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February 16th, 2011 HENRY STERN | Cover Story
 

Sum Of Sam

We ask Mayor Sam Adams about his political future, marijuana, cop shootings, leaf fees, the crappy economy, bikes and media coverage of him. We also ask whatever happened to “Mike and Jean.” He wasn’t happy about that last question.

lede_Adams_3715Sam Adams - IMAGE: ChrisRyanPhoto.com
     
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This Friday, Feb. 18, Mayor Sam Adams will go before the City Club of Portland to deliver his annual State of the City address.

Typically, Portland mayors use this event to lay out a laundry list of achievements and policy objectives over a Friday lunch even blander than the speech, and then everybody goes home for the weekend.

But as Adams passes the midpoint of a tumultuous four-year term, this year’s remarks will be much more closely watched than usual.

“This will be his platform,” says former Commissioner Mike Lindberg, who served on City Council from 1979 through 1996.

The closer scrutiny comes as Adams is expected to face a tough re-election fight in 2012.

“He did a significant amount of damage to himself out of the blocks. Is he vulnerable to losing? Yes,” says Portland pollster Tim Hibbitts. “[But] is he a viable candidate for re-election? Yes.”

The damage at the outset was the Beau Breedlove scandal that surfaced in the first month of the mayor’s term. Two recall efforts surfaced and fell short.

If you strip away the personal scandal, which raised real questions about his integrity, and simply consider how well Adams has performed as mayor and how well he has executed on his campaign promises, the record is mixed.

On policy questions over the past two-plus years, the mayor gets credit for carving out a projected $3.5 million surplus in the upcoming budget by making cuts early in his tenure via a hiring freeze, attrition in city positions and raising revenues with unpopular moves like increased parking-meter rates. And the city has maintained its AAA credit rating.

But for a guy who seems to relish being called a “policy wonk,” Adams has proven to be surprisingly maladroit at initiatives both large and small. He botched an attempt to move the Portland Beavers to the Rose Quarter, completely failed to prepare the public for his bold initiative to use sewer dollars to supplement bicycle infrastructure, and in a more recent, smaller-bore example, largely whiffed on a poorly thought-out effort to implement a leaf-removal fee.

For a guy who has been involved in politics virtually his entire adult life, Adams seems to lack an ability to execute, relying instead on a now-tired habit of naming large task forces that meet endlessly and decide nothing.

And there’s no evidence yet in the middle of a recession that Adams will meet his previously stated goal of 10,000 new jobs by 2014. In fact, in one sign of the city’s fragile job base, Adams hightailed it to Spain last week because of concern that wind-farm company Iberdrola’s North American headquarters might be leaving Portland and taking 350 jobs with it.

It also doesn’t appear Adams will succeed in another ambitious goal he set out to achieve by 2013—halving the non-completion rate for students in Portland high schools.

Other Adams achievements come with a flip side.

He and Commissioner Randy Leonard led the charge to convert PGE Park into a stadium that enables Major League Soccer to begin play here in April. But the cost of upgrading soccer resulted in the loss of baseball in Portland, as Adams aborted his effort to get a minor-league baseball stadium in the Rose Quarter. Meanwhile, redevelopment of that area remains moribund.

Commissioner Randy Leonard, who has served under three mayors, says Adams is by far the most collaborative mayor he’s worked with. Commissioner Dan Saltzman has another view, informed by Adams’ yanking the Police Bureau away from him in May 2010, firing then-Chief Rosie Sizer and promoting Mike Reese (a favorite and bandmate of Leonard’s). That abrupt move so angered Saltzman, the Council’s senior member, that he’s considering challenging Adams next year.

He’s not alone. Other potential mayoral challengers are former commissioners Charlie Hales (a lock to run) and Jim Francesconi (given his disastrous 2004 mayoral run, another campaign is highly unlikely).

Current pols who might run besides Saltzman (hard to imagine him wanting such a gladhanding role, but he’s become a more familiar face lately at neighborhood associations) are Multnomah County Chairman Jeff Cogen (a former City Hall chief of staff for Saltzman, but who would have to give up his county seat to run for mayor) and Democratic Congressman Earl Blumenauer (fewer cross-country flights for the former city commissioner and unsuccessful 1992 mayoral candidate, more neighborhood sewer meetings).

