You can't call Erik Sten the boy wonder any longer.
Yeah, he's still in his 30s. Sure, his gap-toothed smile and the awkward way his suit drapes over his shoulders remind you of your little brother.
But after nine tumultuous years in City Hall, Sten is Portland's most veteran elected official. He's a long way from his first election to the City Council in 1996, when the fresh-faced progressive wunderkind cruised around town in a broken-down revamped 1960s milk truck called the Stenmobile.
"That kind of floored me when I thought about it,'' says former City Commissioner Gretchen Kafoury, who brought Sten into City Hall as a twentysomething staffer. "The baby-faced kid is the senior member?''
Now a little less baby-faced, a lot more battle-scarred and with a 16-month-old son, Sten is all grown up and has become Portland's premier political juggler with an unerring knack for center stage.
Mayor Tom Potter may have more grandfatherly gravitas, Randy Leonard more shoot-from-the-hip bluster, Dan Saltzman more mind-numbing wonkiness and Sam Adams more 24-7 energy. But when it comes to the combination of sheer smarts, savvy and ambition, Sten has no peer among his council colleagues.
Consider the Sten agenda.
To the delight of admirers and dismay of critics, Sten has steered the city toward a multibillion-dollar acquisition of Portland General Electric. He helped engineer last year's election of Potter as mayor by grabbing the former police chief's ear early and setting booby traps aplenty for mayoral candidate (and fellow commissioner) Jim Francesconi. He has ramrodded a plan for publicly funded city election campaigns to a vote scheduled for today. He has pushed the council to do something about homelessness, and he was a player in Portland's pullout from the Joint Terrorism Task Force.
To a portion of Portland's downtown business crowd, Sten comes off as a lefty who has no idea how to meet a payroll and makes them see red-or at least pink.
To others, he's the boy blunder who screwed up the Water Bureau.
But love him or hate him, you cannot deny the sheer reach of Sten's juggling act-or the size of his political balls.
We thought it was time to sit Sten down and run him through the gauntlet. What's up with PGE? Is it true he wants to run the Portland Development Commission? What's so corrupt about city politics, anyway? And most important, where is the Stenmobile?
WW: Should we trust a city takeover of PGE and trust Erik Sten to take the lead on this, when you were the commissioner who had the Water Bureau when the billing system screwed up?
Erik Sten: It's the best argument so far, and I respect that. I've actually had a lot of fun with this, because I've said that my experience being spokesperson and top executive of the water-bill fiasco makes it clear I don't want to run this. I've seen what happens when you get into those kind of positions.
But this will have a bigger impact on the economy than all of the economic-development programs the state is running combined. There has been a paid campaign by Texas Pacific and PGE executives against this effort, and the best they're able to do is, "You don't want Erik to run this." If you read the Oregonian editorials, it's a constant change of direction as to why they're against it. Every time they're against it, they get overwhelmed and come up with something else. I think if I wasn't being so aggressive on these issues, I would have put the water bills a little further behind me than I have. But I actually get some strength from the fact that that is not a substantive argument.
But hasn't the city spent a lot of money going after PGE?
We spent about a million dollars the first time around. You can't get anything worthwhile done without investing in it. And so we put a million dollars against a potential billion dollars in savings. I think the biggest argument against what we're doing is that we're taking the risk for the whole region. This time around we're spending more, but it's with the sense that this deal is very real at this point.
There's no risk-free path. Most politics involves coming up with the least risky way to claim your goals. That's what most politicians do. The risk ultimately rests with the customers. They are the ones who are going to eat the bills. But I think, under our model, the ratepayer has an enormous financial head start on any problems that may develop. So the challenge becomes if we can get equally good management in place as anyone else could-and I don't see why we couldn't-then when those problems develop, the ratepayers are going to be better off.
How unusual are publicly owned utilities?
Public utility is the norm on the West Coast.... By any third-party analysis, it's cheaper. Seattle, L.A., Tacoma, Sacramento-they're all run with different models of operation, but they're all owned by the public.
So what's the timing for a deal?
[Enron interim CEO Steve] Cooper has made it very, very clear to everyone publicly and privately that he doesn't need to sell, that this stock redistribution is doing just great. We'll see if that's true or not. Most people believe that creditors in bankruptcies prefer cash to stock. He's also told us that he wants to fish or cut bait within a couple of months.... That's music to our ears, because we want to either get to a deal or not. I think that by the middle of the summer, we'll know. There are a couple of decision points the community has. One is, can we reach a friendly deal with him?
How about an unfriendly option like condemnation?
We have a [City Council] majority that's willing to consider condemnation at the right moment. We're not saying we would condemn if he doesn't get to our point...but if the public benefit is there, we could do that through a hearing process.... I think the mayor, Randy [Leonard] and myself are willing to start that process if we're not getting a good-faith negotiation. That's all we're really looking for.
