NO MATTER WHAT you think of him, what he does, and how he does it, one thing is true: Mayor Sam Adams gets shit done.
You can say he's "desperate to create a legacy," and relentlessly distracted by shiny policy baubles, or you can say he's a politically canny wonk with a potent case of workaholism. But for a guy who thought seriously about quitting in disgrace just a few weeks after getting the job in 2009, Adams has racked up a quietly impressive list of wins both small and large over the past four years.
Battling back from a sex scandal and two recall attempts, not to mention the worst recession in a generation, a politically damaged Adams probably could have also slugged and scrapped his way to a second term. (If not for the Beau Breedlove kerfuffle, Adams might even have won by a landslide.) For a while he tried. But it wasn't to be.
Adams has to give back the Prius keys to the city at the end of this month. And when he does, love him or hate him, Oregon politics is losing an institution. Adams spent the last two decades of a nearly 30-year political career stalking around the place, first as Mayor Vera Katz's chief of staff, then city commissioner and mayor.
Given that record, we asked Adams to share his personal thoughts on the best ways to succeed in the business of Portland City Hall—as a candidate, as the boss, and as an advocate. Here's his (condensed and edited) advice.
HOW TO UNDERSTAND MEDIA!
"Stories are not written about what you get done—stories are written about what people say. The reason we do our own annual reports is so people can judge whether their investment in me has been worth it. In the past four years, during the worst recession in recent history, I will humbly put myself up against anyone else's agenda."
"Very few people in the media have the time to go and dig in deep—especially with the demise of traditional media. In-depth coverage isn't happening anywhere close to the degree as it was when I came into city hall. I really worry about that. Because if there's a city with 'wonk' in its middle name, this would be that city. We thrive on that. When Portland understands an issue adequately and sets out a plan, we tend to accomplish what we're after, with a lot of help from the fourth estate.
"Then add the advent of social media and how that's influenced civic discourse and media coverage. It's incredibly different.
"For example, the Oregonian editorial page would never write an editorial without calling the subject. Yes, they took their cues from their own coverage—but they'd always call you. They never call anymore.
"The Oregonian now does retribution. Look what they did to Charlie Hales. [The paper reported on a campaign letter sent to the St. Johns Review that placed Hales on a neighborhood tour he wasn't on and also lifted passages from an Oregonian article.] When he asked for a correction, they called him 'thin skinned.'"
"The first story matters a lot. ['Sewer money for bike lanes'] was an example of a mistake on process. I did it quickly and, in hindsight, I knew it was one of those issues people are rightfully concerned about. The first story that came out on it was from Jim Redden [of the Portland Tribune] and I called [Redden] immediately and said it was inaccurate. But it was never changed.
"Now, I would have gotten it in writing, and posted it ourselves, first on our site and Twitter. That's what we've learned to do—we put ideas out for public comment sometimes weeks before we bring them to council. We've adapted to use social media for good public policy by putting drafts out there and using Twitter, Facebook, and email to get public comments on it. That's a specific change that we've made."
HOW TO WIN AN ELECTION!
"Campaign politics does not reward detailed agendas. I ran for city commissioner on a very specific agenda. I didn't start out in public service to be an elected official. I decided if I were going to run for public office, I'd do it my way. So I geeked out and put out really specific policy points, much to [political consultant] Mark Wiener's chagrin. We finished 11 points behind in the primary. And he said, 'See? Nobody cares.' The Oregonian took me to task, 'The city doesn't need a wonk. They need a commissioner.' Different day, different editorial board. But we ran with it. We made signs that said, 'Honk for the wonk!'"
"Not running for mayor was absolutely the right decision. The reason I didn't run for office is so I could get my agenda done—so I didn't have to pay much attention to the campaign. Can you imagine if I had introduced an ordinance to take [fired police officer Ron] Frashour to the appeals court as a candidate for mayor? All the complications that would have created? It would have been a fight. Whether or not I would have won... I don't know. But I couldn't have won and pushed through the controversial agenda that I had. The bag ban! Compost changes! This is controversial stuff."
HOW TO RESPOND WHEN ASKED WHO YOU VOTED FOR!
"None of your damn business."
HOW TO KEEP A LID ON THE COPS!
"Understand the role we all play. It's the [police] union's job to defend its members. Not some of the time—not on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays—but all of the time, on all issues. It is, by tradition, very robust. In officer-involved shootings, they always say our officer acted in accordance with training, and if you've got a problem with what happened, you've got a problem with our training and policy. They always do that. That's their job. They always say that pursuit of any sort of discipline is because of politics. Their mission is to protect their members, and they've done quite a good job of it.
"My frustration is when the coverage accepts that as the reality. Portland is not well served by newspapers writing stories based solely on [police union boss] Daryl Turner's point of view. No offense."
"Keep the Frashour lawsuit going. All the way to the [Oregon] Supreme Court. [The city council, led by Adams, is challenging an arbitrator's decision to reinstate Ron Frashour, the officer who killed Aaron Campbell.] Whatever hundreds of thousands of dollars we will pay is worth finding out whether state law should be applied, and if it should be applied, is there some fault to it."
HOW TO TAKE THE FIGHT TO CITY HALL!