And, of course, there are wild cards, such as a never-was pol like Steve Novick (who the hell knows what he’s ever going to do?).

But none of them—or us—should forget that the 47-year-old mayor is the ultimate political creation.

Adams started as a Salem political operative for House Democrats in the late 1980s and has been in City Hall for nearly two decades, first as chief of staff to Mayor Vera Katz, then as a city commissioner and now as mayor. He is, by all accounts, tough and willing to do anything to preserve his position. (Whether Adams could raise the estimated $500,000 to $750,000 to run a successful re-election campaign is another question.)

Adams’ speech should preview the case Adams will muster when he announces—most likely later this year—that he will run for a second term.

In advance of the City Club event, WW sat down with Adams for an hour Feb. 4 in the Starbucks at the Governor Hotel to talk about his mayoral term so far. We asked him about everything from police and leaf fees to bikes and the city’s stubbornly high unemployment rate. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

WW: Before we get to the policy stuff, let’s deal with whether you’re going to run again.

Mayor Sam Adams: I haven’t decided. The tradition is, toward the end of this calendar year. I’m not devoting energy to the issue of whether I’m running or not because there’s just so much to do.


With what’s happened politically and personally over the past two years, will it be harder for you to raise money?

I’ve raised significant amounts of money for the schools [Portland Public Schools is campaigning for a $547 million bond measure this May, as well as asking voters to renew a five-year levy], so I’m not finding it to be an issue. I’m getting a lot of encouragement to run again. But I’ve told everybody I’m not going to make a decision until toward the end of this calendar year. 


If you weren’t mayor, what would be your dream job?

When I was growing up, I wanted to be a farmer. 


Growing what?

I don’t think I thought it through that much.


Think this medical-marijuana thing is about to take off? 

The medical-marijuana thing has not been part of my farming ambitions. 


What do you think about medical marijuana?

I’ve been supportive of the medical-marijuana initiative.


How about legalization? 

It would have to be done in an incredibly smart manner. My answer to that right now is really colored by the fact we have so little money going to schools and so much money going to incarcerate nonviolent drug offenders. I think it would be a lot cheaper to have them in recovery programs. Instead, we’re just warehousing them without sufficient services. And we’re just starving our schools. I don’t see legalization of marijuana happening anytime soon. In the meantime, the reforms I believe are needed are around the sentencing guidelines for nonviolent drug offenders.


You could tax marijuana to raise money for schools...

I just don’t see that as a panacea right now. And I don’t see it as very doable right now.


What grade would you give yourself so far as mayor? 

The teacher gives the grades, not the student. In this case, the teacher is the public, the press and everyone else. I’m not about to give myself a grade. I’m working hard. I’m working to earn an A, but it’s up to others to decide whether or not I’ll be graded an A. When I look over the past two years, we’ve accomplished more than most any other mayor that I kept track of over the last two years.


Would you say better than Vera’s first two years? 

I wouldn’t. She’s my friend. They are completely two different times in Portland’s history. I understand that you want to get me into all kinds of trouble. But I don’t compare like that.


What’s improved on your watch?

We’re one of the few cities in the United States that actually has a budget surplus. We did that by cutting early, assuming revenues lower than staff presented to me, and a lot of luck. This City Council worked harder to cut earlier than we had to, deeper than recommended by the financial staff. Employees had to forgo raises, and we made significant improvements in our employee contracts. The other thing I would say is, on the jobs front. I think we were bleeding 25,000 jobs when I was sworn in. We now have an economic development strategy. We’ve got a long ways to go and a lot more to do.


The budget surplus you cited of about $3.5 million is only for this upcoming year. The same forecast you’re referring to predicts that in five years we will face deficits. Is our future financially sustainable? 

You asked me what I was proud of. And we have a budget surplus. A one-time budget surplus. We’re in a very different position than most major cities in the United States and most of the governments around us. And we did it the hard way. We didn’t have massive increases in taxes like most cities around the United States have had. We’ve had to raise some fees. But general taxes, we didn’t do that.