On a personal level, if the city closes the deal, does that erase the taint of the water billing?
That's not for me to decide. Nothing lasts in politics.
What should the council do about the Portland Development Commission's decision to award the Burnside Bridgehead to Opus?
Nobody likes hindsight. But this one I actually kind of saw coming. And I told the mayor back in February that we should require the commission to justify the decision to us through a public hearing-which has never happened before-before they make it. Because I kind of thought on this one that the council was going to have to weigh in. And nothing happened. I'm not sure that would have solved the problem. I think we should have got in before the decision was made. I think [Mayor Potter] should have exerted himself before the decision was made. And I'd suspect he'd agree with that. I've got to do some studying on this before I can say where we should go.
Doesn't Matt Hennessee's relationship with Than Clevenger look incredibly insiderish?
It looks too insiderish for my taste. Whatever series of decisions led to Than working for Opus...they were mistakes. And I don't know if they were illegal, but he clearly should have disclosed that a lot sooner. You can either be Hennessee's political chairman or the Opus PR guy, but I don't think you can effectively pull off both.
The rumor mills are filled with talk that you're both considering and being considered to replace Don Mazziotti as PDC executive director.
It's the kind of job I would love to try sometime. But the timing isn't great. I've got to finish this PGE thing. If the idea was that someone offered me that job and I had to start July 1, I couldn't do that.
How about Charlie Hales for the job?
I would love to work with Charlie. I miss him a lot.
Have you talked to him about this?
I haven't. I've been so busy. His name keeps floating. I think he would be great.
What do you think of Leonard's proposal for PDC to, basically, blow it up and bring it in house?
I think he's just creating some momentum out there. I think Leonard likes to...
You think he's just throwing a bomb?
Yeah, I was going to say "test balloon," but it's a little stronger than that. It's a bomb, but I'm not sure it's meant to hit the engine of the ship.
You always talked about voting against JTTF, but it took Potter to get out on front on this issue before you. Were you too chickenshit?
Yeah, I was having a hard time. It's a hard issue. This is the only thing I can remember that comes up all the time on the council, every year, that I really get swung back and forth by the different sides. I think both sides actually have a compelling argument. Maybe I'm just sounding like a politician, but there were two things that really changed my mind this time around. One is that Potter is in full control of the situation. [Former Mayor] Vera [Katz] was dead-set that we should be in it. People need to understand the dynamic, because she was the Police Commissioner. We voted for it three times. The first time was right after 9/11, and I was shell-shocked like everyone else, just trying to figure out what to do. I gave the benefit of the doubt to the FBI. On the second vote, Randy and I were prepared to vote "no." At the last minute, the FBI offered the mayor clearance, and it was because we were going to vote "no." We didn't recognize at the time-I don't think anyone did-that the clearance was less than what the cops get. I'm not trying to rationalize the votes, but it's been a pretty interesting evolution of how this has gotten to where it is. The heart of my speech when I voted to get out was, "I think it's crap to say that Portland is just pulling out, like The Oregonian and others are saying." I have, at least, worked very, very hard to stay in the relationship for all the obvious reasons, and I'm concluding, after three years, that that's not possible.
Because they won't give the mayor oversight. Me concluding that isn't going to happen has taken a few years. I don't think anyone except the very, very hard left disputes that we ought to work with the FBI, but the issue is just how you do it. I think this city has tried, thoughtfully, to stay in it for three years, as opposed to the thought that we're on some sort of hellbent political mission to get out. I take much more crap among the voters that are my base for staying in.
Campaign finance is coming up. Out of all the gin joints you could walk into, why go into this one, since Potter won with less money and since it's tapping the city budget?
I think the city's budget issue is off center. I mean, the idea if that if we put a million dollars into public financing it will jeopardize other services presumes that the huge dollars going into our campaign chests don't cost you anything. That's a laughable proposition.
The No. 1 problem with public policy in this country is Big Money's influence on political structures. I think you need to start changing that every moment and every place you can. However pernicious the influence of Big Money on Portland City Council is or isn't, this is a place where you can change it. And a million dollars is a cheap investment to take that money out of the mix. I'm not corrupt, I don't think my colleagues are corrupt, but...right now, anybody can contribute any amount. It's fundamentally anti-democratic. It's getting worse and worse.
But Potter won after limiting donations to $100 against a guy who raised more than $1 million.
I view his election as an affirmation that people think Big Money stinks. I don't view it as an argument that we should keep a big-money system.
OK, so who are the big-money special interests you think have too much influence on public policy?
Real-estate interests get too much attention from the City Council.
You're the city commissioner who has paid more attention to the homeless issue than anyone. Yet hasn't the problem gotten worse?
