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May 30th, 2007 HENRY STERN | News Stories
 

The Fifth Wheel

Mayor Tom Potter didn't promise details in his campaign. And he hasn't delivered many, either.

     
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If you want a snapshot of where Mayor Tom Potter fits in City Hall's power structure these days, 15 minutes in council chambers May 2 told you all you needed to know.

Fulfilling a promise from his 2004 campaign to begin council meetings by asking "how the children are doing," the 66-year-old mayor sat listening as three students from Jefferson High School detailed the problems at their school.

While Potter listened politely and intently to the trio of teenage girls, here's what the mayor's four council colleagues did:

Commissioner Erik Sten busied himself typing away, eyes down on his laptop. Commissioner Dan Saltzman wasn't even there, choosing instead to attend the opening of the downtown Portland Farmers Market.

Commissioner Sam Adams stood off to one side, sipping a decaf iced tea with soy milk, scanning the room.

And Commissioner Randy Leonard? He listened just as intently as Potter to the three Jeff girls. Then Leonard undercut the entire presentation by remarking after they had finished that it was Portland Public Schools that was failing the girls and their school. (In other words, there wasn't much City Hall could do.)

Sure, there's a danger in inflating one scene into a metaphor for what's going on in City Hall—a personality-driven place where the "who's up, who's down" gossip flies so fast that it makes high school look like a Trappist monastery. But this 15-minute slice of time comes pretty damn close to capturing the state of the place nearly 2 1/2 years into Potter's term: inertia.

And here's the real kicker: The mayor is doing exactly what he said he'd do when he ran in 2004.

He's started council meetings by asking about the kids. He's talked about a more collaborative council, trying to keep the focus on process over politics.

He's committed to the kumbaya objectives of "bringing us together" and reaching out to otherwise invisible immigrant groups in hopes of soliciting more community input with something called "visionPDX." And Potter, an ex-police chief, is dedicated to re-energizing community policing.

But like a hood ornament, Potter might be the first thing that catches your attention on a fancy car. That doesn't mean it has anything to do with how well the car runs or who's really driving it.

Harsh? Perhaps. But also accurate, according to more than 20 City Hall insiders and close observers we talked to over the past month. At no point in recent memory has the mayor's office ever had an agenda so flimsy.

Potter's predecessor, Vera Katz, may have failed at a number of things, but not for lack of trying. Her 12-year legacy included such controversial projects as South Waterfront and the aerial tram, PGE Park, the Esplanade and renovating the Armory.

Yet today the mayor's office is adrift.

"I don't see any urgency coming out of his office," says Jo Ann Bowman, who is hardly a member of the opposition. She was Potter's campaign treasurer in 2004.

And the mayor's recent thrashing, the May 15 defeat by a 3-1 margin of his attempt to change the city's form of government, only adds to the sense that Potter's political elevator doesn't go all the way to the top.

Former city Auditor Jewel Lansing, who endorsed Potter in 2004, says she "couldn't have been more surprised" Potter brought a "stronger mayor" proposal forward just five years after voters trounced a similar measure.

"It definitely damages him," says Lansing, author of a 2003 book about the city's history, Portland: People, Politics and Power 1851-2001. "I don't think he's an experienced politician.... The whole visioning process, it's sort of the same thing—a lot of wishful thinking."

Potter is thousands of miles away from those self-inflicted political wounds this week. He left town May 19 with his wife, Karin, for a two-week trip to Germany and Italy.

When he returns, he will face two key questions.

What does he want to get done in the remaining 19 months of his term as the city faces significant nuts-and-bolts challenges? Among them: figuring out a regional transportation plan that won't leave commuters stuck in perpetual gridlock, trying to target the right big business to attract next, and making sure Portland remains both weird and affordable.

And will Potter run for re-election, given that, by many accounts, he is miserable in the job?

When Potter returns from his trip mixing personal vacation in Germany with business in Portland's sister city of Bologna, Italy, he will have served as mayor for 29 months. That's about the same length of time Potter had served when he announced in 1993 he was quitting as police chief. He said then he was burned out.

Nobody is saying the mayor will re-enact a similar resignation 15 years later.

There is consensus, however, in City Hall outside Potter's third-floor office that he's spent. The evidence among the gossips: eyes bloodshot from exhaustion, little active interest in issues of daily governance.

The day before leaving for Germany, Potter sat down for a 45-minute interview with WW in which he referred periodically to a sheet of paper with talking points. On the sheet were questions this reporter had asked others in preparation for this story, and ways he differed from Katz.

In that interview, Potter rejected any suggestion he was distracted or dispirited.

"I really don't let things bother me that much," Potter said, his voice raspy from a cold that kept him out of the office two days that week, adding matter-of-factly he doesn't read "half of what Willamette Week writes about me."

However, even he cannot dispute that he has become isolated in City Hall, with his focus on squishy issues like "visioning" a long-term plan for Portland.

