An L-shaped, linoleum-floored, union hall basement at Southeast 32nd Avenue and Powell Boulevard provided the perfect stage last week to show how power in Portland works.

It was there that the Northwest Labor Council, an umbrella group for city unions, on Nov. 15 hosted the first mayoral candidate forum in the 2012 campaign.

In a revealing moment, Eileen Brady, who styles herself as the bike-commuting sustainable business candidate, told the trade-union audience exactly what their members wanted to hear.

"I am very supportive of the Columbia River Crossing project," Brady said. "We are going to take the opportunity—you guys, we cannot miss this opportunity—we have a public works project the likes of what we may not see for a decade. We need to move forward on it."

Only a couple of months earlier, Brady expressed a very different view of the CRC, a proposed $3.5 billion freeway project between Portland and Vancouver that critics deride as unnecessary and unaffordable.

"This project will not go forward in its current form," Brady told WW in August. "I don't see the business plan that works." (Brady says she had not fully studied the issue when she spoke to WW.)

Candidates tailor their messages for specific audiences all the time. But Brady's wavering is an example of how difficult it can be for a politician in Portland to put together a winning coalition.

"Running for office in Portland is a really difficult balancing act," says Mike Lindberg, a former four-term city commissioner. "What you say to one group may kill you with another. And the level of civic engagement is so high that people in all the different groups are really knowledgeable."

Candidates can't appear too business-friendly (and alienate unions and progressives) or not sustainable enough (fatal to any Portland candidate).

They must be liberal enough to attract the three-quarters of major party voters who are Democrats. They must be green but frugal. They'll need to court unions without enraging big business. And they need to support education without making impossible promises—such as Adams' 2008 campaign pledge to slash the dropout rate—when the mayor has no authority over the school district.

The influence of these groups is greater than it has been in decades. Mayor Sam Adams won't seek a second term and the City Council's real power, Commissioner Randy Leonard, is also leaving office after next year.

The last epic battle for the mayor's job came in 1992, when Vera Katz whipped Earl Blumenauer. But you'd have to go much further back to find a more competitive field of candidates than Brady, former City Commissioner Charlie Hales and state Rep. Jefferson Smith (D-East Portland). Police Chief Mike Reese, who strongly considered a campaign, announced Nov. 21 that he won't run after all.

Voters have reason to be cranky. Unemployment is high (about 9 percent), storefronts are empty and the city seems adrift. In May, normally tax-loving Portlanders spiked a $548 million school-bond measure.

Remarkably, though, a Davis, Hibbitts & Midghall poll conducted for the Portland Business Alliance in early October found 43 percent of respondents said the city is headed in the right direction.

That's nearly three times the rate of satisfaction found in a national Rasmussen poll taken the same week.

Even with the election a year off, the city's most powerful groups have already begun using their clout to shape the choices voters will have in 2012. 

What follows is WW's field guide to the election. When candidates say they know what's really important to the future of our city, who, exactly, are they trying to convince? 

Organized Labor
You'll hear candidates use the terms "living wage" and "revenue," and when you do, know they are talking about union jobs and making sure the city can pay for them.

In a town run by liberals, union support is a big prize. Getting that support means talking up concerns about what union members worry about most: compensation, pensions and keeping their jobs.

"Job security is the top concern right now," says Rob Wheaton of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Service Employees Local 189, which represents about 900 City of Portland employees.

The police and firefighters unions give less but sometimes matter more. Each union has a hero complex—protecting the safety and property of citizens.

It's easier to figure out who labor does not like than who it does. As a city commissioner from 1993 to 2002, Hales aimed at saving money by taking on outdated fire bureau policies; he made lifelong enemies out of fire union leaders.

Brady, 50, also has a union problem. New Seasons Market, the 12-store grocery chain she and her husband helped found in 1999, is nonunion. And she was invisible on Measures 66 and 67, income-tax increases approved by voters after heavy supportive spending by public-employee unions.

Union power has already influenced the race in meaningful ways.

A union-funded poll in August helped convince Adams he could not win re-election. And a union drumbeat for a more progressive candidate enticed Smith, with a strong pro-labor voting record in Salem, into the race long after Hales and Brady announced their candidacies.

Public-employee union members at local schools, Multnomah County, Portland State University, OHSU and state agencies and union retirees will all pay attention to what the city unions decide. And here's a connection that can make a big difference: The Oregon AFL-CIO is run by former Portland fire union boss Tom Chamberlain, who can leverage a lot of other labor support.

The Power Lunchers
The Portland Business Alliance fancies itself as the center of Portland's corporate power.

Its 1,400 members include utilities, banks and big law firms, and land-rich families like the Goodmans, whose parking empire owns 25 downtown blocks. The PBA also includes retailers like Macy's.

