A is for Adams

From ax-wielding to zemblanity, the things Portland's controversial mayor has done right.


Give Mayor Sam Adams some credit. 

We are. Finally.

Perhaps no media organization has been tougher on Adams during his term as Portland's mayor than WW—and for good reason.

Weeks after he was sworn in as mayor in 2009, our reporting forced Adams to admit he had lied, repeatedly, about having sex with an 18-year-old legislative intern, Beau Breedlove, and that he tried to smear a whistleblower.

Adams survived a state criminal investigation, newspaper editorials demanding his resignation and two recall efforts. But in the process, Adams was distracted; he lost allies and allowed Commissioner Randy Leonard to wield outsized power.

Adams also lost a mayor's most important assets: credibility and the appearance of authority. It took him at least two years to regain his footing. The city suffered for a lack of leadership at a time when businesses were closing and thousands of Portlanders were losing their jobs.

The mayor became an easy target, a caricature that many Portlanders will not miss.

And yet, hasn't he accomplished some things? Anything?

WW asked a score of politicians, bureaucrats, businesspeople, activists and constituents—including Adams' friends, enemies, frenemies, colleagues and passing associates—what the mayor might deserve more credit for.

Some asked if April Fool's Day was coming early. Others only mustered a whistle. A few asked for time to think, and never called back.

More than one pointed out that Adams—who hired a staff videographer to follow him around and whose collected press releases would fill volumes—rarely misses an opportunity to take credit for anything.

And yet.

A cross section of the city's political stakeholders applaud him (some with golf claps) for managing the budget, bailing out the schools and for many small-bore, behind-the-scenes efforts that don't often win headlines.

Some are now willing to say, however grudgingly, that Adams deserves credit for the ways he's used the political skills—intelligence, persistence and creativity—that got him elected in the first place.

It's Adams' last summer in City Hall. He leaves in January, after serving one term as an unpopular mayor, one term as a popular city commissioner and 11 years as chief of staff for former Mayor Vera Katz.

Between Adams' own senior year self-evaluation and outside opinions, we came up with an alphabet's worth of accomplishments for which Adams deserves his props.



It's ironic that a mayor who can barely handle his own finances—Adams has three mortgage defaults and a bankruptcy—has proven to be one of Portland's best mayors come budget time.

Adams spent much of his term making cuts. Fortunately, he handles the proverbial budget ax like a butterfly knife. The contenders for his job—Charlie Hales and Jefferson Smith—agree he's left the city's accounts in decent shape for the next mayor.

It's true the city's debt has grown on his watch. Adams angered his Council colleagues during the latest budget process by hoarding information and limiting communication. He angered some non-union city workers by freezing their pay, and others by scraping $7.1 million from the city's distressed budget to give to Portland-area school districts, including $5 million for Portland Public Schools.

City unions that feared a huge loss in membership were relieved Adams cut chiefly from middle management. "We expected drastic cuts with frontline services," says Megan Hise, spokeswoman for Laborers Local 483, which represents city park workers, "but the budget he rolled out really responded to the concerns of the community."



Sticklers who complained about how Adams paid for bicycle and pedestrian improvements miss the point: He's saved lives and limbs.

How many? Hard to say. "But we do know the more facilities that go in, the safer it is," says Rob Sadowsky, executive director of the Bicycle Transportation Alliance.

Adams pushed through bike boxes, green-striped lanes, special traffic signals and other subtle street improvements using money designated for sewer projects, sparking howls of protest.

In a city awash in plans, most of which never emerge from the black hole of process, Adams acted so quickly on his bike master plan in 2010, even some cycling advocates wondered if he was moving too fast.

Besides, the financing plan makes sense: Why not add bike and ped improvements while streets are torn up for sewer work?

As Adams says, it's a twofer.



Critics knock Adams for know-it-all-ism, and for bullying to get his way. But when he backs down—and he does—it tends to happen quietly.

One recent example: Adams' staff had suggested fines for people who put garbage and dirty diapers in their recycling or curbside composting bins. After hearing criticism of the idea, Adams did a 180. 

Now, if someone has difficulty separating their waste properly, the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability won't immediately issue a fine, but will send a volunteer to the house to see what the problem is, talk through possible solutions and even let the bureau director give them a break.

