Wheeler, 57, governs in interesting times. This year, he's finally shown an ability to match them.
In the past two months, Wheeler has shown himself capable of taking a difficult position, working with others, and bringing about results. Faced with tentative leadership from Oregon Gov. Kate Brown early in the COVID-19 pandemic, he was willing to state the obvious: People across the city and state needed to be ordered home if they didn't have essential responsibilities. He was decisive, pushed the governor to order shelter in place by writing an order of his own, and was enough of a team player to stand beside the governor as she haltingly found her way to the correct outcome. If he can continue to show that kind of leadership, his second term will be better than his first.
A lot of Portlanders think Wheeler is stuck with a lousy job. That's partly because he's faced two of the worst tragedies to befall our country: the presidency of Donald Trump and a global pandemic.
But it's also in part because the mayor has an unhelpful habit of feeling sorry for himself in public. Whining is inconsistent with leadership.
Wheeler wants to be the first Portland mayor since Vera Katz elected to a second term. Tom Potter, elected in 2004, disliked the job. Sam Adams, elected in 2008, loved it—but a scandal erased his chances for a second term. His successor, Charlie Hales, ended up feeling as Potter did.
Until the pandemic gave Wheeler a fresh opportunity to rise to an unparalleled public health threat, he struggled with the nuts and bolts of his role.
A telling example: Wheeler ran in 2016 on his vision for addressing the city's housing crisis. Four years ago, he advocated for a modest if controversial program called the residential infill project, which would allow much-needed duplexes and triplexes in Portland's predominantly single-family-home neighborhoods. Yet he has failed to get the policy across the finish line. Wheeler was lapped in this leadership role by Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek (D-Portland), who required all cities to adopt a similar policy.
That's a pattern for Wheeler, who has too often governed by sound bite rather than persuade his colleagues to get to three votes. His efforts at seismic preparedness flopped. His response to gatherings of fascist brawlers in Portland's streets was erratic and questionably legal. He struggled to maintain control of a police force that brutalized protesters. At times, he seemed to be performing for a national cable news audience rather than his constituents.
Wheeler, who comes from a wealthy timber family and previously served as Multnomah County chairman and state treasurer, often seems like a man dutifully climbing a long, steep staircase at the top of which is his ultimate goal, the governor's office. He hoped to get there sooner, but when Gov. John Kitzhaber resigned in 2015, Wheeler's rival, Secretary of State Kate Brown got the job instead.
Being mayor of the state's largest city is a considerable consolation prize, although not one Wheeler or any of the city's other top political talents (such as Kotek) seem to value.
That's left Wheeler facing modest competition. One of his opponents in 2016 and now, Sarah Iannarone, has offered a consistent and often correct critique of his leadership. (Her campaign has been most effective in pointing out Wheeler's obvious failings to follow the will of Portland voters on campaign finance reform.) She's also put forward a detailed platform of her own, with thoughtful, progressive positions on key issues. She is a strong advocate of active transportation and combating climate change, for instance. Her positions, however, are purely theoretical.
Even in Portland's weak mayor system, the job comes with immense financial and management requirements. Iannarone, who has never run anything larger than a neighborhood restaurant, cannot point to anything in her résumé that suggests she would be ready to manage a budget in a time of crisis.
First-time candidate Ozzie González, an architect and TriMet board member, has also raised money and support but hasn't distinguished himself. Teressa Raiford is a champion of police reform but declined to meet with WW's editorial board. Randy Rapaport, a local developer, is unqualified—as are the other 14 candidates on the ballot.
Wheeler has succeeded in managing the city's budget process for three flush years in a way that suggests he can lead in these difficult times. And in his role as state treasurer from 2010 to 2017, he displayed an aptitude for financial management the city desperately needs. The city will face tough times, and we hope Wheeler will use his financial acumen to keep the city's books on solid financial ground and make this crisis bearable for those who will be most vulnerable to job losses.
We endorse the mayor and hope for the best.
What Wheeler will remember about the COVID-19 pandemic: "My daughter and I have been learning how to play the ukulele."
City Council, Position 1
The race to succeed City Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who is retiring after three terms, was over soon after it started. Carmen Rubio, longtime executive director of the Latino Network, is as close to an anointed candidate as we've seen in
a City Council race for many years.