What about the leaf-removal fee? Is that going to be back next year?

We’ll see. I’m polling on it.


Is polling a way to decide?

I was, I think, appropriately criticized for not doing enough public outreach. We’d been talking about [the leaf fee] for three years. But people didn’t realize this was the year we were going to do it. It’s not the only measure in which we will make a decision, but I think that outreach is important.


In your 2009 State of the City speech, you set a goal of 10,000 new jobs by 2014. Can you give us a sense of any progress made toward that goal? 

Well, we’ve lost jobs since then, obviously. The national recession has gone on longer than anyone anticipated. But I’m not giving up on that goal. And it’s an important organizing goal for my work. This is something that has been a chronic, not-very-well-understood vulnerability of our city, our economy. The strength of our quality of life is not matched by the strength of our economy. We really do risk becoming an economic suburb of San Francisco and Seattle unless we really put some effort and investment into strengthening and diversifying our economy.


Is there a city you look to as a template for that economic diversity?

Our challenge is to be one of the smallest, most successful global cities in the world. Cities like Toronto, Vancouver, B.C.—those are bigger cities than we are, but they’re close. You have cities like Geneva, which is an international city that has hundreds of years of a head start on us. But what I’m going to be talking about in the State of the City is a new template. It’s a small, agile, global city. And, it’s building on our strength. We’re already the third or fourth region in the United States with the most trade per capita.

So, you know the meme that’s out there that you’re too distracted to finish anything? Give us a couple examples of something you started and finished in your first two years.

There’s the economic development strategy, reform of the Portland Development Commission. There’s the reorganization of city government. We took on the chronic dysfunction in city government where you had two housing bureaus. Done. We took on the chronic dysfunction of the permitting function of the city, where you have eight different permitting organizations, physically spread out over the entire city and driving people insane. That was co-located. I said when I ran I wanted to infuse sustainability into all the work of the city, not just have it be sort of a boutique thing that sort of jumps up and down just to get people’s attention. I can go down the list if you want. I’ve increased funding for arts and culture. I didn’t know that I would actually get the opportunity to talk about actual accomplishments. This is rare. Let’s see if it actually shows up in the actual newspaper.


Any regrets for not taking the Police Bureau when you started as mayor in 2009?

I did not assign myself the Police Bureau because of the economic plight that the city was in. And I wanted to have enough time and focus to do a quality economic-development strategy. 


Do Commissioners Dan Saltzman and Amanda Fritz have enough to do?

Amanda tells me she definitely has enough to do. I read in the paper that Dan might want more things to do, although he’s never asked me for that. At the end of the budget process, I’ll be looking at bureau assignments and potentially making changes. 


How do you find time to be on Twitter so much?

There’s a lot of in-between time when you have this kind of a job. Tweeting, because it’s 140 characters, doesn’t take a lot of time. 


Do you ever have any tweets you regret? 

Oh, I’m sure there are, but I can’t think of any. Because then you’ll ask me which one. Like I haven’t been through these interviews before [laughs].

How’d you find time to be in a Portlandia episode? 

That took an hour and 10 minutes on a Saturday. I think I look appropriately like a total goofball. I had 11 years to practice being the mayor’s assistant. 


Having been the mayor’s assistant, what’s been the biggest surprise actually having the job of mayor?

When Vera was mayor, she was very good at being polite. But she was very good at making her way down the sidewalk to the grocery store and back. And when I became mayor, I realized there’s a lot more visibility. People are great, don’t get me wrong. I get great ideas and great feedback from being out and about by myself. But it can be hard sometimes to make your way through, like, the grocery store. So you know the visibility is going to be more, but to actually live that visibility is a big adjustment. 


Let’s switch to discussing whether Portland police officers should be part of the federal Joint Terrorism Task Force. What’s the best argument you’ve heard against rejoining when the Council votes later this month?

