The Mercury sat down with Mayor Ted Wheeler on February 21 for a lengthy interview on his past three years in office. We had intended on publishing the conversation in mid-March.
But then... COVID-19 happened.
By the time we could come up for air—after more than a month of nonstop coronavirus coverage—the conversation felt decades old. And yet, while the interview doesn't mention anything about the global pandemic that's flipped society on its head, it still provides an in-depth peek into how Wheeler sees himself as a leader and why he's vying for a second term in City Hall.
With the May 19 election now weeks away, we thought it was important to share this slightly outdated conversation. We've including a few notes along the way to provide additional context or updates.
PORTLAND MERCURY: As mayor, you face a fair amount of criticism and complaints from members of the public. Which of those criticisms keep you up at night? And, alternatively, what accomplishments are you most proud of?
TED WHEELER: What keeps me up at night? At some level they all do. There’s no one thing I can point to. My phone rings constantly, emails come in… my Twitter feed, like every other Twitter feed, is the inner circle of hell. Truthfully, after a while, it becomes background noise. That was not the case at first. At first, it was really jarring, it was shocking to have people question everything about you.
With time, what I realized is that they were reflecting the times in which we live. It wasn’t personal. It’s about who people have access to, who they can talk to. People can’t talk to Donald Trump, but they can talk to me whenever they want: In the grocery store, at the gym, in the park when I’m with my kid. And they do. People are angry, they are divided, they are frustrated. Including people that I happen to really agree with. Not a day goes by that a person isn't in my face really expressing their frustrations and I’m sitting there nodding saying, “I agree, I agree, I agree.”
I look back on my three years, and the criticism really just rolls off at this point. It is what it is. But I think there is a cumulative impact that comes with it… and I see it in myself, I see it in my colleagues, I see it in our 5,000 public employees who interact with the public on a regular basis.
"I look back on my three years, and the criticism really just rolls off at this point. It is what it is."
Part of being successful in this job is remembering it isn’t personal. We live in very divided times. We live in times where the word “compromise” is not seen as the highest element of statesmanship, it's seen as a capitulation of weakness. And yet we as a council—shifting to address your question about successes—we have found ways to work well together. We are very different people, we have different perspectives, different priorities, but we figure it out. We work together. I have an important partnership with each and every one of my colleagues.
I think with the passing of Commissioner [Nick] Fish, we have redoubled those efforts to work effectively together. I think of Commissioner [Jo Ann] Hardesty and the work that’s been done on the Portland Clean Energy Fund and the [Portland] Street Response. I think of Commissioner [Amanda] Fritz and the work we’ve been doing on her elections program, and Commissioner [Chloe] Eudaly on the Rose Lanes and the work we’ve been doing around the housing policy. We have made it work. I think we’re serving as a good example of how you actually do find collaboration and you do compromise to move everybody’s interests forward. I think that's probably one of the most important things we’ve been able to do at City Hall, even though it’s not a tangible outcome.
MERCURY: You have been transparent about your job in some ways that other politicians aren’t. You’ve been honest about what your job entails, and what your limitations are. For instance, you’ve spoken about problems with the city’s commission form of government, the city’s limited ability to expand mental health care, and your inability to limit a protest.
You mentioned how this job wears on you. Looking at a second term, how do you think about those limitations? What keeps you hopeful that you can be successful despite them?
WHEELER: It was not a foregone conclusion that I’d seek a second term. I knew what other people here didn’t know which was that my family situation was precarious. [Editor's Note: Wheeler publicly announced he was getting a divorce in early January.] This job takes far more time than I realized. It is all-consuming.
I got busted a few years back because some asshole was jumping up and down during a really important health care coalition meeting I was speaking at. This was the group where I needed to make a real impact around the need for on-demand addiction treatment and rebuilding our mental health safety net. This was the group of decision makers. But this guy kept on jumping up and down yelling “You’re a liar you’re a liar!”