Rubio, 46, brings to the race an insider's knowledge of local politics from her service as a staffer to onetime Multnomah County Commissioner Serena Cruz, former Mayor Tom Potter, and late City Commissioner Nick Fish. She left Fish's office in 2009 to take over the Latino Network and has built that organization from a staff of a dozen to 120 and built its budget of more than $9 million. The group advocates for the city's growing Latino community, working with families on literacy, economic assistance and after-school programs.
The granddaughter of Mexican immigrants, Rubio grew up in Hillsboro and was the first in her family to graduate from college. Observers who have worked closely with her say she is a calm consensus-builder who listens well and arrives at decisions deliberately. Those qualities will be welcome in a building where big personalities often grind against each other or retreat to their corners in silence. The question about Rubio is whether she will be aggressive enough to claim her share of the turf in City Hall. But it's long past time the city elected its first Latinx commissioner.
Two other candidates in the race, Candace Avalos, 31, a student adviser at Portland State University, and Tim DuBois, 36, a carpenter, qualified for public campaign financing. Avalos has jumped into civic life, taking a leadership role on the police citizen review committee and engaging in precinct-level political work. DuBois is a former member of the Sellwood-Moreland neighborhood association and is finishing a master's degree in urban planning at Portland State University. Both are affable and intelligent, but neither is ready for this office. Also on the ballot but not mounting serious campaigns: Isham Harris, Cullis Autry, Alicia McCarthy and Corinne Patel.
What Rubio will remember about the COVID-19 pandemic: Ordering groceries over the phone for her father in El Paso, Texas, and finally learning how to cook her grandmother's recipes.
City Council, Position 2
The winner of this race will serve out the term of late Commissioner Nick Fish, who died in January of stomach cancer, one day after resigning from office. Fish's death left a void on the City Council. He served for nearly 12 years and brought an emotional IQ, a lawyerly analysis, a sense of calm, and a big-picture perspective that his colleagues sometimes lack.
The opportunity to replace Fish brought forward a half-dozen credible candidates. Among those seeking the seat who have the chops for serious consideration: former Multnomah County Commissioner Loretta Smith, 55, who lost a 2018 council race to now-Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty; two-term Metro Councilor Sam Chase, 52; tenant advocate Margot Black, 41; and environmental activist Julia DeGraw, 38, who got 33 percent of the vote in her 2018 challenge to Fish.
Each qualified for public campaign financing and each has a constituency in this race, which is highly likely to result in a runoff (in August, rather than November, because it is a special election to fill a vacancy). But none of the four is our pick to be in that runoff.
Black and DeGraw's advocacy work is narrow, and they lack much in the way of managerial or budgetary experience. Smith has proven erratic, divisive and ethically challenged in two terms at the county. Chase has served an unremarkable eight years at Metro, but has generated significant business support. He's running on the legacy of his former boss, the late Commissioner Fish, but lacks Fish's fortitude. Despite decades of working on behalf of low-income Portlanders, Chase did not lift a finger this year at Metro when advocates sought a referral of a homeless services measure to the ballot. Instead, he encouraged them to gather signatures.
That leaves two candidates between whom we had to choose. Hurst, 43, runs a small environmental nonprofit called Renew Oregon, which has played a central role in the stalled cap-and-trade legislation in Salem. Prior to that work, she briefly served as chief of staff to former Mayor Charlie Hales and, before that, worked in the Legislature and on campaigns. Hurst tells a compelling personal story of recovery from substance abuse decades ago and is a skilled communicator and political tactician.
Ryan, 57, a Portland native, is the first openly HIV-positive candidate for council. He's held fundraising positions at Portland State University and Oregon Ballet Theatre, served on the Portland School Board, and ran the equity-focused educational nonprofit All Hands Raised for 11 years. In that role, he prodded the county's disparate school districts to make their offerings more equitable and juggled the egos of the corporate executives who funded his organization, building a reputation as one who can tell his friends hard truths.
Ryan's deep connections in Portland through his decades of work in the arts and education give him a Rolodex bigger than that of anybody now on the council. Like Fish, he is a bridge-builder, where much of Hurst's work has been driving campaigns or advocating for one specific policy, like cap-and-trade. It's a tough choice between these two, but Ryan gets the nod, narrowly.
There are a dozen other candidates running in this race, but none has a realistic chance of making the runoff.