The best argument I’ve heard so far is that there’s a huge unknown between local efforts and Washington, D.C. There’s a big bureaucracy between that. [There are] concerns about accountability, oversight, transparency, which inherently is part of their work. It’s lack of transparency. Concerns that our legal rights could be abused and we wouldn’t know. 


Interim U.S. Attorney Dwight Holton told us recently that things are better under the Obama administration. Are you at all empathetic to that argument?

I didn’t trust the Bush administration to balance the legal rights with the necessities of intelligence gathering. This is a different administration. I have a lot more trust in it. But it’s still, for me, an open question because I’m going into it with an open mind. 


Have the past year’s spate of five fatal police shootings been a statistical anomaly, or is there a systemic problem in the Police Bureau? 

There are too many, regardless of whether it’s a statistical anomaly or some sort of operational trend. [But] I think it’s a couple of things. We have a lot more people that are down on their luck, or mentally ill, or addicted in some way and on the streets. There are such holes in the safety net now that people that used to have significant treatment are now on the street.


How much of a cultural hurdle is there in the Police Bureau along the lines of “I’m a cop, I’m not a social worker”?

We have to change that. Every police bureau has had to transform from a paramilitary organization to community policing. But now, the next step is—whether we like it or not—much more of a social one. We have great folks in the Police Bureau. 

INCOMPLETE: The mayor says he’s “not about to give myself a grade” but that he’s accomplished a lot so far.
Credits: chrisryanphoto.com

Are gangs a problem in Portland, or is it overblown by the media?

It’s a significant problem for African-Americans and for Asian-Americans. African-Americans constitute about 4 percent to 5 percent of the population. But they constitute about 40 percent of the victims of violent gang crime. So, it is a big problem. Asian-Americans, it’s less of a disparity. But one is too many. 


Let’s move on to education. You said you hoped to cut the non-completion rate by students in Portland high schools by 50 percent by 2013. How’s that coming along?

Great. We’ve merged the Portland Schools Foundation, the education cabinet, leaders roundtable. We have the school districts countywide all agreeing on what it means to have a continuum of education. And now we’re inventorying the community. We know the best interventions for a third-grader who is deficient in their test scores, and now we’re looking at who in the community provides the services necessary for that virtuous intervention. We are work[ing] now to get this bond measure passed.


But has the rate improved?

You’ll see in my State of the City speech where we have made some amazing progress to move much quicker in terms of what needs to get done. The big wild card is funding. 


What are you going to say in that speech about the Rose Quarter and why it’s taken so long to redevelop?

You mean for 16 years? The biggest reason is that no one would make a decision about Memorial Coliseum and that it’s eight square blocks.


Do you ever wish you had stuck with the plan to put a minor-league baseball stadium there for the Beavers?

No. [Commissioner] Randy Leonard always wanted it in East Portland. I always pushed him and others to look at the Rose Quarter. But I did that without the knowledge we’d have to tear down Memorial Coliseum.


So, what do you say on a warm summer day or night to people who took their families to Beavers games at PGE Park now that it’s been remodeled as a soccer stadium?

First off, it isn’t just about the Beavers. It’s about the Winterhawks. So, you tear down Memorial Coliseum and they’re going to have to be playing Sunday at 2 pm in the Rose [Garden] or, you know, Thursday at 11 pm. Did we work hard to keep the Beavers here? We looked at 21 different places. We couldn’t make it work. 


You just named your longtime chief of staff, Tom Miller, to head the city’s Bureau of Transportation. What are his qualifications?

He was chief of staff to the transportation commissioner for six years. No one has ever had that kind of experience in helping to manage a transportation bureau. 


But at a 50 percent pay increase to $150,000 a year?

That’s what bureau managers get paid, and they earn it. Because they have to work really hard. I’m a demanding boss. 


There was a comment on a BikePortland.org post a while back from a cyclist who likened you to the “Greg Oden of Portland politics”—in essence, that you can’t deliver for them. What would you say to that person?

That’s just not true. 


Are you surprised you get criticism from some cyclists for not doing enough?

I’m the mayor. You get criticized by every faction of the community. If you don’t get any criticism, I can guarantee you it’s a mayor that’s not doing a good job.


