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January 18th, 2006 Ian Demsky | News Stories
 

The Dilettante vs. The Disaster

Down for the County? A wealthy challenger and a self-wounded incumbent punch it out for who gets the belt of Multnomah County chair. And why you should give a damn.

     
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Shhhh. Unplug from your iPod. Tune out the endless January downpours. Can you hear it? The hushed meetings of campaign strategists, the quiet buzz of fundraising calls, the hail-fellow-well-met chortle of candidates.

Yes, IT'S ELECTION TIME!

It may only be January, but the Oregon political season was launched well before ex-Gov. John Kitzhaber teased us all with his "Will I or Won't I?" parlor game. In fewer than 120 days, local voters will decide whether to kick out City Commissioner Erik Sten and, most likely, whether to tax themselves again for schools and if Portland city campaigns should be publicly funded.

But for our money, the best ringside seat this spring will be watching embattled Multnomah County Chair Diane Linn try to hang on to her job.

Why? Linn's post is arguably the most powerful in the metro area. She has control over everything from keeping the meth-heads who want to break into your car in jail to making sure the bridges over the Willamette can carry a 10-ton truck. She oversees a budget of $1.2 billion, which rivals the entire economy of Suriname!

Those aren't the only reasons her race is interesting. Typically, it's easier for an incumbent in this job to get elected than it is for billionaire Paul Allen to get his phone calls returned. In fact, no elected chair of Multnomah County has ever lost a re-election campaign since the voters started electing them in 1967.

This time, things are different. Linn may well be the most vexed elected official in recent memory. Gay marriage. Library-director salaries. Snow days for county employees. This is a woman whose good intentions are exceeded only by a political tone-deafness that makes wayward Portland School Board member Derry Jackson look shrewd by comparison.

Unlike many incumbents, Linn has an opponent who appears to be more than a crash-test dummy. In fact, he's a brainy, wonkish guy with liberal politics (a requirement in the "People's Republic of Multnomah") who has written a book about innovation in local government, scaled Mount Everest and put together an impressive campaign team.

His biggest vulnerability may be that he's heir to a large timber fortune—money from Willamette Industries—but is otherwise an unknown.

Linn, says local pollster Tim Hibbitts, has become an obvious "lightning rod" for critics. But, he adds, "Not every politician in a world of trouble gets taken out."

It all promises to bring about a dandy political fight!

So to kick off the political season, we're offering a dummy's guide to the race for county chair. We've got a roster of Linn's biggest screwups that may prove enough to TKO her, a list of punches Wheeler wants to throw, a "tale of the tape" to let you compare and contrast the two candidates, and a Q&A with Wheeler in which he reveals why he finds Betamax videos superior to VHS.

Four Reasons to Care who's chair

1. All governments levy taxes, but Multnomah County has been in charge of two that are unique in Oregon. It levies a 1.45 percent tax on business income and just finished a three-year, voter-approved 1.25 percent tax on residents' income. You pay taxes, don't you?

The county is responsible for $1.2 billion a year (ranking third in Oregon behind the state and City of Portland), which includes state and federal money for social-service programs like help for the homeless. This is the county's fifth straight year of economic hardship. And the forecast calls for more rain—in other words, no help from rural lawmakers and suburbanites in the state Legislature. Something's gotta give. Will it be your wallet?

2. Even if you're snug as a bug in your Pearl District condo, Irvington manse or Brooklyn bungalow, there's a guy who wants to steal your TV who's just been released from jail early. And another guy who just got out on parole and can't find a job. And a woman who can't think of anything beyond how to score another hit.

The city may be responsible for fixing sewers and busting bad guys, but the county is the government that actually jails folks who commit crimes like burglary and theft. And it is the county that supervises—and often pays for—those drug-treatment programs that keep smack-heads off the street. The county's corrections programs are the first line of defense between you and the criminal element.

3. The people in London might start singing songs about the Sellwood Bridge if someone doesn't think of something soon to fix the county's crumbling spans. It's a historical quirk, but yes, the county is responsible for maintaining all those Willamette River bridges.

4. And there's always a wild card if all these wonky things leave you yawning. The county has proven quite willing to step in on social issues. Who knew when Linn was first elected in 2001 that she would issue 3,000-plus marriage licenses to same-sex couples, thrusting the county into the national limelight? Maybe the issue of gay marriage will be enough to make you care, even if you support such unions only "if both chicks are hot," as one sarcastic T-shirt puts it.