I said, “If you want to have a debate, we can have a debate, but we’re not going to have it right now. Wait until the Q and A, or we’ll have it afterwards.” And he didn’t stop. And I lost my patience, I really did.
On my way out, I said exactly what I was quoted as having said which is “I cannot wait for the next 24 months to be up.” It was more of an expression of frustration about that particular moment about that particular guy.
At that point the narrative was “Ted doesn’t like the job” or “Ted's not having any fun in the job.”
What I want people to know is the job isn’t always fun. The issues I talk about aren’t the kind of things where you wear a sash, pop champagne corks… I talk about people living and dying on our streets, I talk about people’s anxiety, hanging on by their fingernails to their housing and being worried about displacement, I talk about things like Nazis and white supremacists coming into our community to sow true hate, if not outright violence, police reform issues, officer-involved shooting issues, climate action… It’s hard for me to find the right moment to smile about something.
People think I’m really dour, and miserable. I want you to know I am not. There are different kinds of satisfaction in a job and I would not argue that this one is always fun—it is sometimes... it can be hilarious, actually. It is very meaningful though. There’s a real difference between objective joy and doing work that I find extremely meaningful. And this work is very meaningful.
MERCURY: Can you give an example of a challenge you enjoyed working on?
WHEELER: The Portland Clean Energy Fund [PCEF]. I knew that the revenue structure for that was going to be a mess. I’ve seen enough of these ballot measure tax efforts to know, there are always unintended consequences. And this was no exception. However, the coalition that was put together in order to pass the PCEF was something completely new. It is a spark of what I think the future of politics looks like in Portland, if not nationally. You have a powerful coalition of previously marginalized communities coming together and saying, “If you guys are going to be doing all the talking about climate action, we want to benefit from the jobs that will be created, the investments that would be made, since our communities disproportionately bear the burden of climate change.” This is leadership that came from the community.
Commissioner Hardesty and I had different perspectives about this whole thing. But at the end of the day, we agreed with the values. When it came to City Hall, our revenue folks, God bless them… they were doing their job, but it made it even more complicated when they broadly interpreted what a retail tax would include. [Editor's Note: Read our past coverage of this complicated process.]
"There’s a real difference between objective joy and doing work that I find extremely meaningful. And this work is very meaningful."
So, Commissioner Hardesty and I forged a partnership. We arranged a meeting with the coalition and the Portland Business Alliance. They were on opposite sides of the ballot measure and there was a lot of anger in that room. Both sides felt they had been disparaged by each other, that they had been misrepresented… and our first meeting was really ugly. Jo Ann and I were just sitting on the same side of the table, facilitating conversation, which was really a trust-building exercise. The two sides really didn’t want to talk at all, to be honest with you. But Jo Ann and I realized that, if we could reach an agreement between the two of us, and we could then encourage both sides that a compromise was necessary to move forward… we knew we could take that to the council and no one would oppose us. And that’s exactly what happened.
We used that same alliance in the street response. Jo Ann and I are perceived as having different perspectives on things like public safety and the need for response for people in crisis on the streets. I actually think our values are closely aligned. When people see us working together on that issue, you can’t get to her left and can’t get to my right.
MERCURY: So, do you see yourself using the identities that people place on you both to bring folks that are polarized together?
WHEELER: It is exactly what we’re doing. When Commissioner Hardesty came into City Hall, she identified me as “Mayor what’s-his-face” during a budget session, and I got really pissed off at her. I think from that point, people thought it was Ted versus Jo Ann.
The truth is, Nick [Fish] was always my closest ally on the council. When Nick left us, Jo Ann was the first to really realize that she and I needed to work together in order for this council to be successful. And now, we’re partnering on everything from the street response, to PCEF… and of course the work we’re doing around the Portland Police Association [PPA] and police contract, and having joint sessions out in the community, and working together.
It’s important for her and me to be standing side by side and saying, “This is what we want and this is what we expect in these contract negotiations.” And it must be slightly terrifying for the PPA to see us standing there together in lock step. It’s a strong signal that the council’s going to be unified when it comes time to vote. We’re not going to conquer by being divided on these issues.