In fact, his "visioning" effort may be the perfect illustration of Potter's flaws. While Potter visions, his four City Council colleagues—all seasoned pols—are happy to fill the political vacuum Potter leaves.

Sten is busy working on homelessness and affordable housing.

Leonard juggles pet projects like making the world safe for biodiesel and improving bureau friendliness.

Saltzman, the closest thing to a Potter ally on the council, cares about sustainability and children.

Adams, who hasn't ruled out a run for mayor next year, doesn't miss a PR chance with transportation, the arts or whatever else he can squeeze onto his media-friendly calendar.

Then there's Potter's agenda, which reads like nailing Jell-O to a wall.

As an ex-police chief, Potter obviously takes a strong interest in the bureau, and he arguably has made his biggest mark on issues of cops and civil liberties.

He has made sure community policing is a part of promotional exams at the Police Bureau. He pulled Portland police out of the federal Joint Terrorism Task Force in 2005.

He took flak last year over demoting Chief Derrick Foxworth. And most recently, he disagreed with new Chief Rosie Sizer's recommended four-week suspension of Lt. Jeffrey Kaer after a fatal shooting; Potter wants Kaer canned.

But other than police issues, the mayor's agenda is pretty thin gruel.

Potter has spent much of his energy on visioning, a pet project that sought input from 100,000 Portlanders. He got only 13,000 responses, and the project will finish at least four months late and $300,000 over budget.

Asked at the start of WW's interview what his priorities were for the rest of his term, Potter paused before answering that he wanted to finish the visioning process, then reverted to police matters by saying he hoped to complete community policing initiatives. He later noted that the council has supported his efforts to create 27 work groups and community efforts.

All but Potter's severest critics say he's respectful of everybody's opinion (with, of course, the notable exception of a Feb. 7 council hearing on charter changes, during which he told 79-year-old Irwin Mandel, a supporter-turned-critic, to "shut up") and is a man of high integrity.

These are admirable qualities in a person. But they alone won't make you a great, or even good, mayor.

Great mayors sort through the cacophony of voices to form their own plan. And even good mayors know not to write off allies forever or leave them twisting in the wind.

One of Potter's political mistakes has been to abandon some of his strongest supporters from his 2004 campaign.

Bowman, his 2004 campaign treasurer, is a notable casualty.

A friend of Potter's since she moved here from Baltimore in 1990, Bowman attended his wedding to Karin; the Potters attended hers to Skip Bowman. Each Valentine's Day, for several years running, the two couples would break out the dinner jackets and evening gowns for a fancy night out.

But Bowman's friendship with the mayor ended abruptly last year when Potter demoted Foxworth after an investigation into charges that Foxworth had sexually harassed a desk clerk. The decision came despite investigators' dinging Foxworth for only a minor infraction unrelated to the core charges.

Potter's decision prompted Bowman to criticize the mayor publicly. Potter responded in a very unpolitical fashion—he cut off all contact with a friend and political supporter with considerable reach in the African-American community.

"He takes it personally, like you personally called his character into question," says Bowman, wearing a button against the change of government when interviewed before the May 15 election. She says her efforts to sit down with Potter for coffee to clear the air have been spurned.

Potter calls the estrangement with Bowman "personally disappointing" and a product of Bowman alleging his actions against Foxworth, an African-American, were racist.

Another chief supporter whom Potter has ditched on the side of the political road is his 2004 campaign chairman, Mark Rosenbaum.

In 2005, the mayor appointed Rosenbaum chairman of the Portland Development Commission. Rosenbaum promptly learned what it was like to be a piñata swaying in the breeze, unprotected from the swings of able politicians like Leonard, Sten and Adams.

Then Potter went one better. He ended up on the opposite side from Rosenbaum on another measure on the May 15 ballot: one pushed by Leonard and Sten that would give the council more oversight of the PDC.

Potter and Rosenbaum say they agreed to disagree on the measure and remain friends. Still, giving aid and comfort to your friend's political enemies is a weird way to keep political allies.

And, of course, there's Sten, the city's longest-serving commissioner, who helped Potter get elected.

He and Potter disagreed quite publicly about Ballot Measure 26-91, the stronger-mayor proposal.

City Hall sources say the relationship has warmed somewhat in recent weeks. But there's an ongoing subtext of mistrust based on past ruptures. Sources say Potter believed Sten thought he would run the mayor's office if Potter was elected, and Sten lost faith in Potter after the mayor declined to play hardball with Enron CEO Steve Cooper at crunch time in the Sten-driven effort for the city to acquire Portland General Electric.

At heart, Potter seems to lack the most basic of political instincts: the ability to drive through an idea over determined opposition from people like Leonard and Sten.

That trait was nowhere more in evidence than in his handling of the campaign to pass Ballot Measure 26-91, the measure that would have changed Portland's form of government.

Potter, the candidate who ran against big money, refusing to accept any contributions over $100, suddenly had nowhere to turn for a traditional, money-driven campaign except the Portland Business Alliance. And 26-91 also got strong support from the editorial board of The Oregonian, which endorsed Potter's opponent in 2004.

