The most polarizing City Hall figure in the past two decades is preparing a return bid.
As soon as Jan. 15, former Mayor Sam Adams could signal which of four Portland City Council seats on the May ballot interests him most, according to a half-dozen sources familiar with his thinking. (Adams declined to comment.)
Some close to Adams have urged him to challenge either Mayor Ted Wheeler or City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly.
Both incumbents are drifting toward re-election bids in listless fashion. Wheeler lost his campaign manager, recently announced he's getting a divorce, and has raised little money for his political war chest; Eudaly has neither hired a campaign manager nor filed the paperwork due by Jan. 15 to qualify for public financing.
"They're both vulnerable," says pollster John Horvick of DHM Research. "If you look at broad measures like 'right direction/wrong direction,' they are very, very low. There's just a lot of anger around homelessness and no clarity about what to do."
Also in play: the seat held by City Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who is retiring after three terms. But Adams has already pledged his support to the front-runner for that seat, Latino Network executive director Carmen Rubio.
Conversations with Adams insiders suggest his most likely target is the seat vacated by Commissioner Nick Fish's Jan. 2 death from cancer.
Adams would enjoy a name recognition advantage over a large field, including such potential candidates as former Multnomah County Commissioner Loretta Smith and Metro Councilor Sam Chase.
Two influential union leaders say they'd welcome Adams' candidacy, although neither expressed a preference for which race he enters.
"As mayor, Sam was an incredible advocate for janitors and low-wage workers," says Felisa Hagins, political director for Service Employees International Union Local 49. "It would be difficult for our union to count somebody out who's been such an amazing champion. We would welcome him with open arms into our process—whatever he decides to run for."
Lt. Alan Ferschweiler, president of the Portland Firefighters Association, says he and his union would also like to see Adams on the ballot.
"We have enjoyed a great relationship with Sam," Ferschweiler says. "He was respectful and civil, both to the unions and all city employees. We'd love to see him back in City Hall."
The question is whether Portland voters are willing to welcome back an often divisive figure whose energy and ambition sometimes created conflict.
Len Bergstein, a longtime City Hall lobbyist and observer, dealt regularly with Adams when Adams served as chief of staff to Mayor Vera Katz for more than a decade and while Adams was city commissioner and mayor. Bergstein notes the city has changed significantly since Adams left office and that a whole new cadre of leaders has emerged, many of them women and people of color who are poised to run for Fish's seat.
Bergstein, a close friend of Fish's, says the outpouring of affection for the late commissioner shows that what voters want in his replacement is somebody with Fish's conciliatory, diplomatic approach. He's not sure Adams can fill that void.
"I'm skeptical," Bergstein says. "He will have to prove he's a different and more mature version of what people saw when he was last in office. "
Adams, 56, who served as mayor from 2009 to 2013, is also perhaps the most accomplished leader to hold that position since his mentor, Katz, left office in 2005 after three terms. As mayor, Adams extended the Portland Streetcar to the eastside, expanded bicycle infrastructure, brought the Portland Timbers back to town, and introduced curbside composting.
But a scandal over his relationship with a young man named Beau Breedlove tainted his tenure. Although Adams survived two recall attempts, he did not run for a second term.
Adams rebuilt his reputation, serving first as executive director of the City Club of Portland and then at a high level at the World Resources Institute, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit.
His rehabilitation crashed in November 2017, however, when his former mayoral scheduler, Cevero Gonzalez, accused Adams of sexual harassment in a letter to the City Council. Adams was then working for WRI but lost that job after WW reported on Gonzalez's letter. (Neither Adams nor the institute would comment on his departure.)
Horvick says despite the baggage he would carry into any comeback, Adams retains a considerable base of support.
"I think he's still well known to voters," says Horvick. "Are they receptive? Sam is a polarizing figure. I don't think that's changed. People will remember his accomplishments and the scandals that went along with them."
Adams' allies say he would like to qualify for the city's new public campaign financing program. The Jan. 15 filing deadline for Wheeler's, Eudaly's and Fritz's seats puts a tight timeline on his decision. Although Fish's seat will also appear on the same May 19 ballot as those other races, candidates to replace Fish have until Feb. 7 to file for public financing—another reason Adams will probably move in that direction.
"People are anxious for action," Horvick says. "And whatever else Sam brings, he brings that."