MERCURY: Let’s talk about Open and Accountable Elections (the city’s new publicly-funded election program), and Portland’s campaign finance restrictions, approved by voters in 2018 but currently being challenged in court (making them non-enforceable). Why do you feel like it's unnecessary to participate in either?
WHEELER: First of all, [OAE] is a nascent program. It doesn’t have a real home. I believe it should be in the auditor’s office, the auditor disagrees. We have no means of resolving it short of going back to the voters to resolve it, which I expect we will. It is a direct conflict of interest for any commissioner to oversee the program.
MERCURY: Except for right now, right? Since Commissioner Fritz, who currently oversees the program, isn’t running for office?
WHEELER: Well, we have this ridiculous thing we’re doing with a wink and a nod to shift the program around to whichever commissioner isn’t running for office, but let me give you another scenario. What if we give OAE to a commissioner who isn’t running for re-election? Now you’ve got leverage, which is equally insidious in a political environment where there are only four people in the governmental body. And that leverage can be used one of two ways: It can be used as a threat or it can be used as an incentive.
Also, as an incumbent who already had a Political Action Committee [PAC], I would basically have to lock up the majority of my PAC in order to participate in OAE. In other words, I’d have to lock up finances that people already voluntarily contributed to me, because they support me, so that I could take the taxpayer funding to supplant that. That, on its face, struck me as ridiculous, just to be honest with you.
"For me, winning this election isn’t just getting re-elected with 51 percent of the vote. I need a mandate."
And then there’s the question: What does it take to win? For me, winning this election isn’t just getting re-elected with 51 percent of the vote. I need a mandate. I need people to understand the work I’m doing around housing, around homelessness, around police reform, around the environment, the work I’m going to do to restructure our form of government. I need to come in with strength. As important as it is to be engaged in running against Sarah [Iannarone], and Ozzie [Gonzalez] and Teressa [Raiford] and others, I’m really competing against myself in making sure I have that mandate.
MERCURY: Okay, and why not adhere to the 2018 campaign finance limitations?
WHEELER: This wasn’t thumbing my nose at the voters, the voters did pass it, I do support limitations. We picked the congressional limits. My opponents need to get their talking points straight. On one hand, they say I’m so phenomenally wealthy that I could basically self-finance my campaign. On the other hand they say I could be bought for 2,000 bucks over a lunch. Somebody needs to pick which one it is.
[Editor's note: Since this interview, the Oregon Supreme Court has upheld the contested campaign finance rules. Beginning May 4, Wheeler is required by law to follow them.]
MERCURY: Who would you say in the past three years has benefitted the most from your leadership?
WHEELER: If I had to pick one group that has been largely ignored—or worse than ignored, maybe targeted, I would say the chronically homeless. The people who’ve been on our streets the longest. The ones I’ve talked to, some of them have lived out a decade or longer, people not only who are houseless but have coexisting conditions, whether it's substance abuse or mental health issues or domestic violence survivorship… [and] other disabilities. I have had a relentless focus when it comes to homelessness on increasing our attention and resources toward the chronic population.
Full disclosure: I don’t do any of this shit alone. Everything I do around homelessness is a partnership with the county, coalitions, community partners, social service organizations, faith-based organizations. But my focus on all of those meetings is—as much as it’s important as it to focus on veterans, and families with children, and women on the streets—we also need to provide that same kind of attention towards the chronic population. I’ve worked hard at that.
MERCURY: The people you say you’ve helped the most in the past three years... how does that population overlap with the people who are giving you the biggest donations right now?
WHEELER: I make it very clear when I take donations from people that I weigh every issue independently. I think I’ve been very successful at that. If you look at all the organizations and people who gave me money last election, and you tried to find some combination of how I supported them at the expense of others—I think you’d find that giving me money could actually work against you.