PBA leaders lunch at the Heathman Hotel and exercise at the Multnomah Athletic Club. They still wear ties and enjoy corner-office views of Mount Hood. The PBA wants Occupy Portland and gutter punks off the streets so Lake Oswegans and Camas tax exiles feel comfortable in the city center.

When you hear candidates talk about lower business taxes and less red tape at City Hall, they're wooing the PBA.

Still, the PBA's interests don't fit with those of most voters: "Conditions in downtown Portland" ranked seventh out of eight concerns among city residents, according to a poll the business group financed in October.

The PBA's sense of power is greater than its actual clout, and its anointed candidates rarely win.

"What hurt me in the mayor race [was] the perception that I was beholden to big business," says former City Commissioner Jim Francesconi, who was widely favored to win the 2004 mayor's race but lost to Tom Potter, who had far less money and no support from big business.

"That's why you see campaigns emphasizing that they are running 'grassroots campaigns.' Candidates want to label themselves progressive before they reach out to business for support."

In 2006, the PBA recruited State Sen. Ginny Burdick (D-Southwest Portland) to challenge then-commissioner Erik Sten. Like Francesconi, she got clobbered.

For some PBA members, the Columbia River Crossing is a litmus test.

It's an example of how agendas of two otherwise different groups—labor and business—overlap.

Brady has been on both sides of the bridge issue. Hales says he favors a new bridge but says the current project will not get funded. Smith, whose corporate law career was almost as brief as Reese's candidacy, founded the Bus Project, which has sometimes overpromised its ability to engage young voters. Smith has no shot at PBA support, in any case, because he opposes the CRC, cutting taxes and relaxing environmental restrictions on the Willamette.

Earlier this month, the PBA delayed its endorsement process to seek another candidate.

Some of its leaders thought they had found one in Reese.

The fact that Reese, 54, considered a run is directly connected to backstage maneuvering by PBA leaders; the organization financed the October poll that showed the race was wide open, and PBA leaders nudged the chief to run.

Reese came out of the Occupy Portland showdown in Lownsdale and Chapman squares with strong marks for taking command and influencing the city's message.

But he stumbled badly elsewhere. He misled The Oregonian twice when the newspaper asked him about the mayor's race before and after WW broke the story of his potential candidacy Nov. 1.

And on Nov. 17, as Occupy protests heated up around the city, Reese told two TV stations police efforts to deal with the movement meant they had to leave a rape victim waiting for three hours before they could help her.

That wasn't true—and the bureau had to retreat from the chief's statement. Reese apologized Nov. 19.

He announced two days later that he wouldn't run.


The Kremlin
In 1990, political consultants Liz Kaufman and Rys Scholes were working for Barbara Roberts, a Democrat running for governor against the better-financed Republican, Dave Frohnmayer.

Roberts' team was squeezing votes out of inner Portland, mostly on the east side. It's a swath of the city known for its hard-left orientation—so far left that Kaufman and Scholes started calling it "the Kremlin."

"We used it to describe inner-Portland voters (not just the east side) who are left-leaning, and who form a critical mass for swinging some elections—if they are effectively worked," Kaufman recalls.

It's home to the school-funding warriors, Prius-driving, bicycle-riding, OPB-loving, never-miss-an-election voters who own $500,000 old Portland homes but love sticking it to The Man.

The Kremlin's unifying issue has been public schools. That's why kids edge out bicycle helmets as the prop of choice in campaign literature. After the economy, two of the top issues for Portlanders in the PBA poll were "ensuring equal rights for all Portlanders" and "having a sustainable environment in the city."

In other words, even these bleak economic times have not changed liberal Portland's outlook. Groups such as the National Abortion and Reproductive Action League, Planned Parenthood and Basic Rights Oregon are big in the Kremlin and will help guide the district's mayoral choice.

"You are talking about people who generally vote for ballot measures and are really well-informed," says former City Commissioner Lindberg, "They are probably pro-Occupy Portland, and an extremely high percentage of them vote."

What the Kremlin voter wants is the most progressive candidate in just about any race.

In 2008, Steve Novick lost to then-Rep. Jeff Merkley (D-East Portland) in the Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate. But Novick's appeal to the Kremlin meant he beat Merkley by 13 percentage points in Portland, even though Novick had never run for office before and Merkley was House Speaker.

The voters helped Potter beat Francesconi in the 2004 mayor's race and Sam Adams when he defeated Sho Dozono in 2008. In a city race between any two credible candidates, the more liberal of the two almost always wins.

Hales might have trouble with these voters. He avoided Oregon taxes on his lucrative salary from HDR Inc., a streetcar development company, by claiming Washington state as his residency for four years—this while voting in Oregon and keeping a Portland home.

Brady's New Seasons connections are appealing to the Kremlin, where she'll compete mostly with Smith. He grew up in the Irvington neighborhood—the epicenter of the Kremlin—and racked up a pretty liberal voting record in two Salem sessions.

