TED WHEELER wants to make one thing clear: It's not about Mayor Charlie Hales.
Wheeler, the Oregon state treasurer and former Multnomah County chair, says it's just that Portland's too unique and special a place to risk losing at the hands of its various and worrying problems—displacement, swelling homelessness, and crumbling roads, to name a few.
He likes Hales, Wheeler says. But then again, he's also going to set aside designs on the governor's office and spend the next eight months or more trying to take him out.
"The bottom line is this: Oregon has a governor in Kate Brown who's making progress," Wheeler tells the Mercury. "We have a mayor in Charlie Hales who is not."
And just like that, Portland's got an honest-to-god mayoral race on its hands. Wheeler plans to formally announce his candidacy at a press conference on Wednesday, September 9.
A lot of people saw this coming, but it doesn't make it any less compelling. In a town where incumbents are bulletproof, Wheeler's a moneyed (he comes from a wealthy timber family), seasoned (eight years in local and statewide office), and successful politician who seems to have an actual shot. Polling certainly suggests as much—the Oregonian reported in August that one survey showed Wheeler and Hales roughly neck-and-neck in the public's estimation.
And Wheeler knows the right pressure points to massage to stir up anti-Hales fervor. He spent much of our interview railing on the state of the city's "rotting" roads, and the mayor's failed, sometimes flailing attempts last year to find a street fee that could be enacted without a public vote.
Wheeler thinks taxpayers are smart enough to figure out a street fee—some street fee—is the right call, if city leaders will level with them.
"The first thing the mayor said is, 'Whatever we do we're going to make sure the taxpayers of this city don't have a say,'" Wheeler says. "What that tells the citizens is 'City hall thinks we're stupid.'"
Other talking points you can expect to hear from Wheeler in the months ahead: More money for affordable housing, including transitional housing for the homeless; a more open discussion of the factors at play in Portland's controversial growth patterns; and a reckoning with Airbnb, which Wheeler says is eating into valuable housing stock.
"These are things that are important to people who live here," he says. "All of us know that Portland City Hall isn't delivering."
Critics will see some hypocrisy in that statement. Wheeler's known for some bold ideas, but has struggled at times to make his case—much in the way that Hales struggled with streets.
One example: Wheeler's Oregon Opportunity Initiative, a scheme for getting Oregon students access to more financial aid that went before voters last fall. It was a compelling idea that Oregonians nonetheless shot down by a wide margin.
The defeat clearly still grates at Wheeler—as does the suggestion he's struggled to get things done since Governor Ted Kulongoski appointed him state treasurer in 2010, following the death of former Treasurer Ben Westlund (Wheeler twice won election to the office).
"From my perspective," he says, "I've only begun to fight."
It's the fight for the mayor's office, though, that'll be the toughest of Wheeler's career. True, he unseated County Chair Diane Linn in 2006, but that overwhelming rout was attributed as much to Linn's unpopularity as it was to Wheeler's appeal.
In Hales, Wheeler has an opponent who's a savvy communicator, able to winsomely pound his version of his mayoral tenure into voters' heads at every opportunity—including a much-improved budget picture (largely attributable to external forces) and a back-to-basics spending ethos the mayor's stuck to rather closely.
And then there's the mayor's war chest—impressive, but also telling for an incumbent who hasn't yet had a meaningful challenger. Since May of last year, Hales has raised more than $100,000, and new money's trickling in all the time. It's a sign Hales knows he's open to attack, and it'll almost certainly prove a useful defense.
"This race isn't going to be won based on who can raise money from real estate developers," Wheeler says. "This is going to be won by me, because I'm going to make the best case."
Wheeler's short one former ally in his new push: Popular Portland campaign consultant Liz Kaufman, who helped him win county chair, but more recently has been a Hales confidant. Wheeler didn't want to talk about Kaufman's role—or lack of it—in his campaign. In her stead, he's scooped up Jake Weigler, a local consultant who helped US Senator Ron Wyden win re-election in 2010 and managed City Commissioner Steve Novick's upstart senatorial bid in 2008.
Wheeler admits he didn't plan on this. He'd been eyeing a bid for the governor's office in 2018, before Governor John Kitzhaber's resignation launched Kate Brown to power, drastically changing the scenario. And it's true that Wheeler's got to do something if he wants to stay in public office—he's term limited at his job as treasurer.
But Wheeler swears this campaign isn't grasping for the next best thing. He says he's here to save a city.
"This really isn't about Charlie Hales," Wheeler said for probably the eighth time toward the end of our interview. "It's about the problems that he's failed on."
Wheeler planned to explain all this to Hales the next day, right before announcing his candidacy.