Some examples: I supported Commissioner Chloe Eudaly’s FAIR ordinance and I support her screening criteria. Chloe comes in with an activist approach, and we need that… she’s really passionate and really focused. I come in with more of a nuts and bolts approach. So, I’m sure all of the real estate folks were not happy with my support. I could have taken a principled “no’” vote, it still would have passed, it wouldn’t have made any big difference, but I actually chose to work with her and see if we could compromise and get to “yes.” By the way, that was something Nick [Fish] and I worked very, very closely. We wanted to get to “yes,” we didn’t want her hang out to dry on an issue we felt was important.
"I don’t think you can predict based on who gives me money in terms of what I’m going to be doing."
Another example: Very quickly in my administration I raised the business licensing tax, and I did it because I wanted to focus on the chronically homeless. Now, I did meet with lots of people in the business community to talk about how we were going to prioritize those funds, but at the end of the day I did raise their taxes. Same with the short term rental fee. Travel, tourism, convention business, the hotel industry… a lot of people in that community give me a lot of money. But with the Visitors Development Fund… I laid claim to some of the taxes that are going into the marketing of their ventures to help us address chronic homeless situations on our streets.
I had strong support from neighborhood associations, but I am 100 percent pursuing Better Housing By Design and the Residential Infill Project. I think they are critically important to the future direction of this city and the longer-term vision on what our community’s going to be and who's going to be included in that community. And my position there is probably more in alignment with the housing activists. It’s very antithetical to what many in the neighborhood associations want. I don’t think you can predict based on who gives me money in terms of what I’m going to be doing.
MERCURY: But that is traditionally why people give money to campaigns, right? To nudge politicians to look out for them. You say you work against your donors. So what do you think is still encouraging folks to support you in general? What do you offer them?
WHEELER: I think I could always paint a clear vision. If I had a business person sitting around this table and they said, “What the fuck Wheeler, I gave you a check for $4,000 and you voted for Chloe Eudaly’s communist housing takeover.” I can still make a strong business case for that. What I would say is, there is a reason why large companies are fleeing large cities like San Francisco and Oakland and, increasingly, Seattle. And they’re coming to cities like this. And the reason employers are coming here and expanding is because they can find employees who are qualified.
They also come here because we have a community that is actually functioning, it’s not Disneyland like San Francisco and it’s not all-Amazon like Seattle is rapidly becoming.
We still have an arts community, a culture community, the best culinary community in the world, we have a scaled economy, we love makers spaces, we love homemade stuff. We have that because there is housing affordability. It’s still expensive. Don’t get me wrong—it’s still super expensive—but relative to what is going on elsewhere, we are still able to hang onto people who teach, people who cook, people who act, people who are engaged in our arts community, because of the things that Commissioner Eudaly is proposing.
And if we continue to be the wild wild West—and we just keep building more Pearl Districts and more $4,000 a month apartment units—we’re going to lose all those things that make Portland Portland.
I can’t be bought by the short term. I would say, if I had one superpower it’s that I understand that life is short and that…. nobody gives a shit about the work I do today. But 25 years from now, they will live the consequences of the work I do today—either for better or for worse. I hope when I’m a really old cranky man, I hope people say, “Wow, Portland countered the national trend. They thought about a diversity of housing options and affordability, they thought about creating more transit, they thought about creating more walkable, livable communities, they took the time to think about the climate, they took the time to think about the air and the water quality… but I have no idea who the mayor used to be.”
"Nobody gives a shit about the work I do today. But 25 years from now, they will live the consequences of the work I do today—either for better or for worse."
This is really important to me. The reason I like the work is that we’re in a shitstorm, and we all know we’re in a shitstorm. And I actually believe we’re making good progress. By measurable standards, this administration is making good progress. We are going to counter the negative trend that we’re seeing.
