When Portland voters overwhelmingly rejected the centerpiece of Mayor Tom Potter's campaign agenda last week, they sided with the people who have known Potter the longest professionally: the Portland Police Association.
Potter's proposed shift to a "strong mayor" form of city government might seem simpatico with a union accustomed to a command-and-control approach to leadership. But the union and its 42-year-old president, Robert King, played a key role in preserving the current commission form of government.
Members of the Portland Police Bureau contributed $35,000—$25,000 from the rank-and-file, $10,000 from commanders—of the $200,000-plus raised by opponents of Ballot Measure 26-91. The irony, of course, is that Potter spent 27 years as a Portland cop before retiring as chief in 1993.
King eats breakfast with Potter every three weeks and has emerged as both a major player inside City Hall and a leading Potter critic. Here's why:
WW: Why did the PPA spend $25,000 to help defeat the "strong mayor" proposal?
Robert King: When you look around Portland, you see a pretty well-run city. And we were concerned about what the change would mean to how the Police Bureau would be run, or how the money would be distributed, or how future issues that are really important to our members would be decided. In the end, the charter review committee never made a convincing case why change was necessary.
Should people worry that virtually all the opposition money came from unions and what that means for unions' influence at City Hall?
Police officers make contact with people about 420,000 times a year, so they're a pretty involved and pretty thoughtful partner. I think it makes sense that the people that help create public safety and who have an opinion deliver a message out there that lands with people.
How is the union's relationship with the mayor?
Professional. He used to be a cop, his daughter [Katie] is a cop, and he always has standing by virtue of the work he's done through the years. He has taken different positions on issues than we have, or arrived at conclusions that we don't necessarily agree with. But he's the mayor and our commissioner, and we just are playing a role in expressing the legitimate concerns of our members.
Is the relationship better or worse than you've seen previously?
There's always a healthy tension in Portland that exists between the mayor, who's the commissioner of police, and the Police Bureau. There were plenty of things that Mayor [Vera] Katz did that raised concerns for officers. I think the same is true for Mayor Potter. It's just historically and chronically somewhat strained.
Do you think the mayor will run for re-election next year?
I don't know. I can't imagine why he would want to do that again.
Will the PPA help find a potential challenger if he runs?
It's too early to say. We are going to be very heavily involved. Part of our problem with mayors' positions historically has been that, as mayor and police commissioner, they've taken positions on controversial incidents that haven't necessarily been in support of officers. Those have defined the relationship. It happened with Vera Katz, and I think that's part of what's happening now with Jeff Kaer's case [see "Brother in Arms," WW, April 11, 2007].
What do you make of Chief [Rosie] Sizer declining to sign the mayor's letter recommending Kaer be fired after she recommended a four-week suspension in Kaer's fatal January 2006 shooting of a civilian?
Every use of force has to be thoughtfully and thoroughly reviewed. In this case, you have former chief Derrick Foxworth as Jeff's commander—he didn't recommend firing. Then you have a review board with citizens and officers. They arrived at a recommendation that a suspension was appropriate. And then you have the chief of police who also believed that a suspension was appropriate. And I think you have a city attorney saying that they think that a suspension is appropriate. The [proposed] firing is unnecessary.
Was the mayor pandering to public opinion?
I don't know. From what I've seen preliminarily, though, he's leaning more on community concerns than on a thoughtful evaluation of the facts. And it's been some time obviously since he's been out there on the street.
You've served as president longer than anybody since Stan Peters? How long do you hope to continue?
For as long as the membership desires to reelect me. It's the most satisfying job that I've ever had because we get to play a role in helping people who help others and we help them at times when they need it most.
Do you miss being an officer?
Ever thought about running for elected office?
Some [PPA] members want me to run for mayor the next election cycle.
No. I've only ever wanted to be a Portland police officer.
Police are a lot like baseball umpires—people only notice you when you make a mistake. Could it be different?
I think it could. I actually think people have been hopeful with this combination of mayor and chief. You know the mayor plays a huge role in shaping public opinion on who we are and what we do. I think the same thing is true for the chief. And she has been-- I think sort of embodies the kind of rationality and decency in the position she's in. She's got widespread support. So I think that we-- they continue to be sort of fearful and hopeful all in the same moment that over time it can get better.
King is in his fourth two-year term as Portland Police Association president, the longest stretch since Stan Peters was the union's president between 1974 and 1991. King's three predecessors each served only one term.
Voters rejected Ballot Measure 26-91 by a 3-to-1 margin.
PPA members pay dues of $967.14 annually.