Portland Commissioner Chloe Eudaly won election last year on the strength of a powerful personal narrative and a surgical focus on housing costs. At a Feb. 2 meeting of the City Council, she was about to vote on a rental reform when she told a story that combined both.
It was an extraordinary anecdote—both for what it contained and what it left out.
Eudaly gave the opening remarks at a hearing for her city ordinance requiring landlords to pay the moving costs for tenants evicted without cause. The ordinance prompted a contentious debate, with renters and property owners each accusing the other of bad faith.
Eudaly told a cautionary tale to show that she was already familiar with problem tenants. Her own parents had been landlords, she said—and when they evicted a tenant in Washington County, the renter trashed the house.
"My father was driving home from assessing and photographing the damage on a rainy day in October 1983," said Eudaly, who was 13 that year. "He lost control of his vehicle on a tight curve, hit an oncoming truck and died instantly."
Her revelation disarmed her critics and silenced the room. A month later, Eudaly repeated the story on Oregon Public Broadcasting, describing the impact of her loss.
"My biggest takeaway from my dad's early death was…this realization that you could do everything you're supposed to do, work hard, support your family, give up your personal dreams and have it all taken away in an instant," she said.
But the wrenching story Eudaly told was incomplete.
John Ray Eudaly did die in a car crash on Southwest Farmington Road outside Hillsboro on Oct. 30, 1983.
But records show he was driving drunk.
Eudaly, 37, was driving east on Farmington Road at 1:43 pm on a rainy Sunday afternoon. When his Volvo crossed the center line, it collided with a Ford Courier pickup. Washington County sheriff's deputies estimated Eudaly was traveling between 60 and 75 mph on a 30 mph curve.
A toxicology report placed John Eudaly's blood alcohol content at .12, well above the legal limit of .08. "As Mr. Eudaly was removed from his vehicle," the police report notes, "observed between his legs was a quart of Boones Ferry Applewine [sic] which was 3/4 empty and pint of Magnum malt liquor on the floorboard under his feet; empty."
In the pickup that Eudaly hit was 11-year-old Jeffrey Hunter, who was killed instantly. His mother, 35-year-old Linda Jo Hunter, survived for another 52 days in the hospital before dying from her injuries.
George Hunter, Linda's husband, sued the state of Oregon for negligence in 1984, saying the curve lacked adequate warning signs and was obscured by tree branches. A lawyer for the state argued that Eudaly's drunkenness caused the wreck, The Oregonian reported in its coverage of the trial. The jury agreed with the state.
Ted Runstein, who represented George Hunter in the wrongful-death case, recalls it as one of the saddest of his 50-year career. "The jury was in tears afterward," he says. "It was a very nice lady returning from shopping with her son, who was killed on the spot."
Runstein says the tragedy of the Hunter family shouldn't be forgotten. "I'm sure the commissioner feels bad about her father's death," he says. "But her father caused the collision. Two innocent people were killed."
George Hunter, now 69, tells WW he holds no ill will toward Chloe Eudaly for omitting his wife and son's deaths from her story.
"That whole event was equally tragic to her family," Hunter says. "It was a tragedy for two families."
WW obtained the police reports from the 1983 crash via a public records request. So did OPB, which learned of these details after it aired the interview with Eudaly, and then last week ran a one-paragraph addendum to the interview on its website.
WW asked Eudaly to explain why she told an incomplete story. She responded April 11 with a statement.
"I was 13 years old when my father was killed in a head-on collision that took the lives of two other people," Eudaly said. "I was shielded from certain details of the accident by my family, specifically that he was eventually found responsible for the accident in civil court due to intoxication, and didn't learn the complete story until very recently.
"Despite these painful revelations," Eudaly continued, "the fundamental facts of the story I shared remain the same—my father died on the way home from inspecting his trashed rental property, and unfortunately his poor decision led to the accident. The point I was illustrating, though, remains unchanged. And that is that policymaking based on personal anecdote is bad policymaking. The impetus for sharing this aspect of the story of my father's death came when I watched state legislators—who are landlords—share their own bad tenant stories, using them as an excuse to deny all tenants greater protections under the law.
"It was not my intent to misrepresent my father's role in the accident," she said. "I regret any pain I may have caused surviving family members by discussing the accident in public."
Eudaly declined through spokesman David Austin to answer further questions.
For some, Eudaly's initial use of this incomplete story to score a political point is troubling for a public official whose brand is candor.
Eudaly campaigned on a personal narrative: running an independent bookstore as a single mother, and the struggle to pay rent in an increasingly expensive city. She pledged to bring transparency to City Hall and stick up for the downtrodden, messages that helped her defeat incumbent Commissioner Steve Novick in November.
But the choice to use her father's death to bolster her political position—without mentioning the deaths of two others or her father's culpability—raises questions about Eudaly's judgment.
When this story was shared with Hana Callaghan, director of the government ethics program at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, she said it appeared to be "a way of getting people to sympathize with you and thus get behind you. And in that sense it's deceptive by omission. It's problematic: Public officials have duty of honesty and integrity."
"It's odd," Callaghan concludes. "I haven't had this one before."
All of Eudaly's colleagues on the City Council declined to comment on her remarks.
Before her Feb. 2 testimony, Eudaly seemed to warn herself against using a personal story as political grist. "As former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich recently said, 'Governing by anecdote is not governing. It's demagoguery.' And it's been disappointing and frustrating to witness opponents to tenant protections…resort to playing on the public's emotions and prejudices, rather than basing their positions on facts."
She paused, then continued: "But I'm going to share a personal anecdote today with you anyway."