AFTER REPEAT outbursts at City Hall last week, I wrote online that Ted Wheeler’s honeymoon as mayor was over.
Wheeler’s office promptly pointed out something to me: The mayor’s actual honeymoon involved snowshoeing to the North Pole.
“An easy honeymoon was never a necessity,” I was told.
It’s an apt observation. It also doesn’t change the situation at hand. Weeks after Wheeler convened his first-ever Portland City Council meeting, attendees are already lobbing profanities and shoehorning testimony about heavy-handed policing into council items about, say, technology projects.
It turns out the baton former Mayor Charlie Hales passed to Wheeler wasn’t magically wiped clean in transit. Instead, from the earliest days of his administration, it looks as though Wheeler’s also going to grapple with a combative band of council attendees sensitive to any misstep they perceive in the mayor’s governance style.
“You screw around one minute, and we will shut you down every week!” council chambers mainstay Joe Walsh screamed at Wheeler during the January 25 meeting. “You’re a tyrant just like Charlie!”
Those aren’t empty threats, of course. Wheeler was forced to recess last week’s meeting twice because of disruptions—including a symbolic funeral for a baby found stillborn in the arms of a homeless mother earlier this year.
That might mean Wheeler and the rest of city council are in for a long four years. But there are signs of hope, too.
First, Wheeler isn’t as guarded as Hales was. As a contingent of demonstrators occupied council chambers last week after shutting down the meeting, Wheeler made a solo appearance to suggest a deal: He’d meet with them to address concerns after the council meeting, if they’d allow it to go forward. Otherwise, he’d have cops clear the chambers.
It worked, sort of. Sure, there were more outbursts, but when Wheeler did meet the skeptical crowd—which pressed him on police overreactions, help for the homeless, and more—most seemed impressed by this new mayor’s openness.
There’s also a non-Wheeler force who might have a positive effect on council meetings going forward: new Commissioner Chloe Eudaly.
Eudaly, remember, comes to office fresh from a role as a renters’ rights activist. Now that she wields considerable power, she’s bringing that sensibility to bear with promising results.
Last week, for instance, audience members became upset at an item that would improve roadways near new developments in Northwest Portland. Officials said the fixes would be great for bikes and runners. People in the crowd wondered why the cash wasn’t instead going toward homelessness—or at least to the needier east side.
Eudaly swooped in, spurring helpful clarity that the roads money couldn’t just be shunted to housing. Then she calmed the crowd by acknowledging something: Their concerns were valid.
“When we’re in the middle of a housing emergency and we have thousands of people on the street,” she said, “talking about making a street safer for people who run marathons is going to incite the type of response we saw here today.”
To which activist Jessie Sponberg, who’d been laying into Wheeler all morning, responded: “We love you, Chloe!”