Dressed for tennis, Kaileigh Valentine was strolling through Northeast Portland’s Irving Park on a sunny Saturday afternoon when a man called to her from atop a hill. “Recall Ted Wheeler?” he asked hopefully.
Valentine casually backhanded the request away with a smile. “I need to do more research!”
She wasn’t bluffing. She does actually want to do more research about Mayor Wheeler, it turns out.
“I didn’t vote for him,” Valentine tells WW. “I don’t like how he handled the heat wave. I just want to look into it a little more before I sign.”
Valentine has 85 days left to decide. Her encounter with the organizers of Total Recall PDX was among the first in what’s likely to become the defining scene of the Portland summer: citizens deciding whether to add their John Hancock to a petition to boot Wheeler from City Hall.
Petitioners, nominally led by George Middle School library employee Melissa Blount but also organized by a progressive lawyer named Alan Kessler, have until Sept. 29 to collect 48,000 signatures.
Wheeler is the third consecutive Portland mayor to face a recall campaign. The most recent effort, seven years ago, sought to unseat then-Mayor Charlie Hales, but the recall campaign everyone remembers is the attempt to recall Sam Adams in 2010, after revelations of his sexual encounters with a legislative intern. Both finished thousands of signatures shy of the requirement.
This time, petitioners believe they will succeed. They point to the city’s housing crisis, Wheeler’s need to loan himself $150,000 to secure reelection last year, and his occasionally adversarial encounters with constituents.
The campaign declined to say how many signatures it gathered in its opening weekend, but reports it has $27,312 on hand. “We currently have 100-plus volunteers petitioning,” says campaign manager Audrey Caines, “with additional people printing their own forms and collecting signatures from friends and family, and three paid petitioners.” The pay for a petitioner starts at $16 an hour.
The signatures would merely place the measure on a ballot, allowing voters to decide whether Wheeler should be recalled. If Portlanders vote to recall the mayor, the city will hold a special election within 90 days so voters can pick a new one.
Wheeler says he’s not worried. “It’s not something that’s taking a lot of my time or my energy,” he told WW last month. “No elected official worth their salt isn’t being threatened with a recall.”
Starting at 1 pm, volunteers with Total Recall PDX began setting up shop at the south end of Irving Park.
Shaded beneath green canopies, it would be easy to lose the campaign’s tents in the park trees if it weren’t for the fluorescent green nature of their swag—the same day-glo hue often associated with the Seattle Seahawks. Their hoodies, tank tops, and sun visors, glowing like beacons, drew potential signers to the top of the hill.
You would expect the curious, but almost everyone who approached knew the score. Most had heard about it on social media. One woman jogged up the hill with her dog, singing, “Yes, please! Yes, please!”
Another man sauntered up thinking it was a concession stand. He was trying to buy water but ended up buying an empty Recall Ted Wheeler merch squeeze bottle to fill at a water fountain. He didn’t sign and seemed to have no idea who Ted Wheeler was—as he was a tourist from out of town.
Only Portland residents can sign the petition. They can’t sign online, but they can print out a signature form and mail it in. It’s generally agreed virtually no one will do this.
Hoping to help with that, Ryan Ottomano and Meghan Thornburg took three petition forms with them—the same number of yard signs they had bought—to collect signatures from friends.
“I can’t think of a successful thing Ted Wheeler has done,” Ottomano said. “Homelessness is so much worse than it was three or four years ago.”
“He declared a state of emergency for the Derek Chauvin verdict but not the heat wave!” Thornburg said, incredulous.
Others, like Megan Foy, criticized the mayor’s response to the summer 2020 protests. “We were in Peninsula Park when they gassed the neighborhood,” she said. “It was disgraceful.”
The volunteers had their own motivations.
It was Ian’s first time collecting signatures for any campaign, ever, but the process was slightly hindered by his left arm hanging in a sling—the result of a Onewheel electric skateboard accident. “I landed my first curb but promptly hit a pothole, and it got squirrely,” he explained. He did not want to disclose his last name. His employers were letting him work from home, and they’d feel differently if they saw him out collecting signatures.
Ian’s reasons for dragging his broken arm out of the house to go signature gathering? He thinks the city has been mishandling houseless people, and he hates all the trash on the streets.
Gathering signatures doesn’t require much more than standing in the shade of the booth and smiling at passersby. With his unbroken hand, Ian waved at four women in tennis apparel. They kept walking.
Other volunteers filtered through the Sabin and Irvington neighborhoods, knocking on doors and asking residents along the relatively affluent streets to support Wheeler’s ouster.
“It’s very stressful how people are filling out these forms,” Kendall Womack said as she returned and dropped off a sheet. If signatories leave off “Portland, OR” and only write their ZIP code, the signature can be thrown out. Womack and another canvasser knocked on doors for three hours. They collected only seven signatures.
“I got the impression that people thought we were liberals and that this is a liberal issue,” Womack said. “Someone told us, ‘I’m not interested in having a Marxist socialist society.’”
Another woman who opened the door to them admonished, “This is a terrible time. I have jam on the stove!” When she found out they were trying to recall the mayor, she shooed them from her porch. “She was not a supporter,” Womack said.
“If he’s not the mayor, who would be mayor?” was a common question at the green tents.
“We don’t need a mayor,” said volunteer Shelly Hill. “The city commissioners can separate his duties until the special election. The commissioners vote on everything anyway.”
Hill owns Nightowl Custom Apparel, a Northeast Portland screen-printing shop that is among the campaign’s five largest donors (thus the T-shirts and hoodies).
Her explanation is correct but incomplete. If the recall campaign gets 48,000 valid signatures, the voters of the city are presented with a choice: keep Wheeler or send him home. If the city recalls him, a new batch of candidates can seek the office at the next election in 2022.
Valentine, who came to Irving Park for a pickleball tournament, had no idea people were trying to recall Wheeler at all. She follows politics enough to know that California’s Gov. Gavin Newsom is also currently facing recall, but she wanted to know what would happen should Total Recall PDX succeed.
“I didn’t want him to be mayor,” Valentine says. “But before I sign my name, I need to know what happens next.”