Council colleagues say Adams is often willing to cut a deal. He also picks battles more carefully than his predecessor, Mayor Tom Potter, a former police chief schooled in a command-and-control style of leadership. For example: In 2007, Potter pushed to rename Interstate Avenue as Cesar Chavez Boulevard. When other commissioners began on-the-fly negotiations at a public hearing that would delay a vote on the plan, Potter stormed out.

"Potter walked off with the cameras rolling and said, 'I'm irrelevant,'" Leonard recalls. "Sam watched that and said, 'That will never happen to me.'"


is for DEPTH

Adams would rather be known as a wonk than a personality. But talk to him long enough, and it's clear he is emotionally invested in certain issues he has championed as mayor.

"The tougher the issue, basically, the more personally involved I get," Adams says. "And I take it personally."

For instance: road safety. Adams was a know-nothing on the subject until, as Katz's aide, he attended a Linnton neighborhood meeting. Residents wanted the Oregon Department of Transportation to lower speed limits on a part of Highway 30. Adams took up the cause. During their campaign, a 14-year-old was killed trying to cross the street.

"I felt incredibly angry and embarrassed," Adams says. "Angry because this wasn't a higher priority. And just embarrassed that I had been unable, from my position as chief of staff, to impact this in time. Then I realized that the city didn't prioritize this, and that really pissed me off."



Adams' status as an openly gay, big-city mayor still stands as a symbol of progress for sexual minorities. 

As a symbol, Adams is flawed, but you'd think three-plus years in office might soften bigotry toward him. But it's still possible to hear vile remarks about his sexuality on TriMet and the comments sections of local news websites. Adams' inbox remains like a hate-crime tip sheet. 

"Part of the job," Adams says. "It's got to be."



In January 2010, Portland police officer Ron Frashour killed an unarmed man, Aaron Campbell, by shooting him in the back. Adams and Police Chief Mike Reese fired Frashour 10 months after the shooting—a decision reversed by a state arbitrator.

Adams refused to rehire him and said Frashour would not wear a Portland police badge on his watch. A futile gesture? Maybe. But a meaningful one.

Even if he loses the Frashour case—city attorneys are making their case to the state Employment Relations Board—Adams has opened for debate some of the more questionable provisions of the Portland Police Association contract, which comes up for renegotiation next year. 

In the last round of closed-door contract talks, Adams showed his commitment to more police accountability by insisting the Albina Ministerial Alliance could sit in.

"The police fought it," says Jo Ann Hardesty, a former state legislator and spokeswoman for the alliance. "They didn't want the public to know. He stood firm."



Adams was not the first City Council member to embrace Portland Timbers owner Merritt Paulson's plan to bring Major League Soccer to Portland. But his support was crucial. "There's no way the deal would've gotten done without Sam," Paulson says.

Some worried Paulson would get too sweet a deal, and indeed, the city wound up absorbing $1 million in cost overruns on the stadium renovation. But today the Timbers are a phenomenon, drawing sold-out, rowdy crowds to Jeld-Wen Field.



Sometimes, a leader needs to be a jerk. 

During his years with Katz, Adams was known for tracking down and harassing anyone who said bad things about his boss. Now that same obsessive streak keeps him second-guessing staff and colleagues.

"Sam doesn't necessarily trust the people he appointed to give him unvarnished, unbiased answers," Leonard says.

Adams' defenders argue it's a good thing he lacks the Portland passive-aggressive gene. "This is not a town that burns people," says Byron Beck, a KXL radio host and journalist (he's an ex-WW staffer). "He doesn't care, he'll just do it. That's part of him I'm really proud of."

Sometimes Adams' severity serves the greater good. He scorched bridges this month by threatening a $2 million fee hike on TriMet unless it restored the YouthPass, which provides free bus and rail passes to PPS high-school students. They might thank Adams, if colleagues won't.



Some think Adams embodies Portland's unfriendliness to small business. But the person who gives Adams credit for helping small business with a controversial tax break is none other than Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who's often crossways with Adams and nearly ran against him for mayor.

For years, the Portland Business Alliance has wanted a bigger tax break for business owners: exempt their own salaries from city business taxes. The PBA wants the maximum deduction to be $125,000; it is $87,000.

As a candidate, Adams pledged to go along, and this year met PBA halfway by finding a creative way to pay for it, using money coming in through the city's tax-amnesty program. 

