The campaign to recall Mayor Ted Wheeler has one month left to turn in the required signatures necessary to prompt a recall election. At the rate the "Total Recall" campaign has been moving, however, it's not certain they'll meet that deadline.
The campaign kicked off the first week of July with a goal to collect at least 47,788 signatures—the amount required for a recall by county election rules—in 90 days, or October 6. Now 60 days into that timeline, the campaign has collected just under 13,000 signatures total. The campaign needs to quadruple that number to meet its October deadline.
That goal seems out of reach to those familiar with local campaigns.
"It seems like a steep hill to climb in 30 days," said Mark Wiener, a longtime local political consultant and campaign strategist behind the firm Winning Mark. "It doesn't seem like there's much of a chance."
There are a number of likely reasons the recall campaign has lagged, several of which the campaign itself has underscored. Perhaps most looming is the COVID-19 pandemic's impact on large events, busy public spaces, and other opportunities where volunteers are able to collect a landslide of signatures. Clipboard-toting recall campaign volunteers have popped up at smaller community events around town this summer, but the general slowdown of pedestrian traffic and large events have posed a challenge.
"The conventional playbook [for campaigning] is increasingly ineffective," said Jake Weigler, another political strategist who heads the local consulting firm Praxis Political, where he led Wheeler's 2016 mayoral campaign. "A lot of it is about hiring individuals to do retail conversations at high volume locations. Under a pandemic environment, those opportunities simply aren't available."
Yet some campaigns have risen above those limitations. Weigler pointed to the successful "Universal Preschool Now" campaign that, thanks to legal challenges, had only a month to collect a total of 23,000 signatures in early summer 2020, as COVID cases began to surge across Oregon. The campaign, led by Portland's Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) chapter, managed to gather more than 30,000 signatures in that time frame.
"The DSA campaign—they had a very overtly left-leaning message," said Weigler. "But they were able to go to the protests and find a sympathetic audience and gather a lot of signatures."
Weigler said that last summer's political atmosphere—fueled by racial justice protests and a sustained anti-protest crackdown by local and federal law enforcement—could have encouraged more Portlanders to sign on to a progressive campaign.
"This summer has felt very different than last summer," Weigler said. "We haven't seen the kind of conversations about city leadership that were happening last year."
Weigler said he has little experience in recall campaigns. However, he is currently in the early stages of working on his first-ever recall campaign—the push to recall Mark Shull, the Clackamas County Commissioner who compared vaccine requirements to Jim Crow laws in June. Wiener said he only has experience opposing recall campaigns (Wiener was a political consultant for former mayor Sam Adams while Adams was facing a recall campaign).
Both Weigler and Wiener say that a successful recall campaign needs a successful pitch—which they don't see in the recall Wheeler campaign.
"I don't know if there's a compelling enough message for a recall," said Weigler. "The reason most recall initiatives have failed in Oregon is that they just reflect a policy difference with the elected official, when the typical voter thinks a recall should be saved for more egregious conduct. Finding that threshold is challenging."
The Total Recall campaign is centered on the idea of removing a politician from office who they believe isn't good at his job, whether that's because he has "no new ideas" or due to his office's high staff turnover rate.
Wiener said a recall election is a hard sell for the public when they haven't been given any idea of who better could fill the mayor's office. The recall campaign has not proposed any replacements to serve as mayor if Wheeler is recalled, and has no intention to.
"Our only goal is to get Wheeler’s recall vote on the ballot," said Total Recall campaign director Audrey Caines in a July interview with the Mercury. "Beyond that our job ends."
Wiener, however, believes that it's incumbent on the recall campaign to be able to "articulate a clear and convincing alternative" to get voters' support.
As the campaign enters its final month of signature gathering, its leaders remain hopeful. In an email to the Mercury, Caines said she believes the campaign is "still viable" due to the financial donations they've received in recent weeks, allowing the team to hire more signature-gatherers.
"We’re optimistic," Caines wrote, "but it’s still a challenge."
Total Recall PAC has reported just over $99,000 in campaign contributions, according to Oregon Secretary of State records. But the group only has about $35,000 left in its campaign coffers to spend.
Caines said the campaign has expanded door-to-door signature gathering to neighborhoods that "are clearly negatively impacted by Wheeler such as Parkrose in East Portland." She ended with a call to action: "Anyone that wants to see Ted recalled can join these neighborhood teams to collect signatures—we’re a month from the end and we need everyone."
The campaign slow-down doesn't come as a complete surprise to the recall campaign. In early August, Caines issued a press release explaining that the campaign had missed its initial signature-gathering goals.
"Without monetary and volunteer support, this recall will not be successful at removing the most unpopular mayor in a generation,” Caines said at the time.
Weigler said the recall campaign will need a new approach if it's determined to reach its October deadline with enough signatures.
"It's not an inconceivable idea," he said. "But they'd have to open up the playbook and try something different to make this work."