What is the biggest misconception about you among the public?

I think you’ve asked me that like six times since you’ve interviewed me. I don’t spend a lot of time on issues like that. I spend time on getting stuff done, and my track record in the last two years shows we’ve gotten an amazing amount of work done. Do people know about it? No, not necessarily. I’m trying to set up systems that are always seeking to improve, and are here when I’m gone. 


We ask reporters pitching a story sometimes to summarize the story in two sentences. Indulge us. What would your two-sentence story summary be for the past two years?

I think Barack Obama answered this exact question really well. In my own words, “working hard, getting a lot of good stuff done and, you know, taking a lot of fire.”


Speaking of Obama, when he came to Portland last October, why weren’t you on the airport tarmac to greet him?

Because I wanted to see how we did presidential visits. I’ve met many presidents, I’ve sat with many presidents. In this case I wanted to see it from the same place [Police Chief] Mike Reese and his incident commander see it. 


Did anybody ask you not to be there?

No. 


You seem to be especially upset with The Oregonian in recent weeks. Do you feel they treat you fairly?

I just want the same thing newspapers want, to be treated fairly. And you know…certain newspapers have a different starting point. WW is “news with an edge.” The Oregonian sets itself up as a paper of record. When we asked for corrections and, you know, we’re told by the editor-in-chief, “Don’t give me that Journalism 101 bullshit”…. Rarely over the years—until The Oregonian changed their style—I wouldn’t complain. I mean, you all have a tough job to do. But we asked what is their corrections policy, [and] after being turned down every single time,  [Editor] Peter Bhatia wrote back, “Don’t give me this Journalism 101”—I think he said—“bullshit.”


What was the issue?

It was a series of things that we had asked them to correct or explain…[Bhatia] said, “Just meet with me.” So Tom [Miller] met with him. And then more stuff came out that was just not based on the facts. So we finally just said, give us a copy of your corrections policy. And he wrote back, “Don’t give me this Journalism 101 bullshit.”


[Editor’s note: A copy of the email exchange provided by Adams’ office does not include Bhatia using the word “bullshit.”]


In your 2010 State of the City speech, you mentioned “Mike and Jean” as average Portlanders you’d met, and we were skeptical they existed. Did you ever see them again?

No. Why did you guys go crazy over that? You are really in a bubble. You need to spend a day with me. I was on the corner here, and a woman—an artist—was talking with me about what she needs in terms of support for the arts. I get this all day long. These are tough times for people. And I’m very recognizable and they approach me with their needs and wishes and hopes and complaints. All day long. And I love it. Except Sunday afternoons. It’s kind of like you guys thought that was so unusual that we would have to make things up. We were all laughing our asses off in the office because it shows you have no idea how bad things are for people out there. You thought we would have to make up somebody. I could choose, just in my day today, like a half a dozen [people]. The fact that you guys thought that says something about your trust in me. I get that. But you need to get out more. People are really struggling out there. 


Adams’ political action committee, as of Feb. 14, had a deficit of $139.19 and hadn’t recorded a contribution since Oct. 28, 2010.

In 2004, Adams ran for city commissioner and defeated Nick Fish, who four years later won a different Council seat. In 2008, Adams defeated a dozen candidates in the mayor’s race, with more than 58 percent of the vote.

Metro Portland’s unemployment rate was 9.6 percent when Adams took office in January 2009. As of December 2010, the most recent period for which statistics are available, the rate was 10.2 percent. In the same time frame, the national rate went from 7.6 percent to 9.0 percent.

Also up for re-election in 2012 will be Commissioners Randy Leonard and Amanda Fritz. Neither has said whether he or she will seek re-election. And there’s some buzz that potential mayoral hopefuls like Jeff Cogen and Steve Novick may prefer to run for an open Council seat instead of challenging an incumbent mayor.

The November 2012 ballot is likely to ask voters to repeal Oregon’s ban on same-sex marriage. Adams, who is gay, could benefit from a high turnout by liberal Portlanders motivated to return their ballots because of that gay-rights question.

 
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