"It's one thing to say 'we'll do it' on the campaign trail, especially with all the flak one gets about helping the PBA," Saltzman says.


is for JOINDER

It means "bringing parties together."

When Adams took office in 2009, the city, Multnomah County and the Portland Schools Foundation (now called All Hands Raised) each had separate, overlapping committees on how to improve the public schools. "Everybody had a good reason why we shouldn't merge the organizations," Adams says. "Meanwhile, everybody complained that we were having the same meetings with the same people."

It took two years, but Adams persuaded them all to merge. "He pulled it off," says former Multnomah County Chairman Ted Wheeler, who is now state treasurer. "That ultimately is going to lead to better educational outcomes."



Adams responded to Occupy Portland's protests by moving $2.5 million in city funds to 10 local banks and credit unions, instead of U.S. Treasury Securities and accounts with the big national banks. The new policy has one bonus: The resolution also increased transparency by requiring the city to publish monthly online reports on the location and status of its investments.



One could call Adams' Twitter addiction a waste of time. Consider a selection of recent citizen exchanges with @MayorSamAdams:

Citizen: "Prostitution. Witnessed a women turning trix in the back of her pickup. 18th & Savier." Adams: "On it."

Citizen: "Dumpsters on the street…almost cause wrecks daily." Adams: "Yikes. On it."

Citizen: "Is your favorite pizza meat lovers?" Adams: "Yes."

Adams' habitual tweeting keeps him up with the times—and responsive.

"That's how I stick my head out of the bubble," he says.



It means “divination by counting.” 

Adams wants to be known as someone who picked priorities and made decisions based on data. It's hard to deny him that.

Adams' soft spot for charts, graphs and hard numbers was born of frustration. "The great strength of Portland is its willingness to be agile and move," he says. "The weakness of Portland is, we make decisions a lot based on experience and not enough on data.” 

Adams tried to change this. He prioritized street improvements by targeting those places where the most accidents occurred, not where residents complained the loudest. He focused certain Portland Development Commission investments on commercial strips that weren't generating enough profit for their owners to pay business income tax to the city.

And he introduced "budget mapping": tracking where various bureaus are spending money. "I don't love how all the resources have been deployed," says mayoral candidate Smith, "but getting a better sense of that was good."



Apparently, if you tell Adams you like his tie, he'll often take it off his neck and give it to you. Friends say this happens a lot. "I think it's good luck," Adams says of his generosity. "Luckily no one has said, 'I like your pants.'"


is for OCCUPY

Occupy Portland trashed two parks and cost the city more than $1 million in police overtime. Adams faced intense criticism for letting Occupy set up in Chapman and Lownsdale squares—and then he left for China on a business trip.

But he also made a good-faith effort to engage with the Occupiers, and by making it clear he supported their cause, Adams let the movement know that confrontation was not the only option.

At least 183 people have been arrested in related demonstrations in Portland since last October. The award-winning photo in The Oregonian of a young woman pepper-sprayed in the face by police sure showed some ugliness, but it could've been much worse. Look at Oakland: rubber bullets, smoke grenades and batons all around.


is for PASTA

As in, throwing it against the wall to see what sticks.

Adams may lack focus. But give him credit for experimentation and inspiration. Sunday Parkways—those car-free summertime street festivals—is one example. The city's plastic bag ban—like it or hate it—is another. As is the new Office of Equity, which Adams devised but turned over to Commissioner Amanda Fritz to build. Adams runs with an idea from a magazine article, a random conversation or another city.

"Staff will go screaming down the halls because I'm like, 'Hey, I got this idea!' and they're like, 'Aaaah! We're busy,'" Adams says.



By announcing last summer that he wouldn't seek re-election, Adams spared Portlanders the psychic ordeal of an election that would disinter his behavior and judgment during the Beau Breedlove scandal.

Adams insists he could not have accomplished all he did this year (especially on the budget) while running for re-election. He still doesn't acknowledge the role his mistakes in judgment played in undermining his prospects for a second term. 

"Everyone has made mistakes," he says. "The finalists for mayor, the longer they spend in the spotlight, the more you get to know their vulnerabilities—the vulnerabilities we all have as human beings."



