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April 11th, 2012 COREY PEIN | Cover Story
 

The Road to Hales

Charlie Hales is running for mayor based on his record. It’s full of detours, roundabouts and switchbacks.

lede_hales_3833CHARLIE HALES - IMAGE: chrisryanphoto.com
Not many people remember the great snout-house debate of 1999. 

But Jeff Fish does.

His company, Fish Construction NW Inc., has built homes throughout the Portland area for 40 years. Like many homebuilders, he doesn’t like government telling him how to build his houses.

But in July 1999, the Portland City Council, on largely aesthetic grounds, unanimously voted to prohibit “snout houses”—uninviting, suburban-style homes that greet passersby not with front doors but a protruding, piggish two-car garage.

HI, I’M CHARLIE: Hales greets a potential voter at Peninsula Park in North Portland. He has lived in Eastmoreland full-time since 2010.
IMAGE: chrisryanphoto.com
It stung all the more because the ban was championed and developed by City Commissioner Charlie Hales. Hales had been the lobbyist for the Home Builders Association of Metropolitan Portland, of which Fish was a major backer. 

Fish described Hales for the more than 1.1 million readers of The New York Times, which wrote about the snout-house debate. 

“He’s a traitor,” Fish said. 

Fast-forward 13 years.

Hales—out of government for a decade—is running for Portland mayor. And Fish recently shocked his fellow homebuilders by endorsing the man he once denounced.

“To be honest with you,” Fish tells WW, “I don’t remember all the things I was angry with Charlie about back then. I’m supporting him now.”

Fish is one name on a long list of former Hales adversaries who have put aside their past problems with a candidate who is treating the mayor’s race like a comeback tour.

Hales, 56, has an old-fashioned approach to politics that befits his personal style. He looks more comfortable in a tie than in a T-shirt, still wears his college signet ring, favors PCs over Macs and enjoys sailing.

His chief mayoral opponents are easier to pigeonhole. State Rep. Jefferson Smith (D-East Portland) is running as the young intellectual. Businesswoman Eileen Brady is the hippie-capitalist hybrid. 

Hales is running on his experience—a decade in City Hall when Portland was riding high economically and the city seemed to work a lot better. 

In those flush times, from 1993 to 2002, Hales championed the Portland streetcar, built community centers and passed a big parks levy. He helped kill a proposed on-ramp to Interstate 5 from Southeast Water Avenue that business leaders wanted, and he tangled with the firefighters’ union to diversify the fire bureau. 

“All you’ve got to do is ride around this city and you can see with your own eyes all that he’s done,” says T.J. Browning, a Hales volunteer who worked against him during Hales’ first campaign in 1992. “You can see Charlie Hales’ footprints everywhere.”

Hales would say he’s a pragmatist with a knack for turning enemies into allies. 

But it’s not that simple.

Hales is a shape-shifter who has adapted to whatever political environment he’s in. 

Before he embraced density and smart planning, he supported a Washington County highway proposal that would have plowed through farmlands and seeded sprawl.

Before he touted himself as a neighborhood tree planter, he advocated allowing developers to clear-cut lots and suggested people who didn’t like it should move to the country.

Before he was a Democrat, he was a Republican.

Former Mayor Vera Katz, who served with Hales for 10 years and has endorsed him this year, says she never could pinpoint Hales’ core political beliefs. “In the city, politically, there was no reason to do that,” she says.

Jon Chandler, whom Hales hired at the homebuilders’ association in 1990 and is now that organization’s chief executive, has privately compared Hales to one of the pod people in Invasion of the Body Snatchers—a replica of himself, created overnight, identical on the outside, alien on the inside.

“I won’t deny saying that,” Chandler says.

All the same, he supports Hales and excuses the candidate’s shifting views. “If you’re a lobbyist, you have the luxury of representing your client,” Chandler says of Hales. “If you’re an elected official, you don’t have that same luxury. He’s a sincere man.”

Others are less forgiving. Commissioner Randy Leonard—a fierce adversary of Hales’ since the mid-1990s, when Leonard ran the firefighters’ union and Hales ran the fire bureau—says Hales took too much credit for team successes and rarely admitted to mistakes.

“If you’re the mayor, that can be a crippling character flaw,” says Leonard, who endorsed Smith. Leonard calls Hales “an opportunist.”

Hales is also a classic revolving-door politician. He set fundraising records in his 2000 re-election campaign with donations from city contractors. Two years later, he abandoned his City Council seat to work for a city contractor trying to break into the streetcar business.

