Mayor Ted Wheeler Hired Sam Adams to Be His Hatchet Man. Why Did He Give Him the Ax?

The two former political allies are duking it out in the court of public opinion.

Sam Adams and Ted Wheeler (Justin Katigbak, Abby Gordon)

A little over two years ago, a former Portland mayor and the current Portland mayor formed an alliance at a McMenamins pub in the Southwest Hills.

Sam Adams, a hard-nosed operator whose political future had been derailed by scandal, offered assistance to Mayor Ted Wheeler, whose public image was in crisis thanks to racial justice protests, homelessness and crime. Wheeler hoped Adams could reduce sidewalk camping—and prove to downtown business interests that the mayor’s office wouldn’t tolerate current conditions. Wheeler needed help and Adams needed a job.

And for two years, the partnership worked. Until last week—when it exploded.

On Jan. 10, Adams wrote to his colleagues in an email that his chronic anemia, which left him exhausted at the end of the workday, was forcing him to resign his position. Because of Adams’ history, speculation immediately swirled that Adams resigned for other reasons. On Jan. 13, Adams insisted to WW there was no other reason behind his departure.

Mere hours later, Wheeler told WW that Adams hadn’t been truthful: The mayor says he had demanded Adams’ resignation due to a pattern of bullying and intimidation of female city employees.

Now, the two former allies are duking it out in the court of public opinion.

“This is really a bad look for everybody involved,” says former City Commissioner Mike Lindberg. “If you’re these employees and you feel like there’s no one that stands up for you, it must really be infuriating to see the story unfold in a different way.”

No resignation by another city official, short of Wheeler himself, would have garnered the interest, speculation and rumors that Adams’ did. That’s in part because of Adams’ personal baggage: His one term as mayor, from 2009 to 2013, was sullied by his lies about an affair with an 18-year-old legislative intern. But it’s also because of the outsized role he played in shaping the direction of the city, especially its troubled downtown.

Wheeler hired Adams, who’d worked in City Hall as a mayoral chief of staff for a decade and city commissioner before becoming mayor, because of his unequaled knowledge of how Portland can work—and his abrasive, aggressive style. He gave Adams carte blanche to clean up Portland’s streets. That gesture helped repair the relationship between Wheeler and his disgruntled base: property and business owners.

Adams did that, cutting through City Council opposition by advising the mayor to declare a series of emergency orders that cleared campers from slices of the city’s streetscape. He annoyed other regional elected officials by crafting a plan for six sanctioned camps with the end goal of banning sidewalk camping.

Those controversial decisions were made in Wheeler’s name, but most everyone knew—through documentation and word of mouth—that the ideas belonged to Adams.

“What you learn to expect when working with city government is resistance and roadblocks. Sam thinks, ‘Let’s see how we can go around that roadblock,’” says Randy Leonard, a former city commissioner and longtime colleague of Adams’. “He did what all of us expected him to do, which is try to figure out a solution to some really complex problems that have frustrated Portlanders to a degree I’m unaware of in our history.”

In the hours after Wheeler rebutted Adams’ version of events, the city rapidly released documents aimed at buttressing Wheeler’s claim that Adams had bullied his way out of a job. A close reading of those records, along with interviews with city insiders, only raises more questions.

What was the last straw?

Documents suggest Adams’ departure was hastened by a Dec. 15 meeting he had with two deputy city attorneys.

The subject of that meeting was redacted from copies of records furnished to WW. But multiple sources say it concerned a federal lawsuit filed in September that alleges the city is breaking disability accommodations law by allowing tents on sidewalks. The plaintiffs, represented by Portland attorney John DiLorenzo, are demanding that the streets be cleared of tents.

Talks of a settlement were well underway in December. The heavily redacted email, in which one of the two female attorneys describes the meeting to City Attorney Robert Taylor, shows that Adams was upset by the attorneys’ proposed pushback to the plaintiffs’ proposal.

The deputy city attorney characterized Adams’ behavior as condescending, unprofessional and so rude that she left the meeting in tears. That evening, Taylor criticized Adams’ alleged behavior in an email, calling it “not acceptable.”