Tale of the Tape

Ted "Richie Rich" Wheeler

Record: No wins, no losses.

Age: 43

Who's betting on him: Wheeler's already racked up about 700 endorsements, including that of Stand for Children, a schools advocacy group, and some of the women who've worked closest with Linn on the issues of schools and the county income tax: ex-Mayor Vera Katz, ex-School Board member Julia Brim-Edwards. And from the familiarity-really-breeds-contempt department: the three sitting female commissioners, Serena Cruz Walsh, Lisa Naito and Maria Rojo de Steffey.

What they're shouting at ringside: "He's smart—he's very smart," said Rojo de Steffey. "He gets government. He can pull all the pieces together."

The backstory: Wheeler graduated from Portland's Lincoln High before going on to polish an Ivy League-heavy pedigree. He's got a B.A. in economics from Stanford, an M.B.A. from Columbia and a master's in public policy from Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. Wheeler repeatedly declined to say how much he and his family were worth. SEC filings show that in 1999, three years before Weyerhaeuser's hostile takeover of Willamette Industries, Wheeler's father, Sam, owned 1.5 million shares of Willamette. They would have been worth $83 million at the time of the takeover. Tax filings also show the family's nonprofit Wheeler Foundation was worth $16.2 million in 2004.

Before he stepped in the ring: Wheeler worked for charities and nonprofits, such as Neighborhood House and Goose Hollow Family Shelter; founded a fundraising walk for Forest Park; started Portland YouthWorks, which raises money for cultural programs in schools; and served on government committees, including Portland's latest budget review. He also wrote Government That Works: Innovation in State and Local Government, a 200-page primer profiling pioneering government programs on education, health care and drug abuse. City Hall Digest called it "interesting."

Why he'll win: Along with big-time endorsements, Wheeler also has ace strategist Liz Kaufman in his corner. He's never held office, so he's not burdened by a political record. And he claims to have already raised twice what Linn did in her last run at the seat.

Why he'll lose: Most people have never heard of him. For those who have, Wheeler will have to overcome the notion he's just a well-meaning rich-boy do-gooder in over his head. He's taken a lot of heat over his family foundation's financial support of right-wing causes, such as Bill Sizemore's anti-government agenda.

Love-tap department: Wheeler married Katrina Maley last year and promptly set off for a honeymoon at the North Pole. She also has a background in nonprofit development and financial services.

Earnings: Wheeler's already collected more than $150,000 from 600 donors. No more than 7 percent of that comes from his family or his personal fortune.

Diane "Blunder Woman" Linn

Record: Three wins, no losses (elected Multnomah County commissioner, 1998; elected county chair to fill out Bev Stein's term in 2001, then re-elected in 2002).

Age: 47

Who's betting on her: Linn enjoys the backing of the 4,000-member Portland Association of Teachers, TriMet's drivers union and gay-rights groups like Basic Rights Oregon, thanks to her support of gay marriage.

What they're shouting at ringside: "When people stand up, are incredibly courageous and take risks like Diane has done, then not to be willing to do the same on her behalf is hypocritical," says Roey Thorpe, Basic Rights' executive director.

The backstory: Linn grew up in Portland's low-income Buckman neighborhood and worked with her mother's foster home for wayward teens. After graduating from Portland's now-defunct Washington High, she graduated with a B.S. in political science from Portland State University (where she also studied urban studies) and went on to executive training at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

Before she stepped in the ring: After leaving her job in 1990 as vice president of programming at Paragon Cable TV, Linn became executive director of pro-choice Oregon NARAL for three years and then served from 1993 to 1998 as director of Portland's Office of Neighborhood Involvement. She was a Multnomah County commissioner from 1998 until 2001, when she resigned her commission seat to run for chair and won.

Why she'll win: She's the incumbent, and incumbents rarely lose. Educators support her for keeping schools afloat with the three-year county income tax that recently expired. In 2002, she captured two-thirds of the vote against two opponents.

Why she'll lose: She's become the poster child for all of county government's ills, regularly getting blasted by the likes of Lars Larson and the Oregonian's editorial board. Her gaffes earned her WW's Rogue of the Year in 2004.