I think so. At the same time, I think we've done a lot of good work. Homelessness is a problem that the whole country has got, and it's tied in with a lot of economic and policy decisions and things that are going on out there. If you were to rate Portland against the rest of the country, we would probably get a B+. If you rate against where we should be, it's probably a C-and most cities are failing. If you look at the last 15 years since Bud Clark did his 12-Point Plan [on homelessness], there's been consistent progress towards a better system and lots of good changes. I think Portland has shown itself admirably in this really tough struggle with no help from the federal government the past 10 years.
Would you agree that Portland is unfriendly to businesses?
Is it just a PR problem?
I think it's a substantive problem because it's widespread. We have higher taxes, it's harder to do business in the city. I suspect that's true for every urban area. You pay through the nose to be in New York, and every major financial player is always going to be there. In that sense, I don't believe if we got rid of the things that allow that argument to have legs that we would have solved our problems. I do think we've made a lot of progress with Sandra McDonough at the helm [of the Portland Business Alliance]. The change from Kim [Kimbrough] to her is one of the most important changes to Portland in the past few years.
How do you think Potter's doing, and what's been his biggest mistake?
He's exceeded my expectations. I thought he would have more of a ramp-up. He walked in and he was immediately in charge. Maybe it's come from him being police chief. He's very decisive, and he's collaborating. The council members feel like they're working with him but he's ultimately steering it. He hasn't made any huge mistakes yet; I think not getting control of the Bridgehead sooner could end up being a mistake.
What's it mean for women and minority issues that Portland's got an all-white, all-male council?
I think it's a big hole for the city. It's a hole in our ability to see things. It's a problem for role models. Someone once asked me, "Why won't Portlanders elect minorities?" Well, there haven't been a ton of minorities running the last 10 years. I don't know if campaign finance will fix that, but it will open some possibilities up.
What do you fear the most?
What happened to the Stenmobile?
Some guy in Southeast has it. It sells about every 12 months.
Do you want to buy it back? Has the price depreciated?
It's in bad shape.
Is it a metaphor for your future political hopes?
It's not up to me to decide. That's your call, right?
Are you running for re-election next year?
Yeah, I think so.
How does becoming a father change your political life? There's not much stuff on your public schedule after 5 o'clock.
My first son is 16 months old, and I'm going to be home when he goes to bed at 7:30. I'm being very honest with community groups that I work really hard at this job. You'll get emails from me at all hours of the night. But I'm going to be home at 7:30 when he goes to sleep. Sam [Adams] is great. He started this whole First Thursday party at City Hall. I'm not doing it because it's not my priority. I don't think anyone's going to fault me for that.
Is that going to put you behind in the heir-apparent sweepstakes to be Portland's next mayor?
I don't think I'm out of touch with anyone.
Do you still want to be mayor at some point?
I'm not dead-set on it. You know, the longer I'm on the council, the more I see the benefits of this job. You get to focus on a smaller number of things in a more intense way. In some ways, that suits me. I actually ended up filling in for Vera a lot last year when she was going through her chemotherapy, and there's a lot of ceremonial work. I'm definitely interested. I'm not going to say I'm not going to run. I'm just saying I don't wake up in the morning thinking I need to be mayor.
Sten has led the city's past and current efforts to acquire PGE from bankrupt Enron. In March, the state Public Utility Commission killed the purchase of PGE by Texas Pacific Group.
The PDC awarded redevelopment of five blocks at the Burnside Bridge's east end to Minneapolis-based Opus Northwest, despite strong community support for locally based Beam Development.
Opus' PR consultant Nathaniel "Than" Clevenger had two contracts with PDC totaling $95,000 and is a speechwriter for PDC chairman Matt Hennessee, who is expected to run for elected office.
Sten served on the City Council with Charlie Hales before Hales left for a private-sector job in 2002.Sten finished third in his first council run, a spring 1996 primary to replace retiring City Commissioner Mike Lindberg.
When Earl Blumenauer vacated his council seat later in 1996 for Congress, Sten beat Chuck Duffy for the commissioner's job.
The City Council voted 4-1 last month to pull Portland out of the FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Force, making Portland the first city in the country to take that step.
Sten endorsed Tom Potter as ballots went out in the May 2004 mayoral primary. Potter limited donations to $100 apiece in the November general election after restricting them to $25 each in the primary.
Sandra McDonough is head of the Portland Business Alliance, replacing Kim Kimbrough, a frequent Sten nemesis who left the powerful business group in 2003.
Sten attended Grant High School, where he ran cross-country, wrote a weekly column for the student newspaper and received the faculty-choice award for most outstanding student.
After graduating from Grant in 1985, Sten went to Stanford University and received a Bachelor of Arts degree in English.
Full disclosure moment: Sten was a WW intern before regaining his senses.