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September 22nd, 2004 Nick Budnick | News Stories
 

The Potter Files

Digging for dirt on Portland's Mr. Clean.

     
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To Whom It May Concern: 9-22-04

What follows is the requested background investigation of Tom Potter on behalf of an Unidentified Third Party. The report is based on interviews, public document searches, surveillance and newspaper clippings, as well as a reconnaissance of his primary residence. Per your instructions, I didn't steal his garbage (though I still question that decision). Note: I've added some Post-Its with additional observations outside the official scope of this inquiry. --B

MISSION CAPSULE:

Six weeks from now, judging by the polls, Portland voters will elect as mayor a man they know little about. In May, Tom Potter pulled off one of the biggest upsets in city history, as his stealth campaign came from nowhere to put the kibosh on then-frontrunner Jim Francesconi and his million-dollar war chest--winning the primary and forcing a fall runoff.

In the spring, the media focused on Potter's $25 contribution limit, not his track record as police chief. Since then, he's mostly refused to disclose what his plans are if elected. The guy is a cipher. This report attempts to sift through Potter's past to deduce what he'd be like as the Rose City's next mayor.

SECTION I: PERSONAL INFO

Youth: Thomas Jay Potter was born in Mississippi on Sept. 12, 1940. His father died when he was 6. His mother was a Southern Baptist who, he's said, didn't like blacks or gays. His family (he is the youngest of five siblings) moved to Portland when he was 10; he attended Boise Elementary in North Portland and Cleveland High School. The young Potter attended a Baptist-affiliated San Francisco Bible college for would-be preachers and missionaries. In year two, he dropped out and then renounced organized religion altogether. Recently, in a peeved tone, he said he hates how "they"--meaning certain religious folk--impose their beliefs on others.

POLITICS:

Potter, who recently turned 64, projects an image of your kindly liberal grandpa--emphasis on liberal. A former board member of the ACLU, he has marched for gay rights and against the war in Iraq, and he vows to keep doing so if elected mayor. Potter did not become a Democrat until a year ago (before then, he was registered as an independent), but his limit on campaign contributions helped nab the endorsement of Howard Dean.

Potter's liberal beliefs spread in little ways. Former Chief Charles Moose recalls Potter taught him the value of compassion by stopping to talk to a homeless woman who was shunned by others whenever he traversed the park near City Hall. This spring, Potter objected when a reporter referred to homeless youth as "gutter punks."

FAMILY:

In 1960, Potter married Ginger Hall, now 62; the two had four children and divorced 19 years later. He married his second wife, Jan TKTKTK, now 53, in 1984. They divorced after four years. Between--and, some say, during--those marriages, Potter played the field (details to come). He got hitched to his current wife, Karin Hansen, a former teacher who is now 42, in 1997.

Potter's eldest son, Troy, 42, is an electrician; his eldest daughter, Kim, 41, is studying to become a nurse. Katie, 39, is a police officer. Kevin, 37, works at an electroplating company.

Potter, like George Bush, knows the difficulty of keeping kids in line. His youngest son has had several run-ins with police; both Kevin's ex-wife and an ex-girlfriend filed for restraining orders claiming he was violent to them; the most recent such claim was filed in March of this year.

Potter lives in Southeast Portland in a cozy but well-maintained little home valued at $225,300. He drives the same Volkswagen camper van he's had since 1990, and his wife drives a Toyota Prius. His retirement pay, which is pegged to his last working salary, is $90,777.48 annually.

KNOWN ASSOCIATES:

Potter has refused to divulge names of his planned aides and transition advisers, saying he wants to protect their privacy. His campaign staff and volunteers include: Ron Paul, a former caterer and ex-chief of staff to former Commissioner Charlie Hales; Howard Weiner, a skate shop owner; businessman Mark Rosenbaum; city employee (now on leave) Nancy Hamilton; Marc Abrams, a lawyer and former school board chairman; Sumner Sharpe, an urban-planning consultant; and former legislator Jo Ann Bowman. Paul Leistner, a Potter backer who ran for City Council, and Frank Dixon, a former City Council candidate and ex-aide to Commissioner Dan Saltzman, also could wind up with jobs if Potter is elected.