Love-tap department: Linn was married to former Democratic state legislator Dick Springer but is now dating John Rakowitz, her former chief of staff. Rakowitz also lobbied the county for the Portland Business Alliance, and critics said Linn let pillow talk influence her decisions, a charge she strongly denies.

Earnings: In the 2002 primary, Linn raised about $60,000. Linn's campaign wouldn't reveal how much it's raised so far this year, and donations won't be made public until the candidates file disclosure forms later this spring.

Five punches Ted Wheeler wants to throw

1. Wheeler wants to explore making the county sheriff a board-appointed position (like the head of the State Police or Portland Police Bureau) instead of an elected one. That would give the elected county commissioners greater control over the corrections system.

Judge's scorecard: This is a solid punch.

2. Wheeler asks: Why is the county responsible for bridges? Why not a regional transportation authority?

Judge's scorecard: Makes sense, but it's going to be tough to get other governments to take this problem off the county's shoulders.

3. Move meetings to different parts of the county and hold them during the daytime and evenings so that more citizens would have an opportunity to participate.

Judge's scorecard: We've heard this "bring it to the people" platform many times before. Not that there's anything wrong with it.

4. Tap into the county's computer brain trust and switch over to free, open-source software instead of paying millions in licensing fees to "our friends to the north." (That's Microsoft, folks.) Wheeler says his campaign is run on open-source software.

Judge's scorecard: Another solid punch.

5. Beef up the county's programs for seniors, including trying to get retirees more involved with after-school programs and pair younger, active elders with older folks who need more care.

Judge's scorecard: Sounds neat, but where's that money coming from?

Seven things Diane Linn must wish weren't on her political record.

1. In March 2004, Linn committed the biggest local political blunder of the decade by leading the effort to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. Forget for a moment the merits of gay marriage. Remember instead that the way Linn executed this initiative showed less deftness than a drunk butcher. She and three other commissioners decided not to inform the fifth county commissioner, Lonnie Roberts. She sprung the issue with no warning. And, most important, she ultimately had the issue shoved back down her gullet, setting back the cause of gay rights by years, according to some. Because of her efforts, foes leveraged a statewide ballot measure killing same sex marriage in 2004.

2. Parlez-vous Klingon? In 2003, Multnomah County made national news for including the fictional Star Trek language Klingon on a list of 55 tongues the county was prepared to translate for mental-health patients.

3. The name Wapato has become synonymous with government bungling. The new 525-bed, $60 million jail stands empty and unused while the county releases hundreds of criminals early because its other jails were too crowded. Linn can blame Sheriff Bernie Giusto all she wants, but at the end of the day, finding the dollars is her responsibility.

4. Linn began 2004 by unilaterally granting a bonus to county employees who showed up to work during a January snowstorm. Amid a blizzard of criticism, Linn then retracted the offer of an extra vacation day, saying she'd forgotten her colleagues had just rescinded her authority over compensation matters.

5. In 2003, the county agreed to cover the $18,000 difference between the $138,000 that Linn offered the new library director and the $120,000 the board had unanimously approved for the position.

6. Linn managed to make the leap from politics onto the laugh track of the 24-hour loop of ESPN's SportsCenter and national sports talk radio last summer by appearing at a press conference to welcome the new coach of the Trail Blazers, Nate McMillan, and then repeatedly mispronouncing his name as "McMullen.''

7. The relationship between Linn and three of the board's four other commissioners is so bad that they're endorsing Wheeler (the fourth commissioner, Lonnie Roberts, isn't backing anybody publicly).

In the clinches with Ted Wheeler

WW: So tell us hoi polloi what kind of work you did before this election.

Ted Wheeler: The biggest deal would've been my involvement with Copper Mountain Trust [a financial-services company that managed $6 billion of other people's money]. Since then, I've been a private equity investor and adviser to other small local companies—they range from medical-care products to hot dogs. Prior to that, I was a real-estate developer, a lecturer at the college level teaching government courses. I wrote this book, Government That Works; I was the executive director of a neighborhood association, where I oversaw a staff of four and 11 volunteer committees. Between my two years in business school, I was a product-management intern for Johnson & Johnson. Before that, I worked my way though college as a radio-station business manager, as a resident assistant and as a bookkeeper. Prior to that, in high school, I was a swim instructor, dishwasher and carpet stacker.

