A little more than a year and a half ago, four of the five members of the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners banded together to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples—in one fell swoop (unsuccessfully) challenging state law and the increasing power of conservative Christian activists.
That may have been the last thing they ever agreed on.
To say the Board of Commissioners has since become a hotbed of inter-office squabbles would be an understatement. Disputes over the county's budget have spilled over into the local media and have severed relationships between County Chair Diane Linn, the board members, and Sheriff Bernie Giusto—so much so that a seemingly routine agreement to open 140 new jail beds last week was heralded as some sort of monumental breakthrough. So much so that Linn has hired a liaison to communicate between her office and the other board members. So much so that three of the board members are campaigning against Linn's reelection.
The situation has been described nearly universally by observers as "embarrassing"; the commonly held perception is that the county board is incapable of accomplishing even menial tasks without a barrage of personal sniping that would be more at home on a junior varsity cheerleading squad.
At the same time, community leaders in the east Multnomah County (Gresham, Corbett) have begun squawking about seceding from the county because, they believe, the board is treating them like ugly, unwanted children.
It's into this sea of ignobility that Ted Wheeler is wading.
Wheeler has been campaigning since August for Linn's county chair seat. His credentials are solidly business-oriented—among other things, he co-founded a financial services company and is currently a small business consultant. When he speaks, he speaks as a CEO. But he's also steeped in the world of government and nonprofit organizations, having served as one of the citizen advisors on Mayor Tom Potter's budget committee and giving relatively substantial amounts of money to organizations like Human Rights Campaign and Cascade AIDS Project. His wife, Katrina, is on the board of the local chapter of Planned Parenthood.
So far, Wheeler's campaign has been waged largely on the premise that the current board leader is to blame for the dysfunction, and for the east county's unhappiness. In a sense, in order to beat Linn, voters will have to see him as a cross between Dr. Phil and Abe Lincoln.
"The consistent theme under the current leadership at Multnomah County has been public squabbling," Wheeler said in a recent interview with the Mercury. "It's not only gone on between the chair's office and the other commissioners, it's also gone on with other jurisdictions."
Wheeler has already amassed an impressive list of supporters—not the least of which are current board members Lisa Naito, Serena Cruz, and Maria Rojo de Steffey. Linn's current posted list of supporters is, so far, much smaller, but it does contain two highly significant endorsements: NARAL Pro-Choice Oregon and Basic Rights Oregon (BRO).
In a very public show—via the pages of Just Out—BRO Executive Director Roey Thorpe, along with former Governor Barbara Roberts and Human Rights Campaign co-founder Terry Bean, pledged her support for Linn based on the marriage decision, positing the question, "If we don't stand up for Diane, how can we assure other elected leaders that we will be there when the going gets rough for them?"
In a county that voted 60 percent against the ban on same-sex marriage, BRO's support is not insubstantial. In response, Wheeler's campaign has been making attempts to reach the GLBT community—like a packed meeting last week at No Fish Go Fish, with Rojo de Steffey and school board member Dan Ryan stumping for Wheeler. At the event, one of the attendees mentioned that some people in the GLBT community are arguing that a vote against Linn is a vote against same-sex marriage.
"It would be a tragedy if the gay and lesbian community divided over this race," Wheeler later said. "There's no reason to. You could not shine a light between Diane Linn and Ted Wheeler's position on gay rights and same-sex marriage."
Still, he's openly critical of Linn's decision to exclude East County Commissioner Lonnie Roberts from the process. "When he was excluded, by extension so too were his constituents. Guess who are the ones who want to secede from Multnomah County? It just added a little fuel to the fire that I wish hadn't been added. I would like to think that my process would have been different. I support Diane Linn's leadership on the issue of same-sex marriage, but I will remind you that there were four people who participated in that process, three of whom have endorsed this campaign."
Curiously, Wheeler was registered as a Republican until 2000, when he switched to independent, and his family's charitable foundation, the Wheeler Foundation, has given money to a few rather anti-progressive groups—like Bill Sizemore's anti-tax campaigns. This drew the attention of Willamette Week and the bloggers at www.blueoregon.com. He has defended his involvement with the foundation by saying that his father made the ultimate decisions on donations, and that Wheeler served to bring more progressive groups "to the table."
Ultimately, comforting progressive voters may be the job of political consultant Liz Kaufman, a veteran of political fights from the left, who has already come to the aid of Wheeler to reassure certain lefty political commentators.
Further, there are clear echoes of Mayor Potter in Wheeler's campaign. Like Wheeler, Potter had never served in elected office and spent most of the campaign positioning himself as a populist outsider. Wheeler has picked up the major theme of Potter's campaign: increasing public involvement in decision making.
"Tom Potter is on to something important, and that is you need to rebuild the public's trust in the institutions of governance," Wheeler said. "The way you do it is through direct citizen input and transparency. You cannot be secretive about it."