PERSONALITY:

Those who deal with Potter, including his supporters, say he is well-meaning and capable but can be preachy and bull-headed. As chief, he was a nut about jaywalking, reflecting what some call a Boy Scout mentality. But his attitude may have mellowed. Public records show several parking tickets, and during a surveillance of a campaign bike ride earlier this year, this investigator witnessed the ex-chief roll through at least two stop signs. In Potter's leisure time, he goes out to dinner with his wife at places like Esparza's; they are wine lovers and patronize the Woodstock Wine & Deli. They also go hiking and camping together; Potter himself is an archaeology buff.

PART II: CAREER

PATH TO TOP COP:

After he dropped out of college, Potter took a job in the Portland accounting office of the Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway. In 1966, he traded in his green eyeshade for a metal badge, joining the Portland Police Bureau as a beat cop in Sellwood. Potter, who never fired his gun, does not stand out in former coworkers' memories as a particularly great street cop. Retired officer Mike Walsh, though, says Potter was a great sergeant, letting subordinates be creative in the quest to bust bad guys.

As the Yippie revolution was tearing up American society, the liberal Cleveland High grad rose through the ranks, obtaining a degree in police administration from the University of Portland along the way. He made sergeant in 1971, lieutenant in 1977 and captain in 1984. As the bureau struggled with its public image, Potter glommed onto the feel-good buzzword of "community policing" and rode it to the top of the bureau when Mayor Bud Clark picked Potter for the job in 1991. He held the top job for 28 months before announcing he was stepping down in 1993. He said he was "burnt out" and would "never" return to government. Upon leaving, he gave copies of the technocratic tome Reinventing Government to his top staff.

MANAGEMENT STYLE:

As chief, Potter set the course for the bureau, serving as its ambassador, policymaker and main cheerleader for the idea of "community policing." To run the day-to-day operations of the bureau, Potter promoted Wayne Inman to assistant chief. Given Potter's talk of accountability, Inman might seem an odd choice. "His street name was 'Sparky,' from electroshock, as in nuts," says retired officer Dale Larson. In 1990, Larson sued the Bureau, claiming that Inman denied him a promotion because Larson had reported a brutality-prone colleague. "Inman flat-out told me that my day was coming and he would get me," Larson told this investigator. Potter retained Inman even after the lawsuit was filed (it was settled for a token sum). But Larson does not blame the ex-chief, saying: "Potter wasn't the problem. I think he's a nice guy to the core."

GAY RIGHTS, DIVERSITY:

Potter's daughter, Katie, was Portland's first openly gay cop, and he was the first chief to march in the Gay Pride Parade, a seminal event. By all accounts his commitment to racial diversity and gay rights is sincere--if anything, critics say, to a fault.

While captain of North Precinct, Potter found himself in hot water after not forwarding to Internal Affairs an abusive outburst by his protégé, then-Sgt. Charles Moose, against some female clerks. Without Potter's protection and mentoring, both fans and critics say Moose would never have become Portland's first African-American chief.

In 1992, a wheelchair-bound African-American lesbian named Azalea Cooley reported finding burning crosses on her lawn, sparking anti-hate-crime parades that Potter marched in. Detective Frank Jolly and his partner began to suspect Cooley or her roommate of being the torch. But, says Jolly, shortly after being informed of this Potter compromised the investigation by letting Cooley know there was a surveillance planned that night. Eventually, detectives staked out Cooley's house without Potter's knowledge and filmed her walking outside to plant the crosses herself. When presented with the evidence, Potter reportedly was furious, not with Cooley, but his detectives. The chief says he cannot recall reacting angrily, nor compromising the investigation.

COMMUNITY POLICING:

To hear Potter talk, you might think he invented the notion that cops should leave their cars and work with the neighborhoods. That's not true, but people at the bureau--even conservative-minded cops--give him credit for making much-needed changes in the department.

The flip side of being a self-described "change agent" was that his internal enemies--of whom there were many--viewed him as a sanctimonious blowhard. But what's undeniable is that his tenure broke down resistance in the bureau to greater public responsiveness and problem-solving, and public opinions toward the bureau improved dramatically on his watch. Even people who disagreed with his vocal gay-rights stance, like conservative ex-cop Bill "Twoey" Clark, say Potter made changes that are "admirable...I consider him to be a very honest and sincere and otherwise moral person."

