MSNBC. Speaking about Sanford and Ensign, Brooks said, “Politicians are all emotional freaks of one sort or another, guaranteed to invade your personal space…a lot of them spend so much time needing people’s love and yet they are shooting upwards their whole life. They are not that great in normal human relationships. And they’re lonely, they reach out….”

If Brooks is correct, do Adams, Sanford and Ensign deserve our animus, or our sympathy? Probably more of the latter than the former. But if Portlanders want to take Adams’ side, they should have the chance to make an unencumbered and informed decision. In other words, shouldn’t we get a mulligan?

Let’s be clear about the Adams scandal: It’s not about sex. It is about the character strengths and flaws of a survivor.

Of all the things you can say about Adams, the word “survivor” most certainly describes him. You don’t escape the abyss of growing up poor and gay in Oregon in the late 1960s and early 1970s without developing a tensile-strength set of nerves. Resilient figures like Adams often have beaverlike work ethics and chameleonlike personalities. They view the truth as a trifle. And they can be ruthless in the face of an opponent.

Contrast Adams’ behavior with Rep. Barney Frank, 69, easily one of the most respected members of Congress. Twenty years ago, reporters learned of Frank’s clandestine affair with a male escort named Stephen Gobie, who had advertised his “hot bottom” in a personal ad. Frank also had used his congressional privileges to fix Gobie’s parking tickets and tried to clear his probation for a prior drug charge. Explosive stuff, but when confronted with the story, Frank did something Adams did not: Frank told the truth. He has since been reelected 10 times.

There’s no way to know if Sam Adams will eventually become a public figure as celebrated as Barney Frank. But we do know what he is at the moment: a pol with a casual disregard for the truth, a willingness to use the power of his office to cover matters up, an instinct to malign inconvenient opponents, and what can charitably be called limited impulse control.

All of which would likely disqualify him from many positions of responsibility. A recall election could determine if Portlanders think one of them is being mayor.


SIGN IT: See citizenrecall.org for petition locations.
 
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