Forgive us if we've been confused by City Commissioner Sam Adams' positions on charter reform.
Five years ago, Adams backed a charter reform effort when he was chief of staff to then-Mayor Vera Katz. The measure failed. Two months ago, he voted in favor of putting a package of seemingly similar reforms on the ballot May 15.
Even though he supported the idea of a public vote on the matter, he initially declined to say how he would vote on the most controversial change—strengthening the mayor's job (see "Silence of the Sam,'' WW, Feb. 21, 2007). Then he changed his mind and announced he would oppose it. But he isn't taking any role in the increasingly heated campaign between Mayor Tom Potter, who supports the change, and Commissioners Randy Leonard and Erik Sten, who oppose it.
We asked Adams into our offices to explain. He did—and for good measure weighed in on issues where Portlanders are patting themselves on the back too much.
WW: Why aren't you lifting a finger to fight these charter changes?
Sam Adams: Because I am absolutely focused on the legislative agenda in Salem on civil unions and transportation funding. That's what I'm doing with my extra, discretionary time when I'm not focused on the work of a city commissioner. I have to judge how to spend my time, and it seems like Randy and Erik have the opposition well in hand.
But you backed previous proposed changes to strengthen the mayor's job when you were Mayor Katz's chief of staff.
I'm on record supporting a [strong] mayor form of government. But I support it because it separates the branches—legislative and executive—so you can have a very robust legislative oversight of the executive. That's not what this charter reform does. Leaving the mayor on the council is like putting the president, speaker of the House and president of the Senate there. That's too much power. I understand that my reasons are geeky and wonky. But they're my reasons.
Vera backs this charter change. Is she pissed at you?
[Laughs] Vera's periodically pissed at me for a number of reasons. When I say pissed, I mean that very tongue-in-cheek. We agreed to disagree.
So charter reform will...?
I think it's gonna fail. The articulation of what problems [to solve] hasn't been clearly defined. If it goes down, then I consider this issue resolved in my lifetime. In other words, I'm not going to try and resurrect it and try to push my point of view.
And what would its defeat mean for Tom Potter?
Some people think it's gonna be devastating to him politically. I don't necessarily believe that. There are examples of politicians like [ex-Gov.] Tom McCall who offered up a sales tax repeatedly. But his numbers either increased or stayed steady. People can disagree with [Potter] but still support him.
Let's switch gears. When you travel to conferences, do you get a sense that Portland has an inflated reputation?
Portland is a great city in many ways, but my fear is that we believe our own national and international press too much. And I don't think that I am being a traitor when I go out on the road and talk about our successes, and then I talk about our challenges and our vulnerabilities.
Where are we too narcissistic?
We get high marks on livability and all these other factors, and yet we have 12 percent of the people who have a job work at a wage that's considered a working-poor wage. We're gonna lose a bunch of our middle class—we'll be a city of the wealthy and the subsidized poor. The other thing is my concern for this "green city movement." It's a "white city" movement. If it wasn't for the environmental justice movement [raising questions about minorities living next to polluted sites], the environmental movement in this city would be largely a white movement. There are things going on in this great city now that should be cause for real concern. And on our worst days, we're a little too narcissistic and a little too believing in our press.
If the mayor runs again, will you run?
I doubt it.
Do you think Portland would ever elect a gay mayor?
[Laughs] The most factual answer is that during the [2004 council] campaign, 14 percent of the people we polled said, "I will absolutely not vote for Sam Adams, because he is openly gay." Another 14 percent said they would absolutely vote for me because I was gay. And then the rest said it makes no difference. I have a full, well-rounded agenda because the gay community, like everybody else, has fully rounded people and not walking, breathing stereotypes. But I'm definitely a gay guy.
Have you ever felt homophobia as a commissioner?
Of course I have.
Where have you felt it?
It's not homophobia, it's homo discomfort in some people. Because my standard introduction includes "the first new gay city commissioner." And so when I'm speaking to a group in the more conservative part of the city, there's part of what they get up and read—the standard intro. And you can tell when someone hasn't read it before. They're giving it and saying [pauses], "...he's the first gay commissioner of city council." I'm a mainstream politician, and I think that in addition to trying to make things move within the system I can show people better than a lot of other people that gay people are as normal and unique and weird and wonderful and terrible as anybody else. And that's what I like to focus on. Whatever homophobia I'm subject to, I'm in a position of incredible privilege. And I'm just not gonna whine about it.
What do you think about backers of civil unions in the Legislature changing the name of the bill to "domestic partnership"?
I have my political reaction and I have my human reaction. My political reaction is, that's what they feel they need to do to prevent it from being referred based on the feedback they're getting on the doorstep. That makes sense. My human reaction is that it's very disappointing. I'm trusting them that that's well founded. I have not seen the base information, but I've heard it from people whose judgment I trust. But it's disappointing.
Adams, Portland's first openly gay city commissioner, plans to announce at year's end his political plans. Among the options: running for mayor or for Congress if U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) runs for the U.S. Senate.