A little more than a decade ago, Sam Adams ran this town.
He was the first openly gay mayor of a large American city. He'd won election by a landslide and had had nearly 6,000 city employees at his disposal.
Today, Adams, 56, is back in Portland after almost two years without a job. His hair is more salt than pepper. His primary civic engagement: walking around the Concordia neighborhood with a black plastic bucket stuffed with a scrubber, chemical cleaners and thick plastic gloves—and doing voluntary graffiti removal. The only creature at his command now is Dora, a Chihuahua-dachshund mix.
Adams returned to Portland in July, hoping to do for his tattered reputation what his graffiti-removal tools do for neighborhood walls.
After nearly 30 years in Oregon politics and two stints atop respected nonprofits, Adams says he is now virtually unemployable. And he insists it is because of a false accusation.
Adams' lie about his affair with a legislative intern named Beau Breedlove cut short his political career. WW broke that story shortly after Adams became mayor in 2009. It haunted him for four years, ultimately costing him a chance for a second term.
He's moved past that scandal. "That situation is an example of a really stupid, dumb mistake on my part," Adams says. "I did lie and I regret it."
But his current inability to get work, he says, stems from something else: a sexual harassment complaint a former aide filed in 2017.
"When people Google me, that's it," Adams says. "When the search result comes up, it's 'sexual harassment.'"
In November 2017, nearly five years after Adams left the mayor's office, and weeks after the #MeToo movement started in earnest, Adams' former executive assistant, Cevero Gonzalez, sent a six-page letter to Portland city commissioners, complaining of his mistreatment by Adams many years earlier.
In the letter, Gonzalez, who served as Adams' assistant from 2008 to 2013, said Adams exposed himself to Gonzalez, asked him inappropriate questions, forced him to do menial tasks and treated Gonzalez as a piggy bank.
"For the past several years I've struggled to make peace with the sexual harassment and hostile work environment I endured," Gonzalez wrote in his letter. "I owe a great deal of thanks to the courageous women, and the growing number of men, who have spoken out on the issue of sexual harassment and sexual assault. They've given voice to someone who until recently could only grumble about his experience."
When the complaint landed at City Hall, Adams lived in Washington, D.C., where he led a major nonprofit's efforts to combat climate change. He lost that job immediately after WW reported Gonzalez's letter.
Adams asked Portland city officials to investigate the complaint. But by then, neither he nor Gonzalez was a city employee. The city declined to look into the matter, and the media quickly moved on, as Adams was 2,800 miles away. But the accusation stuck. And Adams says he has been unable to get steady work since.
And so he returned to Portland and is on a risky mission in the #MeToo era: He intends to disprove the complaint and clear his name.
"It's false—untethered from the truth," Adams says. "This just didn't happen."
At a time when powerful men are being held accountable for their private actions as never before—and an accusation can be tantamount to a conviction in the court of public opinion—Adams is walking a knife's edge: He's trying to prove his innocence without appearing to blame his accuser. His efforts are complicated by his lie about Breedlove.
But Adams believes a review of the available facts, including public records and emails, casts doubt on Gonzalez's credibility.
It's a delicate balancing act for Adams that also raises the larger question: Even if Adams is telling the truth, is Portland really ready for his return?
Sam Adams enjoyed a meteoric rise, which has been well chronicled. This story is about what happened when he returned to earth.
After winning the 2008 mayor's race in a rout in the May primary, Adams went from beloved to besieged overnight in January 2009, when he admitted to WW he'd lied about Breedlove. Although Adams survived two recall attempts, polling showed he would have a difficult time winning re-election. He chose not to run.
After leaving City Hall in 2013, Adams set out to rehabilitate his reputation. He applied to become executive director of the City Club of Portland, a century-old bastion of civic engagement.
Pat McCormick, a veteran lobbyist, was president of the City Club board that hired Adams. He was also among the many critics who thought Adams should have resigned as mayor in 2009, so hiring Adams wasn't an obvious fit. Some also worried the job was too small for him.
"One member said it would be like attaching a jet engine to a little red wagon," McCormick says.
Adams stayed at City Club for two and half years. McCormick credits him with boosting and diversifying the club's membership. "He was collaborative, pursued new ideas and energized an ossified organization," McCormick says.