Whew. Let's focus on one piece of your résumé. You've also said you were a small-business owner. What was your small business?

It was a video store and video-equipment rental business and video-duplication service. I'm going all the way back to the golden age of video here.

Was it a Betamax store?

How did you know that? I started that business the same way everybody else starts their businesses: I ran my credit cards into the ground. I begged, borrowed and cajoled all my friends. I thought I had a sure winner. I did my research. We had 400 titles, and yes, they were all Betamax. I just figured with the best technology backed by Sony, it couldn't lose. I was wrong. But we bet right in terms of camcorders. That part of the business was very successful. People were willing to pay a lot of money to have their bar mitzvahs or bat mitzvahs or weddings taped. [Beta] had very high-quality picture resolution and very high-quality sound resolution. Anyway, that brings up sad memories from the past.

Couldn't you have just fallen back on family money if it failed?

It never occurred to me to ask my family. I was an adult, I had always worked, and I had income—I just needed to get the business going.

Let's move to the present. Why are you running for this job?

I'm not doing this because I have political ambitions. I'm doing this because I love this community and I care deeply about it. County government is the most important institution in this community as far as government goes. I've been very fortunate. And I'm mindful of that fact. I believe people like me who have been very fortunate have a higher obligation to put more back into the community.

Why should I care whether you're the county chair?

The chair sets the tone for the entire institution of county government, and right now we have an institution that is suffering from turnover, brain drain, increasingly poor morale, poor communications internally and externally, is confused about its mission, does not bring the public into the process in a meaningful way, and is not transparent to the degree that people in this community demand. We don't just fill potholes. We're talking about people's lives. Multnomah County is the last safety net for the mentally ill, for people with severe disabilities, for the elderly trying to live independently in their own homes, for children who grow up in impoverished families.

OK. Let's take one issue. What are you going to do about the county's crumbling bridges?

The Sellwood Bridge has a state safety rating, on a scale of 1 to 100, of a whopping 2. Multnomah County is responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of that and 26 other bridges and 350 miles of roadway. Multnomah County will never have the financial capacity to maintain that the way it needs to be. I've heard 65 percent of the people who cross the Sellwood Bridge are actually commuting from Clackamas County. So why are the taxpayers of Multnomah solely on the hook for the maintenance and upkeep? Nobody [else] wants it—of course not—and I'm not pawning this off on other people. But there are two important things you gain if you regionalize. One: You get taxing authority. Two: You have the opportunity, if you want, to put tolls in.

Toll bridges?

I don't know enough about tolls to promote them. I question whether Multnomah County should be in the bridge business, since the county doesn't have the financial capacity to maintain them properly. It makes sense to think more broadly about how to fund them.

How would you have handled the gay-marriage issue?

I wouldn't be afraid to bring opposing points of view into the room. The decision to exclude Commissioner [Lonnie] Roberts from the process was a terrible decision. When you exclude an elected representative, by extension you've excluded his whole base of constituents. People are more upset about the process than they are about the issue of same-sex marriage.

Do you favor gay marriage?

Yes.

You used to be a Republican, until 2001; now you're an independent. Why?

I grew up in an environment where moderate Republicans like Tom McCall were revered in this state. But the Republican Party has become too conservative. It has moved away from the ideals of Tom McCall.

Who'd you choose the first time you could vote for president?

You're going to make my mom angry by bringing this one up. I wasted my first vote. I was able to vote in the 1980 election, and I voted for John Anderson [a Republican congressman who ran as an independent]. And I think for me that was a youthful rebellion against the system.

What about in 2000?

Al Gore.

Most recently?

I voted for and I supported John Kerry, but he ran a lousy campaign.

[WW asked Diane Linn for questions she wanted Wheeler to answer. Here's one:]

You lived an elite life, a life of luxury. You've done some good deeds, no question, but why are you running for chair in your first bid for public office? Why not start with a commission seat, pay your dues and work your way up?

Pay my dues? Is spending $60 million of taxpayer money on a jail for which there was never a plan in place to fund—is that paying your dues? Is letting the Sellwood Bridge deteriorate to the point it's crumbling into the Willamette River—is that paying your dues? Is learning how to squabble endlessly with the other commissioners so that it undercuts the public's trust and faith in county government—is that paying your dues?

WW intern Shannon Green contributed to this story.

 
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