SECTION III: CONTROVERSIES

NATHAN THOMAS:

In 1992, the city was shocked when a 12-year-old boy who'd been taken hostage during a bungled burglary was killed when officers fired 16 bullets at the burglar and two hit the boy. Potter has since called the Nathan Thomas incident a "defining moment" for the bureau, likening it to "our September 11."

Potter was traveling with a girlfriend and some friends in Mexico at the time and did not return to work until 18 days after the shooting happened, though the community was in an uproar.

According to press accounts, Potter told reporters that his hotel had no telephone and there was only one long-distance phone in the town. He also told reporters he did not learn of the shooting until 11 days after it occurred, when he traveled several miles to a long-distance telephone to call a family member in Portland.

Potter now says he learned of the shooting less than 11 days after the shooting, though he says he is not sure when. He also says his hotel did have a phone, that he used it to call his family member, and furthermore that the bureau knew how to reach him. He says the bureau chose to let him enjoy his vacation. He says he cannot explain the discrepancy between media accounts and his current version.

WRIST-SLAP ALLEGATIONS:

Potter's opponent, City Commissioner Jim Francesconi, has aired radio ads and created a website that accuse Potter of being soft on police brutality and sexual harassment. For instance, the then-chief reinstated a sergeant who'd been demoted for extreme sexual harassment--for instance, placing his hands on a female subordinate's body and saying, "If I can sexually harass you, you can have the whole day off." In exchange for the reinstatement, the union agreed to take a strong stand against such behavior in the future.

As a result, the harassment victim, Cheryl Arnold, sued and is out on stress leave to this day, collecting tax-free disability payments of $48,480 annually. Potter also declined to discipline a cop who'd broken a guy's nose in an on-duty scuffle, and gave only a slap on the wrist to a cop who hired a hooker--which in theory was a firing offense. In an interview, former union boss Stan Peters told this investigator Potter was fair and compassionate to officers accused of wrongdoing, resisting the temptation to base discipline on politics as most chiefs do. "Tom was able to see through that," he said. "His word was good."

Peters says Potter didn't bend to pressure from Portland's African-American community to issue harsh punishment in certain instances. But this did not hurt the chief's standing.

"He opened up the department," says black activist Richard Brown. "He made the Police Bureau accountable to the African-American community."

WOMEN:

Few will go on the record, but the Portland landscape is littered with Potter's ex-girlfriends--"chippies," in cop lingo--who include police officers, city employees and the medical-student daughter of a convicted murderer (Bud Ward, who died in 1994).

Thus far, I've only found one instance where any of these relationships might be of public interest. According to a credible source, when Potter was an evening-shift sergeant detective in the mid-'70s, several clerks complained that at times when he was off-duty, he would ask them to lie and tell anyone who called for him (including, say, his wife) that he was on-duty but couldn't be reached--apparently to cover for romantic liaisons. Potter reportedly was chewed out by his superior, Rob Aichele, for his behavior.

If any of the women are unhappy, they're not talking. Two reputed girlfriends declined to comment. His first wife did not return calls. His second wife, Jan, refused to discuss issues that were "personal" but did praise his paternal and leadership abilities, saying, "He is a wonderful father," and "I have nothing but the utmost respect for him professionally. He is a visionary."

Potter will not directly address the issue except to say it is nobody's business but his own. He says he has learned from past mistakes and is fully committed to making his current marriage work.

"I hope that Portlanders understand that every mayor that they've had is human," he says. "And humans aren't perfect."

SECTION IV: POST-POLICE

STATE POLICE-TRAINING OFFICE:

In 1997, allegations of anti-Semitism hit the Board on Public Safety Standards and Training, the state agency that oversees cop training statewide. Potter was brought in by Gov. John Kitzhaber for a six-month stint to clean up its image. He agreed to take the job on the condition that he be able to follow through on a lengthy pre-arranged vacation with his new wife, a move that irked some colleagues on the board. Potter says he helped reorganize the unit, but former board member and Portland cop Liz Cruthers says in her opinion he was more of a figurehead: "If he's taking credit for that, that's B.S."