Then a headhunter called about an opportunity with the World Resources Institute, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit with an annual budget of nearly $100 million. Adams started as the organization's U.S. climate director and was soon promoted to director of all stateside operations. He focused on helping local governments across the country employ data and strategies to prepare for a low-carbon future. "It was a great job," he says.
But as Adams thrived in the nation's capital, a former subordinate in Portland was seething.
Cevero Gonzalez went to work for Sam Adams in 2008. In many ways, Gonzalez and Adams share similar biographies: Born a year apart, they both grew up gay in rural Northwestern towns, raised by single mothers dependent on food stamps.
Gonzalez grew up in Walla Walla, Wash., graduated from Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma and, after a stint in Boston, moved to Portland in 2003 to be closer to family. He worked as a legal secretary before joining the city in 2006. After two years at the Portland Bureau of Transportation, he moved to Adams' office, where he would control the mayor's schedule and often accompany him to events and meetings.
"Sam said he wanted somebody who could understand him as a gay man to be his assistant," Gonzales recalls. He understood it wouldn't be a routine desk job. "They said there are any number of things you'll be called on to do."
Gonzalez, now 55, was as neat as Adams was scattered. "Fastidious" is the word people use to describe him. On his personal computer, for instance, he separated his emails into 546 separate folders.
When Gonzalez shopped for hygiene items, such as deodorant, toothpaste and shampoo, he bought three of everything. "When you grow up poor and you don't have a lot and you have an opportunity to get something extra, you do it," he says.
At his home, which he shares with his pit bull mix, Oscar, he cooked and froze a week's worth of dinners in advance. At work, he ate the same lunch nearly every day—a salad with exactly six cherry tomatoes. "I like consistency," Gonzalez says.
Co-workers recall he always kept essentials for the mayor's office in his desk: mints, granola bars—even a sewing kit.
In his complaint, Gonzalez refers to a "cult of personality" that existed among Adams' 26-member mayoral staff. And for much of his time with Adams, Gonzalez made his work his whole life. But that devotion would sour after Adams left office.
When Adams moved on to City Club, Gonzalez stayed on at City Hall as executive assistant to Mayor Charlie Hales, who succeeded Adams in 2013.
Shortly thereafter, Gonzalez filed a complaint against Hales' chief of staff, Gail Shibley, alleging Shibley had discriminated against him because he was HIV positive. Gonzalez also claimed Shibley referred to him and Adams as "skanks."
The complaint was eye-catching, given that Shibley, like Adams, was an LGBTQ pioneer—the first openly gay member of the Oregon Legislature, appointed in 1991. While she denied the charges, records show Gonzalez pursued his complaint with the city's Human Resources Bureau and the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries. Finally, he turned the complaint into a $350,000 lawsuit in U.S. District Court. (Hales and Shibley declined to comment.)
Although court records show the city's HR bureau rejected the complaint and federal investigators for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission determined "there is not enough evidence to establish a violation," the city settled with Gonzalez in April 2016, paying him $25,000.
In July 2017, Gonzalez left the city's payroll and went to work for a credit union. Four months later—prompted, he says, by revelations of men and women across the country coming forward with complaints of sexual misconduct by powerful men, such as Hollywood movie producer Harvey Weinstein—Gonzalez emailed a six-page letter to all five city commissioners and the City Attorney's Office about Adams' treatment of him beginning nearly a decade earlier.
In his complaint, Gonzalez said that over a period of four years, Adams exposed himself to Gonzalez and forced him to clean Adams' house, run personal errands for him, lend him money, and divulge details of his sex life.
He said Adams asked him to prepare dossiers on the gay nightlife in cities where Adams traveled on city business and required him to act as his butler, taking Adams home when he was too drunk to drive and pulling him out of bed for meetings the next morning.
Some of the charges amounted to descriptions of bullying behavior. Others could cross the line into harassment or creating a hostile work environment.
Perhaps the most damaging and widely quoted allegation concerned an incident shortly after Gonzalez started working for Adams in July 2008. Gonzalez claimed he picked Adams up at the airport after he returned from a trade mission to China.
Here's how Gonzalez remembered their conversation:
"His first inquiry? 'When was the last time you got laid?' When I demurred, he persisted: 'Come on. What type of guys do you like? Do you like 'em cut or uncut?' Asking me the last question while looking directly at my crotch. I tried changing the subject to work-related topics, but Sam would have none of it. 'Tell me. Are you a top or a bottom?'"
