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Why Sam Adams Drifted Away

By dropping his re-election bid, the mayor admits his political weakness and reveals some realities of power in Portland.

Many tough things have been said about Sam Adams over the years, but no one has ever accused him of being a quitter.

Adams overcame a poor childhood in Newport to be elected in 2008 as the first openly gay mayor of a major American city. Four years earlier, he had stormed back from a lousy primary showing to win a seat on the City Council. And during his years as a political aide to Mayor Vera Katz, Adams was relentless and cunning.

So the news July 29 that he wouldn't seek re-election after one term as mayor shocked the city. Adams acknowledges he faced a difficult campaign.

But less tenacious politicians have survived more damaging scandals than Adams' sexual relationship with an 18-year-old former legislative intern. Weaker politicians have won re-election.

So why did Adams walk away? He says he would have to become a full-time campaigner if he wanted to hold office. "I'm just not willing to phone it in as mayor," Adams says.

But there's more to it. The process of Adams' decision-making, pieced together through interviews with the mayor and people close to him, opens a window into the calculus of power in Portland. The lesson is that even a savvy, battle-scarred politician cannot overcome certain realities—namely, the need to raise large sums of money to win, the influence of labor unions in Oregon, and the lingering public memory of a scandal.

Adams learned the most crucial facts to inform his political future on Monday, July 25, when the political consultant who had helped engineer his rise, Mark Wiener, privately shared some results from a voter opinion poll. The poll had bad news for Adams: He was in a statistical dead heat with the two declared candidates, former City Commissioner Charlie Hales and New Seasons grocery co-founder Eileen Brady.

Wiener confirmed to WW that the poll showed Adams, Hales and Brady essentially tied, with support in the low-20-percent range.

Those numbers are reasonable for candidates just starting out in a citywide campaign, but not for a sitting mayor.

Adams told WW that the poll "showed me, frankly, at a better place than I thought I was going to be."

That doesn't explain why the poll—as Adams told people privately—was key in his decision to fold his re-election hopes. Commissioner Nick Fish says Adams cited the poll first in explaining his decision. "He said, 'I'm making an announcement today. I've been giving a lot of thought to re-election, I saw a poll on Monday, and I've got a pretty big hill to climb," Fish recalled.

What's not been reported before is that the AFSCME Council 75 and Service Employees International Local 49 commissioned the poll at the suggestion of political strategist Kevin Looper, who last year left the directorship of liberal activist group Our Oregon to run his own independent political consultancy. (Our Oregon spokesman Scott Moore says the group had nothing to do with the poll.)

"I did suggest it would be important information for them to have going into the election cycle," Looper says.

Union leaders say the poll shows Adams could have won and weren't sending him a message to step out of the race. "I think Sam could go down in history as one of the more pro-working-families mayors ever," says Ken Allen, executive director of AFSCME Council 75.

Adams' exit from the mayoral race means the unions, whose political power rests in large part in their ability to get out the vote, have no obvious favorite. Union leaders say Brady is a question mark; New Seasons employees are not unionized, although Brady is a confirmed liberal. Portland firefighters still steam over Hales' efforts to reform that bureau.

Adams' departure means unions may be shopping around for a different candidate. Multnomah County Commission Chair Jeff Cogen says he didn't ask for his name to be tested in a mayoral campaign poll but heard that it was. Cogen told WW that he's heard that some polling "has me looking very good," but he's sticking by his decision not to run for mayor.

On July 31, a Sunday, the last day of what he called a "staycation," Adams drifted in a blue inflatable raft down the Willamette River past crowds of Portlanders along the waterfront as part of a fundraiser for Willamette Riverkeeper, an environmental advocacy group. 

Adams must have known that things would not be the same when he went back to the office on Monday. Two days earlier he had become a lame duck, and here he was, doing what ducks do best: floating. 

FACT: Mayoral candidates Charlie Hales and Eileen Brady have raised a combined $208,000 for their campaigns. Mayor Sam Adams' campaign account is $139 in the hole.