Potter looked like a hypocrite with his new allies. But some might think that would be no big deal, given that a poll as recently as March showed 72 percent of respondents viewing Potter favorably.

So why did Potter get stomped like a narc at a biker rally?

Here's how: That broad level of community support is quite different from what's needed to succeed on most issues that arise in City Hall.

On a day-to-day basis, most Portlanders don't give a damn about City Hall unless it's to bitch about their sewer bills or a pothole on their street. Most voters (i.e., poll respondents) simply don't care about the building's political battle du jour.

A different mayor like Katz would have known Leonard and Sten would pull every lever to defeat the mayor's measure and would have been prepared.

But Potter is unwilling regularly to engage the rest of City Hall in politics.

"There's a lot about governance that really doesn't interest him," says a veteran of both mayors' offices. "He doesn't ask questions. He doesn't consult with staff. With Vera, when we'd go around the table at staff meetings, she'd say, 'Tell me what you think,' and that would help her form a viewpoint."

A second person who worked for Katz and Potter, Charlie Makinney, stresses he's not passing judgment on the two mayors' leadership styles.

But Makinney says Katz was much more interested in the end product than Potter, who's focused instead on the process.

"She had much more firsthand knowledge of issues," says Makinney, who stayed on as police liaison for the first six months of Potter's tenure after two years in that role with Katz. "She'd be asking me, 'Did TriMet ever get those damn cameras up?' Tom wouldn't know if TriMet [even] had those cameras.... He sees himself as the facilitator rather than the doer."

Leonard, who waged regular battles with Katz, says he actually appreciates the change in style. Yet Leonard says Potter's go-it-alone approach and unwillingness to build winning coalitions of three or more members of the five-person council makes for a culture clash at City Hall.

"In his view, there's no chain of command here," says Leonard. "He sees it as anarchy. He hasn't recognized that if you have a good idea, you have to do some groundwork.... He was a cop, he was a police chief, and you don't have police chiefs who were outvoted. He considers it disrespectful to challenge the view that he is in charge."

Adds Adams, who was Katz's chief of staff for more than a decade: "Vera had a 24-year tutorial in politics and policy" before City Hall.

"She had to fight to make her way in a political system," says Adams, who hasn't ruled out a mayoral run next year. "She knew how to build alliances and support. That's the biggest difference. Tom came up through the ranks of a paramilitary organization.... Tom works hard but struggles because he hasn't had that experience."

Potter says he will make one change in his routine after he returns from Europe.

He'll spend less time in City Hall. He promised during his 2004 campaign to spend 50 percent of his time in the community, and he says he feels like he's spent only 25 percent.

"I think that's where I should be," Potter says. "That's the part I really, really miss.

"One of the reasons people like me is, I'm approachable," Potter says. "I have a lot of 'aha' moments when I'm out in the community."

Asked for an example, he cited being struck by how diverse Portland is when he attended a visioning meeting at the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization and people said goodbye to him in 15 to 20 different languages.

The value of spending more time collecting "aha" moments may be debatable for most pols interested in concrete achievements. Then again, maybe Potter's 72 percent favorability ratings in polls also show most Portlanders don't give a rat's ass about traditional political measures.

"I don't think the rules apply to this guy," says Nick Fish, a two-time City Council candidate who hosts a weekly TV public-affairs talk show on KRCW, Outlook Portland with Nick Fish. "He is raising something that we suspected for a long time—the inside chattering classes that tend to be sources of conventional wisdom are completely disconnected."

So while we chattering classes pick through the slim evidence whether the stone-faced mayor will run again, Potter sticks to his timetable of announcing around his 67th birthday, Sept. 12.

Meantime, the mayor of America's 30th-largest city sorts through a deeper question:

Why is a man who calls "politics the worst part of the job" even in a position that's as political as they come?

"I think about that question often," Potter said before leaving for vacation. "People can draw their own judgment as to whether that's smart...[but] I'm not going to change."


Before Potter Was Mayor

Sept. 12, 1940: Thomas Potter born.

1966: Joins the Portland police force.

1986: Testifies against Police Chief Penny Harrington at a commission looking into her leadership. Before testifying, he successfully sought a demotion from deputy chief to captain.

October 1990: Then-Mayor Bud Clark appoints Potter police chief.

January 1992: Potter remains on vacation for about a week in Mexico after learning that Nathan Thomas, 12, was fatally shot by Portland police trying to rescue the boy from an intruder in his Laurelhurst home.

March 1993: Announces he'll retire as chief after 31 months.

April 1997: Accepts interim appointment as director of Oregon's public-safety training academy. Lasts five months.

1997: Marries his third wife, Karin Hansen.

1998: Takes a job as director at New Avenues for Youth. Lasts 11 months.

September 2003: Announces he'll run for mayor.

May 2004: Finishes first in a 23-candidate primary, qualifying for runoff in the November election against Jim Francesconi.

November 2004: Elected Portland's 50th mayor.

 
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