Queer Vows

How a simple wedding at the Hilton Hotel changed the way we look at our most sacred institution.


It was supposed to be family, friends and a few guests. The 21st-floor suite at the Hilton Hotel looked like it might fit five to 10 people comfortably. Now at least 75 people were squeezed in, many underdressed or soaked to the bone from the March rain.

But activists from civil-rights group Basic Rights Oregon, who rented the suite, weren't worried about pushing room limitsÑthey were too busy pushing the limits of conventional wisdom.

And they needed witnesses.

Witnesses to the moment in Oregon history when one woman took another woman's hand, and a man took a man's hand, in marriage.

The two couples were picture perfect. Mary Li, a Multnomah County employee, wore a cream-colored dress and pearls. Her spouse-to-be, Becky Kennedy, wore a black suit.

Physicians Eric Warshaw and Stephen Knox both looked dashing in their Prada and Men's Wearhouse suits, respectively. Retired Supreme Court Justice Betty Roberts presided over the weddings. The contagious curiosity of both couples' children mirrored the mood of the roomÑexcept for those who were tearing up, like County Commissioner Maria de Rojo Steffey, who still couldn't quite believe what was happening in front of her own eyes.

"It's incredible," she said.

Multnomah County issued 400 same-sex marriage licenses that day, and more than 3,000 over the next few weeks, before a county judge shut down the party.

Meanwhile, TV images of gays and lesbians walking down the aisle set off a massive political backlash, ultimately culminating in the passage of Measure 36 in November.

Whether the Hilton weddings were actually the state's very first has been disputedÑsome couples actually cemented their bonds outside county HQ under a downpour of rain.

It doesn't really matter. What does matter is that it happenedÑand like a lot of things in life, once it happens, you can't take it back.

The $25 Mayor


Retired Oregon Supreme Court Justice Betty Roberts presides at the wedding of Becky Kennedy (left) and Mary Li (center).Commissioner Jim Francesconi was in the pink. Just seven months to go before the May primary in Portland's first open mayoral election in 12 years, and the two-term city commissioner was more than the frontrunner. He was the heir apparent.

It was Nov. 17, 2003. Francesconi was guest of honor at a $1,000-a-plate fundraiser at the ultra-posh Multnomah Athletic Club, just the latest cash coup for a campaign raking in a grand a day.

Francesconi jumped in the race even before Mayor Vera Katz announced she wasn't running for a fourth term. He'd wooed the city's high rollersÑTribune owner Bob Pamplin gave him $10,000Ñto build a war chest that scared off other heavyweights. Congressman Earl Blumenauer, for instance, pondered the race all summer, then bailed.

That night, his money juggernaut and endorsement roster growing, Francesconi looked like a lock.

Just four blocks away, however, a silver-haired ex-police chief most Portlanders had never heard of dared think otherwise.

A decade before, Mississippi native Tom Potter had served as top cop under legendary Mayor Bud Clark. He'd endeared himself to Portland liberals by becoming the first police chief to march in the city's annual gay-rights parade, honoring his lesbian daughter.

All the same, Potter had spent most of a decade away from the public eye when his campaign officially kicked off with a party at Bud Clark's own Goose Hollow Inn. The underdog pledged a purist, grassroots campaign. The centerpiece: a $25 limit on campaign contributions.

Many political observers (and, um, journalists) thought Potter's $25 cap was ludicrous, a fatal self-inflicted wound. In fact, it proved a brilliant jujitsu move. Francesconi's primary assetÑhis bankrollÑbecame a lethal liability. A lifelong liberal Catholic activist, Francesconi was branded the race's cash-besotted Mr. Big, a label he never shook off.

Potter, meanwhile, pedaled around on his recumbent bike and remained serenely silent about specifics. (His main campaign plank: "To listen.") He tapped a gathering shake-up-City-Hall sentiment. Commissioner Erik Sten, his staunchest ally, put his formidable database of left-leaning, city-focused voters at Potter's disposal.

By the time May's primary rolled around, the race had flipped: Potter bested Francesconi (and a huge field of also-rans and novelty candidates) by 8 points. The race went to a November runoff. Francesconi hung on to some of his establishment supportÑincluding The Oregonian's forlorn endorsementÑand picked up a surprise plug from the Mercury, whose managing editor had placed third in the May primary. Potter, however, never looked back.

In a November landslide, the ex-chief harvested 61 percent of the vote. No one seemed to have a clue what kind of mayor Potter would be. It almost didn't matter. He swept into office beholden to no one. In a city tired of politics as usual, that was enough.

* The Archdiocese of Portland becomes the first in America to seek the protective shroud of Chapter 11. Dozens of lawsuits alleging Portland priests abused children cost the archdiocese $53 million. With claims totaling hundreds of millions still awaiting trial, Archbishop John Vlazny files for bankruptcy to protect the Church's assets.

* Ralph Nader tries to put his name on the Oregon ballot, setting the stage for a comedy of errors. Can't muster 1,000 supporters at first nominating convention. Can't do it at second oneÑnot even with help of Republicans who snuck into the hall (Dems also infiltrate, tricking Nader's floor managers into closing the doors too early.) Finally launches a desperate signature campaign marred by fraud. Secretary of State (and loyal Dem) Bill Bradbury throws out hundreds of signatures on technical grounds. Nader appeals to the Oregon Supreme Court, which politely tells him to piss up a rope.

* MAX is on a roll. TriMet cranks up service on the 5.8 mile, $350 million Yellow Line on North Interstate Avenue. Daily ridership will hover around 12,000 by the year's end.

* A rash of burglaries is traced to a gang of meth headsÑnot particularly surprising, except that the burglars were teenage boys whose age ranged from 12 to 16 years old. The group vandalized at least 25 homes and carted away thousands of dollars in stolen loot, which they sold for drugs. Their ringleader? A 13-year-old runaway.

* Ronald Reagan is finally dead.

* Clackamas county prosecutor and Vietnam vet Al French shows up in the infamous Swift Boat ads, alleging Democratic nominee John Kerry "lied about his war record." French also signs an affidavit saying Kerry got two Purple Hearts "under false pretenses." Later, French admits his allegations are based on hearsay. Outraged protesters descend on the courthouse and flood the Oregon State Bar with complaints. French is later disciplined for lying to his boss about a workplace affair.

* City Hall aide Brent CanodeÑwho oversees neighborhood crime-prevention programsÑis busted in Old Town buying crack cocaine.

* Democratic congressman David Wu is rocked by allegations that he sexually assaulted an ex-girlfriend in 1976, when they were both undergrads at Stanford University. Wu admits his behavior was "inexcusable" but survives the scandal and is re-elected.

* Over the wailing of local residents, City Council approves the retro-futuristic sky tram to connect Oregon Health & Science University to the new riverside district slated for North Macadam.


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