A field of candidates is lining up for the 2008 city council race, hoping for the rare chance to run for an open seat and inject some new blood into Portland's lawmaking body. But their fate—and the fate of city council's future—hinges on the decision of one man: Mayor Tom Potter.
Here's why: If Potter backs out of running for reelection, there's a very strong chance Commissioner Sam Adams will run for mayor, meaning there will be two open races. If Potter runs again, there's a theoretical chance that Adams will challenge him, meaning there'll be at least one open seat—although Adams doesn't appear to be itching to take such a risk.
"If I run for reelection in my current seat," Adams says, "I'd be happy as a clam. I'm going to wait and see what Potter's thoughts are, and then consider my options, which include running for mayor, running for reelection, retiring, or running for the East Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District." (If it's not obvious, those last two options were jokes.)
More than likely, Potter running for reelection will mean that neither seat will be open, and challengers will have to face running against two popular incumbents—or waiting another two years or more for an open race.
For months, Potter has said that he wouldn't make up his mind whether to run for another term as Portland's mayor until September. Nearing 70, Potter is in a bit of a pickle—he can spend another four years cutting ribbons, visiting sister cities, heading up an embattled police bureau, and fighting with his colleagues on city council, or he can relax and spend his retirement with his wife and family. While he's making that decision, the clock is ticking for the numerous people who'd like a shot at Portland's city council, but aren't about to take on popular sitting politicians.
"That in itself should say a lot for how much respect people have for Potter and Adams," says Amanda Fritz, who ran against Dan Saltzman in 2006 under the city's then-new public campaign funding, and is considering another run if there's an open seat. "I think people aren't going to run against them more out of respect than winnability."
Yet, in 2006, council candidates like Fritz and Dave Lister learned that running against an incumbent is, in Lister's words, "a Sisyphean task."
"The incumbent would have to be embroiled in a major scandal or caught taking bribes in order to be beat," Lister says. (In July, after months of speculation, Lister announced that he wouldn't be running for office in 2008, no matter what Potter decides. But, as local political observers should know by now, one should never count Lister out. He's hinted strongly that he won't be happy if Potter runs unopposed.)
"If Potter doesn't run for reelection," Lister adds, "there's going to be a pig pile for Sam's seat."
Whether they're waiting out of respect for Potter and Adams, or out of respect for their chances of winning, some candidates appear to be running out of patience.
"If the mayor is going to make a decision that opens up two races, it'd be best if he sent potential candidates a message sooner than later," says transportation activist Chris Smith, who will likely run for Adams' seat if Adams runs for mayor.
That's especially true, Smith says, for candidates, like him, who plan to use the city's Voter-Owned Elections (VOE) system, which provides public funds for campaigns. In order to get the funds, candidates will have to collect 1,000 five-dollar contributions and signatures by the end of January. For relatively unknown candidates, that process can take months, and the longer Potter waits to announce his plans, the less time public candidates will have.
It's also a pivotal election for the VOE program as a whole; it'll likely go to the ballot in 2010, so its future largely depends on its success in next year's election. Between the Emilie Boyles campaign fund scandal and the fact that there wasn't an open seat last year, 2006 only proved that no amount of public funds can beat incumbency.
Potter is expected to announce his decision some time in early to mid-September. Curiously, if he runs again, it'll be for a position he doesn't appear to like all that much. In May, he tried and failed to change Portland's form of government to a "strong mayor" system, arguing stridently that the current commissioner form was ineffective and inefficient. But part of the reason he wanted the change, many believe, was because he's not cut out for the current job, which requires working (and making political deals) with his council colleagues as equals.
"I admire Tom's integrity, and I campaigned for him for mayor," says Smith, who ran the opposition campaign to Potter's strong mayor effort. "And I still think he was a far better choice than Jim [Francesconi]. But he's not fit for this form of government."
Even more interesting, Pearl District real estate developer Bob Ball is reportedly considering a run for mayor; Ball ran this year's strong mayor campaign, and headed up a similar failed effort in 2002.
"I don't know how you go out and campaign for a job you've tried to get rid of twice," Smith says.
Smith, Fritz, and Portland Public Schools Development Director John Branam are all waiting on Potter's decision, but one person who isn't waiting is Charles Lewis, founder of the Ethos Music Center and the Portland Duck Tour. Lewis has filed as a public candidate for Adams' seat; even though he hopes Adams leaves the seat to run for mayor, he won't step aside if he doesn't. So far, Lewis has collected about 200 signatures, some seed money, and has attacked Adams' plans for a new transportation-funding package. As yet, he's the only person officially running for city council, having filed his intent to run in July.
The first day to file as an official candidate for office is September 13—coincidentally, that's one day after Potter's birthday, the deadline he's given himself to make a decision.
So, will September 13 see a flood of candidates rushing city hall to file, ensuring a large, interesting campaign season, or will the 2008 race be yet another exercise of the power of elected officials to keep their jobs?
Only Potter knows for sure, and until he reveals his plans, the city can only wait.