"Make a list. When I was first in office, one of the first things I did was call the AMA [the Albina Ministerial Alliance Coalition for Justice and Police Reform] and say, 'Make a list. You all make a list and figure out what the top five things are, and then the next five things, and we'll get those things done.' Almost everything on the list led to change in one way or another. When I asked the AMA for their list, I asked them for all the PARC [Police Assessment Resource Center] report—all the recommendations written regarding police reforms—and I said, we're going to put them all down, all the recommendations. Then we asked the police for their response to the recommendations. And we said, 'We're overwhelmed with requests for reforms, and we've got to get back to people with what we're going to do.'"
"You don't have to come up with the solution. That's another thing to keep in mind for folks who are working in ongoing advocacy. My job as a leader is to help the advocates and the police bureau get clear about their communication. The AMA has met with the police chief and commissioner on a regular basis for the past two years. We got clear on what they meant and helped them get clear about their own priorities."
HOW TO RUN A GOVERNMENT!
"We have to fight at a higher weight class. One of our biggest vulnerabilities is we can believe the positive national press about ourselves and cling to it too tightly. We really are one of the most sustainable cities in the country—but that's high praise on an incredibly low standard. Because we're smaller, we have to fight at a higher weight class, or we will become a virtual suburb to San Francisco and Seattle.
"We have to be an intentionally successful economic and academic community. We don't have the heft of population that turns a city into an economic powerhouse. That's why a lot of the work we did on the Portland Plan is so important—it's not the be-all, end-all, but it's the first time I've seen a city like us have a strategic plan.
"When we sat down after the Portland Plan was approved, I convened all the transportation agencies in the city to talk about budgets. It was the first time TriMet, the city, the Port of Portland, and others sat down to make a consolidated financial sheet. This is what money we have, and here's where it's going. That work needs to continue. Let's spend our money in the wisest way possible. And with fewer state and federal dollars coming our way, it's a necessary thing to do."
"Respect the bureaucracy. I feel like my time here in city hall has earned me three or four Ph.D.s. Chief of staff is a really difficult job, because you have to be the badass. That's your job—to fire people. The mayor's job was to hire people. You [fire people] a couple times, word gets around.
"It's folly to assume that bad systems mean bad people or bad intentions. Usually failure to get results is a leadership failure and an organizational failure. You had better respect the bureaucracy and then seek to improve it.
"The city had two housing agencies and two economic development agencies that warred with each other for decades. You had really good people trapped in a really dysfunctional bureaucracy. The first week in office, we put housing under the housing bureau and economic development under the Portland Development Commission. Now you know that housing's working because you have one bureau working on it."
"I wanted to do it my way. [Taking control of city bureaus during budget season, which many mayors have done] is a lot of work for the mayor's office. The responsibility can be so great that you don't have the time to exercise your authority in a meaningful way. I didn't feel like I needed to do it to get this city council to view things in a fair-minded manner. In my budgets, we've cut $36 million on an ongoing basis, so we can invest money back into services. I benefited from working for Vera Katz, the former chair of the Oregon Legislature's Joint Ways and Means Committee, for 12 budgets. The city's budget is something I know pretty well. I wanted to do it my way. Everyone gets to do their own thing."
"The most effective commissioners are the ones who can count to three. As mayor, I solicit, on a regular basis, how can I help my colleagues. And I do. I follow through. Where we agree, I want to help them. I think of my job as first among equals. I also spend a lot of time with them. You will find me in commissioners' offices multiple times a week. Knowing that it's only a flight of stairs to the second floor, but it might as well be 300 miles away if you never go down there to say 'hello' and see where they need help. It's not rocket science."
"Portlanders expect you to try to get to five votes. I always try to get to five. That's important for the esprit de corps of the council. I've worked to try to iron out disagreements between people when we thought it would be useful. Portlanders don't like coalitions. They don't like cliques. Like with the JTTF [meaning the city's controversial effort in 2011 to reengage with the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force], I aimed for five votes. Everyone thought I was insane. Especially my staff. And [then-acting US Attorney] Dwight Holton. But the more important the issue, the more important it is to get to five."
"I believe in strategy. I believe in knowing where you're at, having a goal, and getting there in incremental steps. The electric vehicle strategy, clean energy works, the bag ban, composting—you didn't see that all happen in one day. That's all part of the climate action plan and our economic development efforts. Why did we do composting? Because having a third of our garbage going to Arlington—which turns into methane, which is 20 times worse for the environment than other gasses—is a very solvable problem. Is it more important than jobs? No. And that's why in the first two years of my terms you saw me focus very, very heavily on jobs."
"Minimize meetings with mayors. Maximize meetings with CEOs. If you don't have three or four CEOs behind you, that's a missed opportunity. City hall functions much more smoothly than when [Charlie Hales] left office. When he left, the economic strategy on the books had 13 targeted industries. That's not a targeted industry. That's a smorgasbord. Now we have four."
"My biggest worry is losing the Portland Plan. It's a strategic plan, not just a land-use plan. In the city's last comprehensive plan, the only part that anyone paid any attention to was the land-use elements. It's not legally binding, it's not sexy, and it's hard work. The press always wants to know, 'How are you going to get all these things done? Where is the money coming from?' It's about getting stuff done with the money you have. Like in transportation, I decided that the most important thing we're going to focus on is safety and build from that."
HOW TO HAVE A LIFE! (HINT: YOU WILL FAIL)
"I've gotten better at maintaining a balanced life. But I don't think anyone would say I'm good at it. I've got a passion for my work. But my friends and family know I'm this way. Hopefully they can help keep me balanced. We'll see what happens to me next. I owe Peter [Zuckerman, Adams' partner] a lot of dates."