He also sent it to Wheeler’s chief of staff, Bobby Lee; his deputy chief of staff; and chief human resources officer Cathy Bless.

According to the records, Bless and other HR employees met with Lee on Jan. 4 to discuss Adams’ behavior, which they categorized as a possible violation of city conduct rules.

“This trend does create significant liability for the City,” employee and labor relations director Ronald Zito wrote to Bless.

Six similar complaints preceded this one, dating as far back as August 2021.

If Adams’ behavior crossed a line, why wasn’t it investigated earlier?

Wheeler told WW on Friday afternoon that the complaints about Adams “reached a threshold in mid-December, and it was at that point that HR decided to make a recommendation to bring this to my attention.”

What that threshold was, exactly, is unclear. The city attorney’s complaint was the seventh about Adams in a year and a half, according to the furnished records. The description of Adams’ behavior in the December complaint appeared similar to his alleged behavior in other complaints.

To WW and The Oregonian on Friday afternoon, Wheeler said, “We are not necessarily notified [of the complaints], and in some instances people might request that we might not be notified.”

That’s not entirely true.

The documents obtained by WW last week show that Wheeler’s chief of staff, Lee, knew about complaints as early as August 2021—when the very first informal complaint was made.

On Aug. 10, a bureau director described to Lee in an email a staffer’s interaction with Adams in which she used the adjectives “cornered,” “belittled” and “strong-armed” to describe his behavior. Lee wrote back a month later that he’d spoken with Adams, someone whose name was redacted (likely the complainant) and HR, and called the matter “resolved.”

Records also show that as early as September 2021, Bless discussed with a colleague talking to the mayor’s office about “a theme of failed interactions female staff are having with Sam.”

It appears that conversation happened. A month later, after another complaint, Bless emailed her colleague to explain that she had told the most recent complainant that “we were aware of this theme and have discussed this with the mayor’s office.”

Mayoral spokesperson Cody Bowman says Lee spoke to Adams twice about complaints made in 2021. HR leaders say they spoke to Adams twice, too.

“By the end of 2022, the accumulation of serious concerns led [HR] to recommend ending the city’s employment relationship with Mr. Adams,” Bowman says. “The mayor received this recommendation and acted on it.”

It’s unclear to what extent Adams was made aware of the complaints. Adams and his husband, Peter Zuckerman, say they had been discussing his imminent resignation due to health ailments for weeks prior to the Jan. 10 meeting.

Adams has insisted since Jan. 14 that he quit voluntarily. He got no severance pay. And records show Lee took no issue with Adams’ drafted resignation letter, which Adams shared with him prior to sending it, attributing his exit solely to health struggles. In fact, Lee asked for Adams’ permission to share those health issues with the media.

But Wheeler shattered that narrative when he said Adams had lied.

Since last Friday, Adams has described Wheeler’s remarks as “a knife in the back” and speculated that top city officials had plotted his demise for unknown political reasons.

What does Wheeler do now that Adams is gone?

It’s unclear who in power benefits from Adams’ departure. Wheeler now lacks a point person for the challenge of trying to return the city to pre-COVID vitality.

Business leaders are worried Adams’ departure will stunt progress. “Sam and his team were doing an outstanding job trying to move the immovable object. He wasn’t afraid to ruffle some feathers, which is exactly what is needed right now,” says downtown developer Greg Goodman, who adds that the incidents described in records are “most unfortunate to all those involved.”

On the other hand, the many opponents of tent sweeps and the proposed giant camps are thrilled to see him gone. “The policies coming out of the office have been a reflection of someone who had that tired, old-school belief that the best way to do things was to let people who have wealth and power determine the direction of the city,” says Angela Uherbelau, an education advocate.

Commissioner Dan Ryan takes issue with the assertion that Adams was the force behind the city’s aggressive homeless policies. “The idea that one person sets or drives a City Hall agenda is a false narrative,” Ryan tells WW.

But if someone is prepared to fill the vacuum Adams leaves, it’s unclear who that is.

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