The salacious allegation, coming just weeks after tales of Weinstein's piggish behavior filled front pages, fit with the narrative of Adams' messy personal life Portlanders remembered from his mayoral tenure.
On the evening of Nov. 3, 2017, WW reporter Rachel Monahan texted Adams, seeking comment on Gonzalez's complaint, which she had obtained that day.
"I wrote back something like, 'What are you talking about?'" Adams recalls. "She emailed me [Gonzalez's] complaint. I was shell-shocked."
Adams called his domestic partner of 10 years, Peter Zuckerman, a writer and political consultant. They met at a nearby restaurant. Zuckerman ordered french fries and Adams a Michelob Ultra. At the table, they composed a reply.
"Sexual harassment is a real problem in the workplace," Adams said in the statement he sent to WW. "I did not sexually harass Mr. Gonzalez, but I think allegations like his should be thoroughly investigated. State and city procedures are in place to objectively examine the facts around allegations like these. I will gladly participate in such a process and look forward to its findings."
The story blew up in Oregon. And in D.C., it had an immediate impact: Adams lost his job.
Adams says he cannot talk about the terms of his departure from WRI (WRI also declined to comment), but Zuckerman fills in that blank.
"It was a shock," Zuckerman says. "Sam loved that job, and he had raised millions to expand his program. But then all of the sudden, he's on The New York Times list of people taken down by the #MeToo movement."
About a month after Gonzalez's complaint landed at City Hall, the City Attorney's Office said in December 2017 it would not investigate because the alleged harassment had taken place long ago and neither man still worked for the city.
On Feb. 3, 2018, Gonzalez appeared before the City Council to urge commissioners to look into his allegations. They declined his request.
Gonzalez presented evidence with his testimony that he'd regularly covered meal, travel and other expenses for Adams, which is the one part of the complaint Adams acknowledges.
That may be sloppy, employment lawyers say, but it's not harassment. They also say Gonzalez's claims of being forced to research gay nightlife in other cities and run personal errands, even house cleaning for Adams, also don't rise to the level of harassment.
"Lots of unpleasant and menial tasks bosses ask of their subordinates don't rise to the level of harassment," says Keith Cunningham-Parmeter, professor at the Willamette University School of Law.
Lawyers say there are two parts of Gonzalez's complaint that, if true, could constitute sexual harassment or creating a hostile work environment: First, allegations that he regularly exposed himself to Gonzalez. Second, that he regularly made inappropriate remarks of a sexual nature, either about himself or others, and asked Gonzalez inappropriate questions, as he allegedly did after his China trip.
Gonzalez says the "exposure" came when he'd pick Adams up at home and the mayor would answer the door in his underwear; when he needed clothes altered at the office; or when Adams changed clothes for formal events. He says the exposure was never sexual—Adams never propositioned him—it was just inappropriate and uncomfortable.
"I think he knew he made me uncomfortable, and I think he thought it was funny," Gonzalez says. "It's an intimidating position to be in if he's your boss." (Adams denies exposing himself or making inappropriate comments.)
Gonzalez says he complained to chief of staff Tom Miller and deputy chief of staff Jennifer Yocom. WW interviewed both of them and 10 others who worked with Adams and Gonzalez. None say they believe Adams had sexually harassed Gonzalez. Moreover, none recalled Gonzalez ever complaining about harassment.
Former colleagues felt Gonzalez adroitly juggled the massive demands on Adams' time and appeared to devote nearly all his waking hours to serving the mayor.
Miller says Adams pursued an extremely ambitious agenda. "Sam expected a lot from himself, and by extension his team," he says. "As chief of staff, I built a team that could deliver on his agenda. It's no surprise many of those team members are now in roles of civic leadership in Portland and beyond. There were moments of difficulty, to be sure. The pace could be extraordinary. But we were—and still are—grateful for the opportunity to support such a talented and driven individual who was always pushing Portland to achieve its potential."
Miller denies ever witnessing the harassing behavior Gonzalez describes, and he denies Gonzalez ever came to him about any alleged harassment. "None of that ever happened," Miller says.
Yocom has a similar recollection. "The job was tough and the mayor could be a tough (but thoughtful) boss—he asked a lot of us because the work was about serving the public. And you know what? We got a lot done."
