Ten years ago, Charlie Hales quit his job as city commissioner to start selling streetcars. On Jan. 2, the downtown-development champion returns to Portland City Hall, taking the oath as mayor and promising to fix what fell apart while he was gone.
Hales inherits a city that has grown in national prominence in his absence, but has also become mired in financial quagmires—from ballooning police and fire pension costs to gas-tax shortfalls—he never faced in the relatively prosperous 1990s.
Hales cut his teeth on the City Council—serving from 1993 to 2002—as a proponent of urban density and public transit, often warring with neighborhood leaders over ideas for growth. In his mayoral campaign, Hales promised a meat-and-potatoes approach, a clear shift from the frenetic, often distracted term of ex-Mayor Sam Adams.
WW sat down with Hales in the days before his swearing-in to discuss what he’s learned in his decade away, what he’ll make his first priority in office, and what haunts his dreams at night.
You were on City Council for 10 years. What did you not get done the first time?
I don’t think it’s so much what I didn’t get done. The more I’ve gotten into this—even since the election—the more I feel like my skill set and my experience are right for what the city faces now. So it’s not so much the things undone from 10 years ago as the things that are on the table right now.
Look at the issues in the Police Bureau: That requires changing the culture of a large organization. That requires courage, which I hope I have enough of. Clarity, which I hope I can achieve. And persistence, which I think I can manage as well.
There’s a big difference between the last time you were in office and now. In the ’90s, the city was flush.
The city was flush. You didn’t have to bear down on overhead costs to put more money into mowing grass in parks, or putting officers in patrol cars, or building the next community center.
We’ve passed probably all the tax measures we can foresee for a while. When citizens get their property tax bills next November, there’s going to be some sticker shock—we passed three money measures in one ballot. We better be relentless budgeters and do more with what we have.
And here’s something that surprises me about myself: When I was in office before, I didn’t care that much about budgets. Now I know how important they are. The budgets are the programming for this big machine.
[Mayor] Vera [Katz] was an assiduous budgeter, and I participated in that process. But in a ham-and-egg breakfast, the chicken is involved, but the hog is fully committed. I was the chicken.
You and Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber had lengthy terms in
office, left for years in the wilderness, and then came back. It’s
clearly been a different Kitzhaber. Is this a different Charlie Hales?
I don’t know if it’s a different Charlie Hales. I do really feel energized. I had a few moments in the long slog of the campaign where I thought, God, I wonder if I’ll wake up after the election and say, “What have I done?”
Actually, I’m really looking forward to the job itself. I wake up in the morning thinking about the work. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about the budget. That’s a bad sign.
Not many people get a do-over. What did you learn the
first time around that’s going to change how you handle things this time
Well, what I’ve learned in the interim is: Focus on a few things. I’m going to spend the first six months focused on the budget, the Police Bureau and the schools.
In my case, it was further informed by working in a lot of other cities, seeing things that were done well, seeing things that weren’t done as well as Portland, seeing Portland through all those other eyes.
There’s some things about Portland that are wonderful and that we celebrate and that other cities are dazzled by. There are some things about Portland that aren’t on the tour.
What’s something that Portland shouldn’t celebrate?
No planner from the city of Portland should be going to national conferences and bragging about how smart we are about urban planning in Portland until we have an actionable plan to make [Southeast] 122nd and Division a great place. And stuff has actually happened.
Ditto about going to conferences and bragging while Jantzen Beach is a bunch of strip malls and lottery bars. We have a lot of work to do to make the hype about how livable Portland is true citywide.
Adams played the mayor’s aide on Portlandia. Will they have to find somebody else for cameos?
They haven’t called me yet. I’m offended.
If called upon, will you serve?
I will, but not in the same role. It’s their script and their show, but given who I am, the role is going to have be a little edgier than the dweeby assistant to the mayor. I’m going to need some serious makeup in terms of tattoos and piercings.