The Wheeler Inheritance: Riches and Recovery

Ted Wheeler’s forebears chopped down trees and shaped his life.

Ted Wheeler, a sixth-generation Oregonian, owns a $1.3 million home in Portland's West Hills, a beachfront home in Arch Cape, Ore., and an $800,000 property in the San Juan Islands.

Tax returns he disclosed to WW show his annual income averaged $1.5 million between 2012 and 2014.

Wheeler rails against the notion that he is defined by his privilege.

And he is irked by the media coverage that has trailed him since entering public office.

"People don't really have a clue about who I am or what makes me tick or what my values are," he says. "It's never been about the money in my family."

Wheeler's great-grandmother's grandfather, William Kerns, settled in Clatskanie, Ore., in 1852, but it was the later arrivals to his family that built its great fortune.

Wheeler's great-grandfather Coleman Wheeler launched the family's timber business in 1912, in the coastal Oregon town that now bears his name: Wheeler, Ore.

The family timber company eventually merged with others to become Willamette Industries, which sold to Weyerhaeuser in 2002 for $6 billion. At the time of the sale, Wheeler's father, Samuel, controlled 1.5 million shares worth about $83 million, according to U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filings.

Despite this wealth, Wheeler's childhood was not entirely comfortable. His father struggled with alcoholism.

As a young man, Ted Wheeler knew many mortifying moments when his father's drinking left him unable to recognize his son or drive the family home from dinner. Tears well up in Wheeler's eyes today as he recalls when Sam Wheeler took Ted and his younger brother Tom out to celebrate Tom's 13th birthday.

"This couple next to us, they just kept looking over at my dad getting louder and louder," Ted says. "Finally the lady leans over to her husband and says, 'That man is drunk.' I just remember being so embarrassed."

Tom Wheeler was mortified. "It was not pretty," Tom says. "My dad was completely intoxicated."

Ted Wheeler had only recently gotten his learner's permit, but he drove his father home. "I don't think it was long after that that he started to realize that he had a very serious problem," he says.

Sam Wheeler got sober at 54 and became a mentor to others struggling with addiction.

"He's the only guy I know who could go to jail in the morning to bail people out, and then go to a black-tie event in the evening," Ted Wheeler says now.

Sam Wheeler also ran the family foundation started by his father to make grants to charitable organizations. He named Ted and his brothers as directors. (Today the foundation has $16 million in assets.)

Ted Wheeler cut ties with the foundation in 2005, during his bid for the Multnomah County chairmanship, after questions arose about some of the foundation's donations.

An August 2005 article in WW noted the foundation gave $15,000 to Bill Sizemore's anti-tax foundation and numerous additional five-figure checks to right-wing organizations.

"My father is not a candidate in this race," Wheeler blasted back in a letter to the editor. "I have no control over which charities receive grants from the foundation. Like most family foundations, ours is not a democracy—my father is the president, he runs it on a day-to-day basis, and the money is his. Not only do I oppose the groups you selectively mentioned—I have worked against what they stand for my entire life."

Sam Wheeler died in 2011 having given away his money, Ted Wheeler says. (Wheeler inherited more than $1 million from his grandfather upon his father's death, however.)

"I had a deep sense of respect that he had picked himself up and sought help," Wheeler says. "He made something big out of it. He went through the 12-step program for the rest of his life. Instead of just internalizing it all, he realized he could be the voice in the community for other people who were struggling."

Wheeler says his sense of duty to serve the public springs from his father's troubles—and transformation.

"I am intensely motivated by the desire to go to bed at night and recognize that I made a difference in the world today," he says. "Politics gives you the opportunities to do that."

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