What Ryan will remember about the COVID-19 pandemic: "Going out at 7 o'clock on my block with neighbors has been so heartwarming. I'll never forget that."
City Council, Position 4
This newspaper has devoted considerable ink to highlighting Sam Adams' flaws.
In 2007, when Adams was a city commissioner, we began reporting on his relationship with a teenager named Beau Breedlove.
Adams lied about that relationship, only admitting to it shortly after being elected mayor in 2008. He survived a criminal investigation by the Oregon Department of Justice, two recall attempts and the condemnation of the media. Among the allegations: Breedlove told criminal investigators Adams kissed him in a City Hall restroom when he was 17. Adams denied that.
He owned up to a serious error in judgment and to lying to the public.
To his credit, Adams served out his term, which coincided with the Great Recession. With the city under tremendous financial pressure, he cut costs aggressively, sometimes shifted city funds creatively and, despite the scandal hanging over him, managed to accomplish great things. He implemented curbside composting, expanded the city's bicycle infrastructure, and led major civic improvements, such as securing the Timbers and Thorns a bigger stadium, without giving away too much of the public's money.
After leaving City Hall in 2013, Adams ran the City Club of Portland, then led a climate initiative for the World Resources Institute in Washington, D.C. He left that job under a cloud—when a former City Hall aide leveled harassment allegations against him. (The claim that Adams was a demanding boss who partied as hard as he worked seemed plausible; the harassment allegations were denied by other staffers.)
Adams, who served as chief of staff to Mayor Vera Katz for 11 years, is a man with a lot of history, some of it troubling.
And now, after five years of exile from Portland politics, he is back, seeking not to be mayor but to serve on the City Council. And he is challenging an incumbent, Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, who replaced the man she defeated, Commissioner Steve Novick, as City Hall's most divisive figure.
Eudaly, who ran a small independent bookstore prior to entering politics, ran in 2016 on a platform of renters' rights, and in many ways, she's delivered: strong tenant protections, compensation for evictions, and the loosening of background checks. As transportation commissioner, Eudaly also passed the Rose Lane Project, a package of fixes for clogged streets aimed at improving bus speeds.
Eudaly stumbled badly in another area: her attempt to reform the city's iconic but aging network of neighborhood associations. She deserves credit for trying, but her arrogance and grandstanding have been counterproductive.
As Commissioner Fish demonstrated, politics often requires bringing parties who disagree together to get a compromise that nobody loves but everyone will recognize as progress. Eudaly is a self-described introvert who has formed few relationships outside a small circle of admirers, dislikes the give-and-take of retail politics, and has shown little evidence of growth since her election.
There are two other credible candidates in this race.
Mingus Mapps, a former professor of political science and employee of the Office of Community and Civic Life, a bureau Eudaly manages and from which he was fired for refusing what he thought was a stupid order. Mapps is smart and pleasant—it's difficult to imagine him lecturing citizens from the council dais as Eudaly has—but his pitch consists mainly of not being her.
Seth Woolley, a computer engineer and campaign reform activist, is committed to making government work better and has demonstrated willingness to engage in the city's civic structures. But Woolley is still building the knack for retail politics this job requires.
Also in the race: Keith Wilson, owner of a North Portland trucking company who might get more oxygen in a less crowded field, and Robert MacKay, Kevin McKay and Aaron Fancher, none of whom is running a serious campaign.
Our choice in this race, which will probably go to a November runoff, comes down to two flawed candidates. It's either Adams, an extraordinarily capable politician who lied to the public about a sexual matter and finished his term creditably, or Eudaly, a figure who can get things done but is her own worst enemy and has helped create a toxic atmosphere in City Hall.
Portland was adrift prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now it faces unparalleled challenges that will require the City Council to work closely with the business community, governmental partners and labor. Adams, for his many faults, counts among his supporters a broad spectrum of interests—from Felicia Hagins, longtime political director of the union that represents city janitors, to Dan Yates, owner of the Portland Spirit and reliably one of the most conservative voices in the business community, and many, many people between.
With some trepidation, we are endorsing a man who has been though 19 city budget cycles, who has built coalitions, negotiated complex deals—and been humbled by his mistakes.
What Adams will remember about the COVID-19 pandemic: Playing a Nerf paddleball game in his condo with his partner, Peter Zuckerman. "We only broke two glasses," Adams says.