He’s back, portraying himself as a concerned citizen—“I’m a Portland guy,” he likes to say. But he only recently returned to the city, after living in Washington state, where he avoided paying tens of thousands in Oregon income taxes. At the same time, he kept voting in Oregon—possibly violating state elections law by voting as a nonresident. (See "State of Charlie" on page 2.)

Hales says he’s committed to Portland, and his ethics are unimpeachable.

“People need to know there’ll never be that terrible day where you open the newspaper and say, ‘Oh no!’ That will not come with me,” Hales says. “People may not always agree with me. Of course that’s the case, if you do anything at all in public. There will never be a day when anyone has a reason to question my integrity.”

DEBATE CLUB: Hales’ public-speaking skills helped propel him into office in 1992.
IMAGE: chrisryanphoto.com

 

Charles Andrew Hales was, in fact, a Boy Scout. Born in January 1956 in Washington, D.C., Hales grew up and attended public schools in the suburbs of Alexandria, Va. 

His mother, Carol Hales, was a homemaker. His father, Alfred Ross Hales Jr., was a structural engineer for the U.S. Navy, designing barracks, runways and harbors.

Hales grew up virtually as an only child—his two siblings were much older than him. At Thomas Edison High School in Alexandria, Hales rigged lighting for the drama club, played first-chair baritone horn, and built a glass-crushing machine at home as part of a bottle-recycling fundraiser for band uniforms.

He was also mischievous—within certain limits. When his brother, Bud, got married, the newlyweds started the engine of their getaway car only to hear a loud bang. Bud saw Charlie rolling on the ground in laughter. He had rigged a smoke bomb that disabled the spark plugs.

“We probably broke some law,” Charlie Hales jokes.

But he didn’t get in trouble. “A policeman helped him wire it,” Bud Hales recalls.

At the University of Virginia in 1975, Hales joined a club that booked campus entertainment and helped bring two notorious Watergate figures to campus, E. Howard Hunt and John Dean. Dean’s UVA speech was his first public appearance following his release from jail for crimes committed while serving as White House counsel to President Richard Nixon.

WONKFEST: Hales draws on long experience and can talk policy in detail.
IMAGE: chrisryanphoto.com
Hales put himself through college running his own construction firm, Hales & Co., founded with his first wife, Patricia Haywood, his high-school sweetheart.

Hales graduated from UVA with a bachelor’s degree in political theory in 1979. That summer, the Haleses moved to Portland. Hales says they were attracted by the state’s spirit of open-minded progressivism. One of their three children, Gavin, repeats family lore about the move: 

“My mom ended up reading some article that said because of the mica in Portland sidewalks, the sidewalks sparkled,” he says. “That was a selling point for her.”

In Oregon, Hales first went to work as a lobbyist. “I was never in a position to try and sell a proposition that I didn’t agree with,” he says.

Hales first worked for the Oregon Mobile Home Park Association, a job he now omits from his résumé.

Hales represented the mobile-home park owners. In January 1980, he attacked a state program mandating inspections at mobile-home parks, where density sometimes created sewer and water-quality problems.

“A mobile home doesn’t need reinspection any more than a regular home does,” Hales was quoted saying in The Oregonian. “This is a holdover from the days when the tenants of mobile-home parks were poor and transient. This is not the case anymore.” In 1982, Hales called mobile homes a “progressive” form of housing. 

In 1984, Hales went to work for a bigger client: the Home Builders Association of Metropolitan Portland.

The homebuilders opposed limits on where and how they could put subdivisions, and what kind of homes they could build. They also fought system-development fees, often charged by local governments to fund new streets and water and sewer services.

In 1987, Hales lobbied for a bill in the Legislature that would have shifted development charges from builders to homebuyers, who would have to pay off the fees over 10 years. Critics said it wasn’t fair to homeowners or local governments. Hales had a different view. “The system we have now stinks,” he said.

Today, Hales says the bill was an “initial skirmish” for the 1991 statute passed by the Legislature that still regulates how local governments can levy such charges—a compromise Hales says he is “comfortable with.”

One of the most controversial stances Hales took as the homebuilders’ lobbyist was opposing a tree-preservation ordinance in Beaverton. The city was trying to prevent developers from cutting down large or historic trees without permission.

“If people want to live among trees,” Hales said in 1988, “they can move outside the urban growth boundaries.”

Two years later, the controversy unsettled, Hales was described in The Oregonian as “Paul Bunyan himself, sap still glistening on the blade of his ax.” 

But the same story described Hales as conciliatory and persuasive: He swayed a meeting by acknowledging some developers go too far in cutting down trees. He cut a deal to save some trees by exempting developers from other rules.

Hales tells WW he doesn’t recall the controversy over the tree-preservation ordinance.

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