Whatever his integrity problems, Adams reflects Portland's unique values—what with his urban farming (three hens in his Kenton backyard), avant-garde paintings in the mayoral foyer and local indie rock on City Hall speakers.



Commissioner Nick Fish gives Adams credit for consistently finding money for safety-net programs, including short-term rental assistance and emergency shelters, managed by the Portland Housing Bureau that Fish oversees. "He had a clear set of priorities," Fish says. "I think that's what we're going to miss."



Portland entrepreneur Josh Friedman recalls telling Adams of his frustration with finding seed money for high-tech startups in the city. "He sat back and he asked, 'Why can't the city do this?'" Friedman says.

The result: the Portland Seed Fund.

The city has so far invested $750,000 in the $3 million fund. Companies it has backed have found another $14 million in private capital. Jim Huston, a project co-manager, figures 75 people, including freelancers, have been employed by Portland Seed Fund-backed companies so far.

Adams hopes the fund, overseen by PDC, provides an alternative model for economic development. "We were investing in hard sticks and bricks and concrete and not investing enough in people and their ideas," he says. "It should be competitive. It shouldn't be, 'Who do you know at PDC?'"



Adams didn't just get a rough start as mayor. He got a rough start in life. Not a lot of closeted, bullied, small-town welfare kids with divorced parents grow up to be the mayor of a major U.S. city. 

Unlike some politicians, Adams has not made his personal story a platform. But his tough upbringing in Newport shapes his priorities. 

For example: his Neighborhood Prosperity Initiative, which put PDC's urban-renewal tools to work in impoverished stretches such as Rosewood in outer East Portland, Parkrose, Northeast Cully Boulevard, and at Southeast 82nd Avenue and Division Street.

"I thought that those parts of Portland were a lot like small, struggling cities in rural Oregon," Adams says. "I know how many smart, hardworking people are trapped in bad circumstances."



Adams' name was once inextricable from that of his former boss and mentor, Mayor Vera Katz. Then, for better or worse, Adams became his own public figure. What's forgotten is how much Adams' playbook and priorities borrow from Katz. 

"With Vera, I learned that intuition isn't enough," he says. "Intuition needs to be tested by facts." Adams also says he's learned to take criticism better—which some may find hard to believe. "I've gotten a thicker skin," he says.


is for WHIMSY

The mayor probably should have better things to do with his time, but Adams' first-season Portlandia cameo as an eager aide to the fictional mayor was a well-played turn.

"He really has taken the quirkiness of Portland and ridden it out," says Len Bergstein, a political consultant who advised Adams' opponent, Sho Dozono, in the 2008 mayoral race. "The young-and-restless, hip, quirky nature of it all is being written up in all kinds of magazines…and he has encouraged it and fanned it and made it into a positive in a way that a lot of mayors might not have been able to."



It means “love of foreigners”—and it’s maybe the best thing you can say about Adams’ often egregious traveling. 

Portland Business Alliance spokeswoman Megan Doern gives Adams credit for landing the U.S. headquarters of Vestas, a Danish wind-turbine manufacturer—although some say he gave away the store to do so—and foreign companies that employ Portlanders, including the Spanish wind-power company Iberdrola Renewables. "He's quick to get on a plane," Doern says, "and to go to bat for keeping jobs in Portland."


is for YOUR KIDS

Adams' recent moves to funnel $7.1 million from city budgets to Portland school districts is the latest proof his support of education isn't political puffery.

The David Douglas School District didn't get the biggest bailout from the city—$1.1 million, compared to $5 million for PPS—but Superintendent Don Grotting nevertheless credits Adams for meeting regularly with administrators and board members, speaking to students and providing patchwork funding for important programs. Grotting says Adams was "instrumental" in securing $100,000 in city funding to help David Douglas High School—the state's largest in enrollment, as well as one of its most diverse and poorest—join a Multnomah County program offering after-school activities and social services.



It's the antonym of serendipity. Put simply, it means an unpleasant surprise. Former New York Times language columnist William Safire defined zemblanity as "the inexorable discovery of what we don't want to know."

Adams inflicted zemblanity on Portland. But his term has also proven to be an unpleasant surprise for those who would too easily dismiss him as a failure. 

"Give him a little credit," Katz says. "He's worked very hard. I'm prejudiced, and I'm biased. And I have a deep affection for him, even though he's done some very stupid things.” 

WWeek 2015

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