But she rejects Gonzalez's assertions: "He never informed me of sexual harassment, I never heard rumors of harassment, and I never observed harassment."
Amy Ruiz, an Adams staffer whose office was near Gonzalez's and who socialized with him, says she also never heard or saw the harassment Gonzalez described in his complaint. "It doesn't make any sense to me," Ruiz says.
The absence of others stepping forward to corroborate Gonzalez's allegations hasn't cleared Adams' reputation. So last year, he set about looking for evidence that would provide more context for Gonzalez's claims.
Adams' most significant discovery was an email exchange that undercut the most damaging claim in Gonzalez's complaint: that Adams questioned Gonzalez about his sex life when Gonzalez fetched him at Portland International Airport after a trade mission to China in 2008.
In fact, emails Adams found show it was Adams' economic development aide, Clay Neal, not Gonzalez, who picked Adams up after his China trip, something Neal has confirmed.
Gonzalez now says Neal may be correct: "It may be I confused this detail."
In a two-hour interview at his home, Gonzalez declined to provide WW the name of anyone to whom he confided Adams' alleged harassment at the time, and says he did not keep notes, emails or other documentation aside from those financial items he provided to the City Council with his 2018 testimony.
He says he didn't talk with colleagues about the alleged harassment as it happened out of loyalty to Adams. "I didn't want to be the guy who created more trauma for someone who was my brother in the struggle," he says.
And Gonzalez, who has faced chronic financial problems, says his motivation for sending the letter was neither money nor revenge. "It was truly hearing those other stories that made me write the letter about what was inside me," he says.
Gonzalez says he takes no satisfaction in Adams' unemployment. As for why none of his former colleagues is supporting his harassment claim, Gonzalez says they are merely continuing the enabling culture that existed in Adams' office: "It says that people are feeling very protective of Sam."
There's no question Gonzalez feels a deep sense of grievance toward Adams. He insists the complaint he filed is true and still hopes it might be officially investigated.
Adams is equally convinced the claims are false. "It didn't happen," he says.
Since he lost his job at WRI nearly two years ago, Adams has done a little consulting work for the United States Conference of Mayors and a few private clients. "Very little," he says.
Gonzalez's complaint had other consequences. When Katz, Adams' mentor, died in December 2017, the month Adams lost his job, he was not allowed to speak at Katz's memorial service. "He was told Cevero's complaint was the reason he was taken off the list," Zuckerman says. "They didn't want the allegations to distract from the event."
Even before he lost his job, Adams always intended to return to Portland—he maintained his voter registration here. Since coming back, he's reconnected with former contacts, such as Sandra McDonough, who headed the Portland Business Alliance during his mayoral tenure.
McDonough says she's not sure what to make of the Gonzalez complaint. "It was never investigated and it was never litigated," she says.
Now CEO of Oregon Business & Industry, McDonough thinks that in a city facing big challenges, Adams could make a positive contribution.
"Sam is a very smart person with a lot of creativity and ability to really think through tough issues," McDonough says. "I would hope he finds an opportunity to put that talent to work."
Others are less enthused. "In office, he had a short attention span, a lack of discipline, and the Breedlove thing showed lack of judgment," says Len Bergstein, a longtime City Hall lobbyist. "I don't have any idea whether he's addressed those shortcomings."
Will he run for office again? "I don't know," Adams says.
Adams moved back to the place that defined him and he helped define. Whether his public career will include another act depends on how badly Portlanders decide they need a man with undeniable political skills and undeniable flaws.
Remarkably, one of those who believes he deserves another chance is Gonzalez—if Adams can demonstrate he's changed.
"I believe in redemption," Gonzalez says, "if he were to show to me he is that person I thought he was in 2006."
For now, Adams is walking the neighborhood with Dora and his bucket.
"I cleaned graffiti when I was Vera's chief of staff, city commissioner and mayor," Adams says. "Vera taught me it's not just an eyesore, it sends a message of helplessness. We're not guiding ourselves and we're not governing ourselves."
The nonprofit Journalism Fund for Willamette Week provided support for this story.
Years of Sam
1963: Samuel Francis Adams born in Butte, Mont.
1982: Graduates from South Eugene High.
1986: Begins working for U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.).