The Sustainabilitistas and the Rail Mafia
When you hear candidates talking about bikes and bioswales, they're trying to sway voters who identify with the city's sustainability movement.

Brady has hit this message hard, branding herself with her ties to New Seasons, Ecotrust (where she used to work) and Chinook Book (she's on the board). Her flip-flop on the CRC ceded turf to Smith.

Evan Manvel, a longtime environmental advocate and CRC critic, says in a race where the candidates mostly agree, the CRC offers a point of distinction.

"The CRC will be a larger issue in the race than people initially thought because there are clear differences between the candidates on it," Manvel says.

But streetcar and light-rail extensions and sustainable development also have powerful backers. No candidate code words speak more clearly to a specific constituency than "multimodal transportation."

The planning and sustainability crowd wants Portlanders out of cars and on buses, trains, trolleys, trams and bikes—hence multimodal.

Members of this tribe, led by U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Portland), favor designer eyewear and have advanced degrees in planning, architecture and public administration.

The capos in the movement feature prominently on Hales' list of contributors. Hales was the driving force behind Portland's streetcar, and he quit office in 2002 to work for HDR.

An early sign that Adams' mayoral career was ending came June 21, when Stacy and Witbeck, the California contractor that built the city's light-rail and streetcar systems, gave Hales $25,000. Pearl District developers followed: Al Solheim ($10,000), Williams/Dame ($5,000) and John Carroll ($5,000).

The distinction between the PBA crowd and the transit-oriented developers who are solidly behind Hales, 55, is an important one: The latter group, which has built up the Pearl District and South Waterfront, depends heavily on city money and helps make Portland's projects work.

"It's clear that Charlie appeals to the new urbanists and planners who are behind the transportation and land-use principles that make Portland Portland," Francesconi says.

The Red and the Gray
Yes, Portland, there are conservatives here. It's true Democrats outnumber Republicans 3-to-1. But conservatives have seethed as Adams' administration lavished money on bikes, streetcars, a soccer stadium and plans for the Oregon Sustainability Center, while jacking up water and sewer rates sky-high. Conservatives are angry and motivated—a prize ready for the taking.

Older Portlanders may not drink, have nightly sex, or play kickball as often as younger residents, but they are much more likely to be conservative and vote. That is their power.

Fewer than one in 10 Oregonians under 40 voted in last year's primary election. More than half of those 61 and older filled out a ballot. That means whoever appeals most to older voters is likely to survive the primary.

Portland pollster Mike Riley surveyed the Portland Water Bureau's spending this year.

"We saw the level of discontent with the Water Bureau is correlated to age," Riley says. "Many seniors are on fixed incomes, and so a significant increase in utility costs really hurts them. And they vote."

Look for at least one candidate—probably Hales, a former Republican—to hit GOPers with a stealth mailer and to secure a last-minute endorsement from Vic Atiyeh, Oregon's last Republican governor.

Hales, Brady and Smith have all been angling for the east-of-Interstate-205 vote ("The Other Portland," Oct. 12, 2011), where resentment of City Hall is most pronounced. In 2008, Adams lost every East Portland precinct, some by crushing margins.

Smith lives in outer Northeast Portland, where voters know him from his two Oregon House victories—even if he's a carpetbagger from Irvington.

The Young and the Restless
Like most big cities, Portland's population is disproportionately young. But what makes Portland different from rust buckets such as Cleveland or Omaha is that underemployed youngsters flock here, lured by food carts, good beer and cheap living.

Demographers call them the "young and the restless" and the "creative class." They're in line at Stumptown right now. They can afford tattoos but not haircuts, wear thrift-store threads and cover their MacBook Airs with ironic stickers.

Candidates appeal to them by riding bikes; showing up at the local chapter of Drinking Liberally, a gathering for young Democrats; or trotting out the city musical-political elite, Pink Martini and Storm Large.

But young voters are like doughnuts—really attractive yet ultimately insubstantial.

Getting young voters involved is a big challenge, especially in a primary election. When they register, they don't like to join a party and often vote once—because they've been harassed into it by a get-out-the vote campaign—and then fade.

Smith should have a big advantage with the under-40 crowd (at 38, he is one of them). But he faces a challenge getting enough of them engaged by the May primary to matter.

The Rest of Us
No candidate for mayor is ever going to say that any group, no matter how powerful, is more important than you are.

But in each candidate's words, voters will see coded messages designed to send signals that resonate with the greatest number of voters.

In a city as satisfied with itself as Portland, that's a tricky equation and one that will probably take the six months between now and the primary to decode.

"The candidates are still trying to figure out what their messages are," Riley says. "They are trying to identify areas where people recognize the need for change."

Watch the candidates' pitches for your vote: