A burst of orange flowers sits on Nancy Hamilton's desk in the elegant City Hall office she announced last week she's leaving. It's the day after Hamilton, 46, publicly stated that she would be stepping down at the end of January as Mayor Tom Potter's chief of staff. In that position, she earned about $101,000 a year, a reputation among City Hall critics as a control freak, little sleep and, now, those flowers from a friend.
The bouquet prompts Hamilton, a vocal parental advocate for Portland Public Schools before managing Potter's successful fall 2004 campaign, to joke that leaving her post after two years as the city's highest-ranking unelected bureaucrat is like dying without the death. That is to say she's enjoying the opportunity to reflect on her contributions to the mayor's office. Even though Potter is only halfway through his term and rumors swirl that she was forced out, Hamilton, a divorced mom, says it's time for her to go and that she's eager to spend more time with her 11-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter.
WW: Was it your decision to leave?
Nancy Hamilton: Yes, I've been talking with the mayor for a while....
I have a reputation for being someone who's out there rabble-rousing. I'm an advocate, and the skill sets you need to move some initiatives forward on multiple fronts is very different than how you want to articulate a challenge and move it forward...I feel like I've done the foundational work.
But why leave halfway through?
That was very deliberate. We came in with some very specific ideas.... Those included all the bureau innovation projects and the visionPDX outreach work, the charter-review commission. We've radically reframed how the budget process works. We've restructured how we approach priority work for the city. And I've helped with all of that. Now it's the halfway point, and we're going to be moving those initiatives into action.... It's a good time for me to go before that part begins.
Your critics say you're controlling.
My ex-husband made me a sign that I had on my desk, and Tom [Potter] would only ever let me use one side of it. One side says "passionate about her beliefs," and the other side says "pushy bitch." I think it depends on your perspective on me. I don't think I'm that controlling. I think some people think I am. So maybe I just don't know. I actually think if you ask my staff here, their complaint about me would be kind of the opposite. They want more guidance from me.
Have you been judged differently than your male counterparts?
Oh sure, that's a no-brainer. Women are judged differently every day of the week, because we're not men.... [Commissioner] Randy Leonard once said to me, "Thank God you're small, because you terrify me. And if you were big, I think you'd bother people." I joke around. I was the youngest of eight kids. I had to be pushy to get dinner.
Was this job harder for you as a woman with kids than it would have been for a man in a similar circumstance?
Yeah. And that may be why sexism persists—because I say things like that. I think there's more pressure on the mom front. I don't think there's an expectation of strong parenting from men. There are men who are good, strong, attentive parents. But I don't think there's pressure from the culture to do it. And they get accolades really easily: "Oh, you mean, you went to the school play?!" But it's hard. I want to read to my kids at night. I want to walk them to school in the morning. I want to go to all their performances.... I think it's hard for people to work and have kids. But I do think there's extra pressure on women.
What will you do next?
I don't know. One of the funny conundrums in this position is that you can't put out feelers, because as soon as you start talking, the word is everywhere.... There was a big rumor going around [that Hamilton wanted Cynthia Guyer's job as head of the Portland Schools Foundation]. I haven't called them; they haven't called me. I haven't had any serious discussions with anyone. I have a long history in education advocacy and children's issues in Portland, and I'm very passionate about that. The next big issue that's going to impact the state of education in Oregon is tax reform. That's definitely intriguing to me...but I have a lot of things that interest me. I think the sustainability movement is fascinating. I think it's our best opportunity for job growth in this community, and I'm very intrigued by it. I've also become a wild fan of the whole land-trust model for affordable housing.
Sounds like you're putting out feelers through this interview.
Yeah! You gotta let people know, but I don't have some big plan.... I know it sounds clichÉd and it's what you say when you don't have a good answer—that you're "really looking forward to spending more time with your family." But I have not seen my children enough, and I've been through a divorce since I started this job.... My relationship with my kids has changed, because they're with me sometimes and they're with their dad sometimes, and when I finally called them on the phone [last Wednesday night] after we made the announcement, the first thing my 8-year-old daughter said to me was, "Mama, can you walk us to school again?" And, you know, I kind of care about that stuff. And I'm tired. I'm wiped out. I'm exhausted. So I'm planning to just sleep awhile.
What is the greatest misperception about the mayor?
Some people think he doesn't have a good political gut. They say that at their peril. They confuse not being politically inclined in terms of how he conducts himself with not having good political instincts.
Will Potter run again in 2008?
I don't know. You'll have to ask the mayor.
If Potter ran again, would you vote for him?
Yes, and I don't care who else is running. If this mayor runs again, he wins my vote.
Will you ever run for office?
Not right now. People ask me that a lot. Some people have said to me that, in deciding to leave this position, I have ruined any opportunity to do that. Other people have said, "It's time for you to go move out on your own and make a stand on what you're passionate about, and that will help you move toward that." I don't know...I'm less inclined to consider it today. People can be really mean to you if you're in elected office. People think you're immune to having your feelings hurt. And when you're in public office you have an obligation to take the hits. I think that's hard. I have kids and I don't think it's a nice thing to have my kids hear crummy things about me because someone wants to take a potshot at me. It makes me wonder if that would be a fair thing to do to them.
Potter's new chief of staff will be Austin Raglione, now his deputy chief of staff. Raglione managed Commissioner Sam Adams' 2004 primary campaign.
Here's one measure of women's power in Potter's administration: Nine of the 10 employees with private offices are female.