For a long time, the political ascent of Sam Adams seemed to have no ceiling.
Adams started as an intern for then-Lane County Commissioner (now Congressman) Peter DeFazio in 1984. He dropped out of the University of Oregon to pursue politics full time. As a legislative staffer and campaign manager in Salem, he proved savvy enough that then-House Speaker Vera Katz took him with her to City Hall when she was elected Portland mayor in 1992.
As Katz's chief of staff for more than a decade, Adams was Katz's gatekeeper and her hatchet man. He immersed himself in the intricacies of city finances and rode herd on projects such as the renovation of the decrepit Civic Stadium (now Providence Park) and the development of South Waterfront and the aerial tram.
With his boundless energy, encyclopedic Rolodex and deep grasp of city issues, Adams had amassed all the tools to run for office himself. In 2004, he faced off against lawyer Nick Fish for a vacant City Council seat. Fish nearly knocked Adams out in the primary, beating him by 11 percentage points. But Adams outworked Fish to win the council seat in the November runoff.
It helped Adams that he was an openly gay candidate in an election year when voters were being asked to ban same-sex marriage. Adams took a leading role in fighting the ban. The measure passed statewide, but a big Portland turnout helped lift Adams to victory.
On the City Council, Adams made clear he wanted to be mayor. In September 2007, rumors circulated Adams had become involved with a legislative intern named Beau Breedlove when Breedlove was 17. When WW and The Oregonian questioned him about it, Adams insisted he was only a mentor to Breedlove. "I have been the target of a nasty smear," Adams said in a Sept. 18, 2007, statement. "I didn't get into public life to allow my instinct to help others to be snuffed out by fear of sleazy misrepresentations or political manipulation."
He won the mayor's race in 2008, trouncing travel agency owner Sho Dozono, and he took office in January 2009 as the first openly gay mayor of a major American city.
But Beau Breedlove was talking, and the story he told WW contradicted Adams' version. Breedlove said their relationship was sexual. Confronted with Breedlove's account, Adams continued to say he had only mentored the young man. Only as WW prepared to publish the story did Adams admit he had lied. He insisted, however, he and Breedlove only had sex after Breedlove's 18th birthday.
Adams had been in office only three weeks. The city was split between outrage over Adams' lie and anger over what some saw as an unfair intrusion into his private life. An Oregon Department of Justice investigation found no evidence of any crimes.
Adams had arrived as mayor with a mandate but now stood humiliated and damaged politically. "It was like the first stage of a rocket sputtering out," says veteran lobbyist Len Bergstein. âA tremendous waste of political talent.â
To his credit, Adams never gave up. He brought the streetcar to the eastside, passed an arts tax, and increased the city's investment in bicycle infrastructure. He also brokered the deal that turned what was PGE Park into the home of the Portland Timbers and made possible the city's food-cart frenzy.
Adams' attempt to strike a deal for a hotel next to the Oregon Convention Center flopped, as did his plans for an eco-friendly and expensive Oregon Sustainability Center.
In 2011, polls showed Adams could not win re-election, and he announced he would be a one-term mayor.
Now 51, he's executive director of the Portland City Club. He's lost 40 pounds and is still working to have an impact—he's especially proud of a January City Club report on the plight of 340,000 adult high-school dropouts in Oregon.