1988: Begins working as a staffer in the Oregon Legislature.
1993: Starts work as chief of staff to Mayor Vera Katz.
2003: Leaves Katz's office to run for Portland City Council.
2004: Loses badly to Nick Fish in the May primary. Beats Fish in the November runoff.
2008: Runs for mayor. Defeats Sho Dozono in the May primary 58 to 34 percent.
2009: Admits to lying about affair with legislative intern Beau Breedlove.
2011: Announces in July he won't seek re-election.
2013: Finishes mayoral term, joins City Club of Portland.
2015: Hired by World Resources Institute in Washington, D.C.
2017: Abruptly leaves WRI following Cevero Gonzalez's complaint of sexual harassment.
2019: Returns to Portland in July.
Adams Before the Fall
Eight years after Mayor Sam Adams decided not to run for re-election because of a scandal involving a former legislative intern named Beau Breedlove, he still has plenty of Portland fans.
Adams' political career began when he dropped out of the University of Oregon to work for U.S. Rep. DeFazio (D-Ore.). He then worked as chief of staff for three-term Portland Mayor Vera Katz for more than a decade before being elected to the City Council and eventually as mayor.
"Vera Katz was a strong mayor. She made strong decisions," says developer Homer Williams, who launched the Pearl District and South Waterfront during Katz's tenure. "Sam carried those decisions out. They were a good twosome."
In 2008, then-City Commissioner Adams defeated Portland businessman Sho Dozono in the mayor's race. But three weeks after Adams took office, WW broke the story of his affair with Breedlove. (For more than a year, Adams insisted he'd only mentored Breedlove.)
After admitting he'd lied, Adams survived two recall attempts and a criminal investigation by the Oregon Department of Justice. But his popularity declined and he announced in July 2011 he would not run again.
Despite the Breedlove scandal, he made significant accomplishments as mayor.
Amid the Great Recession, Adams and his colleagues extended the Portland Streetcar to the eastside, expanded bicycle infrastructure, cut a deal that brought the Portland Timbers back to town, and greenlit food cart pods. He also led opposition to the ill-conceived Columbia River Crossing Project, which ultimately failed. More controversially, he cut back on garbage pickups to every two weeks, while introducing curbside composting.
"People were throwing used diapers on his lawn," recalls Felisa Hagins, a lobbyist for Service Employees International Union Local 49 and a longtime ally.
Adams had plenty of failures: He couldn't make the nation's first carbon-neutral building pencil out; a controversial leaf collection fee, aimed at changing how Portland pays for streets, never worked as intended and was scrapped; and one of his successes, passing a $35-a-head arts tax, remains a source of enduring frustration for many Portlanders.
Hagins says that in her nearly 20 years of experience with politicians, Adams is the one who put in the most effort with her members, many of whom are janitors. "He came to the Rose Quarter at 3 am to meet with the janitors that got finished cleaning up after a Blazers game," Hagins says. "Most politicians want you to bring the members to them."
Scott Andrews, president of Melvin Mark Properties and Brokerage, a major commercial real estate firm, served as chairman of the Portland Development Commission (now Prosper Portland) when Adams was mayor. A buttoned-down, lifelong Republican, Andrews was not a natural ally of Adams'. But Andrews gained respect for him as he produced a detailed economic development plan and dragged Andrews to places such as Barcelona to lobby a wind turbine company to stay in Portland (successfully) and to New York to lobby Saks Fifth Avenue (unsuccessfully).
"He was very good at laying out a strategy," Andrews says. "I think highly of his leadership skills. He's one of the few liberals who's been able to work really well with the business community."
The Never-Ending Story
As mayor, Sam Adams dominated WW 's cover like no other subject.
Jan. 21, 2009: Sixteen months after denying an affair with Beau Breedlove, Adams admitted it.
June 23, 2009: The Oregon Department of Justice concluded there was "insufficient evidence" to charge Adams.
Aug. 12, 2009: Karin Hansen, wife of former Mayor Tom Potter, championed one of two unsuccessful campaigns to recall Adams.
May 19, 2010: Adams fired Police Chief Rosie Sizer and yanked oversight of the Police Bureau from a colleague, Commissioner Dan Saltzman.
Feb. 16, 2011: In a lengthy interview, Adams noted he was running a budget surplus in the depths of the Great Recession.