NEW AVENUES FOR YOUTH:

In January 1999, Potter became director of the relatively new nonprofit homeless-youth program New Avenues for Youth. He used his persuasive powers to raise funds, build relationships and jockey for position in the county's rapidly evolving social-services milieu. Former board member Joan Allen says, "I was in awe of what Tom could do; he came in and he got busy." That summer, however, some staffers were perplexed when Potter became something of a ghost in the office.

MISCELLANEOUS:

Potter has served on a variety of board and commissions, and he delivers food to seniors every week as part of the Meals on Wheels program. Mark Rosenbaum, a campaign supporter who served with the ex-chief on the county Commission on Children and Families, says Potter helped overhaul the agency with top-notch pro bono consulting. "He constantly amazed me," Rosenbaum said.

SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS

If elected, then what? Potter will say almost nothing about his plans--except that he will hold meetings on all issues to take input before making decisions. This lack of specifics explains why, despite his Prius-driving ways, the Oregon League of Conservation Voters refused to endorse him (nor did they endorse his opponent, Francesconi).

While frustrating for reporters, some interest groups and the public, Potter's position on not taking positions appears to be sincere. Former police union president Greg Pluchos says Chief Potter, like the mayor he served, did not make any big decisions without first listening to both sides--and not just the vocal minority, as the ex-cop says has been the case in Portland in recent years. As Pluchos notes, Potter's focus on process and public input could be both a positive and a negative.

Francesconi's supporters say that if Potter wins, his biggest ally on the council, Erik Sten, will run the city. There may be some truth to that, but given Potter's ego and sensitivity to public perception, such a relationship is unlikely to last.

Questions also exist as to whether Potter's bouts of bull-headedness would harm his relationships on the council. He does not take public embarrassment well.

On the plus side, Potter does have managerial skills and a knack for public relations. On the minus side, he won't be as hardworking as the woman he replaces.

Perhaps the most significant difference between him and his opponent is that Potter would not owe monied interests anything if elected. Unlike Francesconi, whose fundraising in the primary shocked and disgusted many, Potter's main debt would be to the neighborhood activist network that helped elect him.

He raised his contribution cap to $100 after the primary. One potential downside of the cap--with its implication that big business and its big donations are bad--is that his relations with the business community could be frosty, at least initially.

The relative upsides of the two candidates are debatable. In terms of risk analysis, however, Potter appears to have the least potential downside. Without the fundraising prowess and full-fledged backing of downtown business interests that his opponent enjoys, Potter will be easier for his colleagues on the City Council to circumvent if he starts screwing up. Similarly, if he's a disaster, he'll be easier to replace next time around.


NOTES:

Boss, you asked for "political risk analysis," so here's the lowdown--dames, kids, and that trip to Mexico.

Boss: I'm a gumshoe, not a shrink. But you can see how the youngest child's rebellion against a conservative Christian upbringing charted a course for Potter's entire adult life.

Boss: Potter isn't the only top cop to have son trouble. In 1997, then-Chief Charles Moose's teenage son was arrested for dealing crack.

Boss: Not horrible, but not exactly an all-star team. If he doesn't find high-caliber aides to help run the city, watch out.

The backstory on Potter's resignation: He found day-to-day governing tiresome and resented the micromanagement of new Mayor Vera Katz.

Boss: Did Potter reveal the surveillance plans on purpose? Or was he not paying attention when the detectives told him their suspicions? Jolly doesn't know.

You can take the kid out of Bible school, but you can't....

Boss, not clear if this exposes a lie or just a Reaganesque memory.

Dinging cops and making it stick was especially difficult in those days. Dropping discipline when the union fights it makes sense if you're going to lose anyway.

Significance? Potter's Clintonian libido is the skeleton most frequently cited by enemies. But put it in context: Cops are notorious for their on- and-off-duty sexual liaisons. Something about the job, perhaps.

Boss: Potter values his free time and family. Fold in his love of travel, and I have some doubt that he'd even seek a second term.

 
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