MERCURY: We've recently learned of West Linn Police Department's retaliatory arrest and racist harassment of Black Portlander Michael Fesser. The federal case against West Linn notes that Portland police officers helped make the arrest, acting off of a West Linn detective's word that there was "probable cause" to arrest Fesser. As police commissioner, what does that tell you about what needs to change within local policing practices?
WHEELER: On its face, I think we’re all disgusted by West Linn. Here’s what I think happened, and this will have huge consequences for policing in Oregon. There is an assumption built into the system that, every time you declare that there is probable cause, you’re putting your badge on the line. Cops rely on other cops’ statements about probable cause— it’s done in every police bureau all across this state every day. You can’t vet it every time.
I’ll tell you whose probable cause we’re never going to listen to again, and that’s West Linn. Now the question is: Do we listen to any of them? What is actually required to get probable cause? The minute I saw Portland Police Bureau was involved, I knew it was going to end with me. At the end of the day, I’m going to have to call for some reforms, and I will.
All the work that we have done to build up trust to build up trust between the community and the Police Bureau just went [snaps fingers] poof! Just like that.
This is one more example of proving the worst fears that people have about policing: That police are bigoted, that police are biased, that they do not like Black people, that even when someone has served their time and done what society has expected of them, they will always be viewed as a criminal. That’s why under Chief [Danielle] Outlaw and now under Chief [Jami] Resch, we worked so hard on implicit bias training. Clearly, this whole concept of probable cause is now up for complete revision and review. And it's going to slow things down for a while, but that’s just the way it's going to be.
MERCURY: Sarah Iannarone’s campaign has attracted support around a message and a movement that some people are clearly attracted to. What does that tell you about the people in the community that your work might not be speaking to?
WHEELER: This is probably more of a political analysis that anything. Her messaging is exactly the same messaging she used four years ago: “Ted’s a downtown business old white guy.” These are not new messages being used against me. This was the message used against me when I ran for Multnomah County Chair, and it probably worked for me when I ran for State Treasurer.
But, to answer your question, I think a lot of people are attracted to Portland because they see Portland, Oregon as the bellwether for progressive thinking in the United States. And they see Portland as being ground zero for the resistance to Donald Trump and everything he stands for. I do think it is a little bit jarring to people to see this progressive bastion, this guiding light in a wilderness that is dark, is being run by an old white guy who comes from the business community, and an investment background, and from an elite university. I think there is a distrust that is there.
People don’t know me. It’s not their fault they don’t know me. I think it sort of shocks people when they realize I believe I am the only elected official in America that federal officials say should be incarcerated for my views on immigration. I have told people if there is one issue I will fall on the sword for, it is around immigration and immigrant rights. It’s really an important thing to me.
There's this idea that, “Ted’s with ICE, Ted's with the police, Ted’s with Donald Trump.” Well, no, my record is actually more progressive than anyone who is actually running against me. And I can demonstrate that.
"I do think it is a little bit jarring for people to see this progressive bastion, this guiding light in a wilderness that is dark is being run by an old white guy who comes from the business community and from an elite university."
Why is Sarah gaining traction? I think it's probably the Bernie-crats. People who are frustrated with the status quo, who think that government moves too slowly. If Sarah is elected mayor, she’s going to find out that her constituency is much broader. You have a huge array of issues that are important. In the role of mayor, compromise is one of the most important skill sets you have. You often have to lead by compromising. As mayor here I have no veto power, and so, leading by compromise is tremendously important in this form of government.
And leading by following. Truly. Some of the greatest things that have come to the city in recent years have come up through the community and the council’s been smart enough just to shut up and listen to what the community is saying. I’d say PCEF is probably the most recent example of that.
I’d say to Sarah’s supporters that, if they’re looking for somebody who will be a champion for people who have historically been left out of the equation, or vulnerable populations, I would ask them to listen to my record. I would argue that when it comes to communities of color, there have been no other administration that has been so forward at elevating women and people of color into leadership and positions of management. There is no administration that has done more than my administration has on the commitment to 100 percent renewable energy. We have let the community lead on community issues. We’re better for it.