The president of the Women’s Center for Leadership introduces Brady, 50, with a recitation of her achievements: chairman of a publishing company, high-tech executive, leader at an environmental nonprofit, and co-founder of New Seasons Market.
When it’s her turn, Brady delivers something more than a stump speech. Instead, she talks about how she stitched those career highlights into a compelling personal narrative.
It’s a tapestry, she says, woven from disparate strands of her life—from a teenager who might have been at home marching with Occupy Portland, to a young mother working in a grocery store, to a wealthy businesswoman.
She learned how to do this, Brady says, by reading Composing a Life, a 1989 book by anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson.
“Women don’t tell their stories the same way as men do, and that’s OK,” Brady says. “If we can learn to tell our stories like this, we can take power in a situation.”
Her story’s power has propelled Brady from a virtual unknown a year ago to the best-financed and most-talked-about candidate for mayor of Portland.
With many voters still undecided, she is nonetheless the front-runner among the leading opponents, former City Commissioner Charlie Hales and state Rep. Jefferson Smith (D-East Portland).
WW has spoken to five dozen people who have known Brady throughout her life. Friends and co-workers say she is intelligent and hardworking, tireless and charismatic.
“I love her,” says Linda Delgado, government affairs director of Oxfam America. “It’s not that easy to find a person who is incredibly good with people, deeply caring and giving, and who’s also very effective. Leaders like that don’t come along very often.”
Brady claims to have 25 years of experience as a manager and executive—a claim that doesn’t quite add up. But the thrust of her career has been sales and marketing, whether it’s groceries, CD-ROMs or email lists.
“Eileen is a very capable person,” says Spencer Beebe, president of Ecotrust, the nonprofit where Brady worked from 2001 through 2005. “She’s smart. She’s a good seller. She’s instinctively political.”
Brady has also said she’s an entrepreneur who has taken risks. “I know what it’s like to have thousands of people depending on you for a paycheck,” she said in a speech last year.
But Brady has never run a company or had to make a payroll, nor has she ever been elected to office or run a large organization as the top executive. In these areas, she would enter office with less experience than any major mayoral candidate in decades.
“It’s true I’m not a politician,” she says. “I bring a lot of life experience.”
Most crucial to her campaign—and most problematic—are her stories about New Seasons Market, the 13-year-old local grocery chain.
Brady has called herself a New Seasons “founding co-owner.” WW asked her last summer to name her chief qualification to be mayor.
“Entrepreneur,” she said. “Founded a company that grew to 2,000 jobs in 10 stores.”
But neither of those things is true, and a great deal else about her New Seasons story is exaggerated (see more at "New Seasons Founder Refutes Brady's Claims").
The challenge Brady faces—now and if she’s elected—is moving her personal story into one of specifics and action.
For now, what she offers voters is her story.
“Listen up,” Brady
tells the women at the leadership breakfast, before launching into her
narrative. “You’re listening for what works.”
BRADY ON SALES AND STORYTELLING
Brady gave a talk called "The New Seasons Story" at the Oregon Wine Industry Symposium in Portland on February 21, 2012. Video by Kara Wilbeck.
Brady’s story often begins with the murder of her grandfather, a Chicago police detective shot while on duty in 1945. Newspaper stories say Charles A. Brady Sr. was shot by a mobster who in turn was found buried in a field.
Charles Jr. became a prosperous lawyer and businessman in Evanston, Ill., an affluent Chicago suburb, where he and his wife, Susanne, raised five children. Eileen, born in 1961, was the oldest.
Brady’s mother became a member of Evanston’s city council and a Democratic Party activist. She appointed Eileen, then 12, as a precinct captain, canvassing door-to-door.
“We were a straight-arrow family with straight-arrow parents,” Brian Brady, her youngest sibling, says. “We grew up thinking politics could be a noble pursuit.”
At Evanston Township High School, Eileen Brady joined an alternative program called “senior seminar” because she didn’t like the way she was being graded by her science teacher. “She was a bit of a rebel, and looking for a path,” says Phil Roden, one of the seminar teachers and a family friend, who’s now a business partner with Brady’s brother Chip.
Brady went to Hampshire College, a small, unorthodox liberal arts university in Amherst, Mass. During spring break her freshman year, she embarked on what she now calls a “formative experience.”
Freshly trained at a camp run by an activist priest, Phillip Berrigan, and a nun, Elizabeth McAlister, Brady and four other Hampshire women staged an anti-nuclear “die-in” at the Pentagon on March 21, 1980. They harangued workers and smeared blood and ashes on the walls.
“A litany recalling U.S. aggressions was read,” reported The Climax, Hampshire’s student-run newspaper. “A siren. People. Splash. Death. Red. Dust. Blood. Noise. Screams. Police. Screams. Applause. Death. Dust. Gag.”
Police arrested Brady and four others and cited them for inflicting property damage, a federal violation. Brady later defended herself in court and that June served 14 days of a 30-day sentence in a Richmond, Va., jail. Brady says she led her other defendants in a chant as she was led from the courtroom to jail.
Brady says the experience taught her a valuable lesson: “To stand up for your convictions and live with the consequences.”
It also changed the course of her life. “My parents said, ‘You can go back to school anywhere you want, but you may not go back to that school,’” she recalls.
Brady transferred to another experimental school—the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., where students make up their own majors and don’t get grades. “It was a womb place—very wet, very nurturing, very safe,” recalls Kathleen Granger, a friend of Brady’s from those days.
Brady studied what she calls “organizational development,” and in her senior year was chosen by her peers to lead the Services & Activities Fee Allocation Board, Evergreen’s closest thing to a student government.
The board ran on consensus. “Eileen was especially good at it,” Granger says. “There was no schmooze to Eileen.”
Brady was 22 and a senior when she became pregnant. Her boyfriend, Tim O’Connor, worked on Evergreen’s organic farm. Their first child, Caitlin O’Brady (a combination of her parents’ surnames), was born at home in March 1983. That May, the couple married on the farm. “It was very romantic,” Brady says.
Back in Chicago, Brady’s mother thought her daughter had joined a cult. Brady ran for the Olympia Food Co-op board. She still remembers her margin of victory: 121-4. Those four lost votes prompted a tearful call to her mother. “She said, ‘Oh, Eileen, you have so much to learn,’” Brady recalls.
In March 1985, O’Connor and Brady had a second child, Colin O’Brady, also at home; they lived at the Alexander Berkman Collective, a house in Olympia named for a notorious anarchist. O’Connor soon got a job in Portland at Nature’s Fresh Northwest, an organic grocery on Southwest Corbett Avenue.