WHATEVER YOU think of Mayor Ted Wheeler’s style, you have to give him this: He’s not shy about defending himself.
When activists shouted over Wheeler during a hearing on a tenant protection law last week, he promptly chided two of them in the hall afterward (starting a bit of a scene in the process).
And when the mayor’s office caught wind of a big project KGW was planning to air on the city’s homelessness crisis—dubbed “Tent City, USA”—Wheeler’s folks called a press conference last Friday to get ahead of the narrative, making no bones about their motive.
“Is Portland really ‘Tent City, USA?’” Wheeler said toward the outset of his speech. “I want to be clear: The answer is no.”
In the 20 minutes or so that followed, the mayor offered what he called “an update on where we are with the homeless situation in our community.” Most of it wasn’t particularly groundbreaking. Wheeler noted the hundreds of new shelter beds that have been created (many under a past administration), the city’s efforts to partner with the Oregon Department of Transportation to battle camps, and a series of enforcement tools he says will ease the “livability” concerns surrounding the homelessness problem.
As I say, this was vintage Wheeler, confronting a “Tent City, USA” moniker that he believes falsely suggests Portland’s problem is unique. But during parts of the thing, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Charlie Hales.
Wheeler practically kicked Hales from office in late 2015, launching an aggressive campaign that painted the former mayor as a ditherer who failed to show results on the housing crisis.
“Do we want to hear another politician say ‘Please give me more time,’ or do we want to make real progress now?” Wheeler said when rolling out his candidacy.
Hales announced he wouldn’t pursue re-election not long after.
Even today when discussing homelessness, Wheeler makes frequent allusions to the past administration’s much-loathed “safe sleep” policy, credited with spurring enormous camps along Southeast Portland’s Springwater Corridor trail.
But in the defensive front Wheeler presented last week, there was much more of Hales than perhaps the mayor would concede. The bold reformer of the campaign stage is more pragmatic about the city’s ability to fix things these days.
“The truth is, I as mayor cannot solve this problem without real support from our regional partners, state government, and from the federal government,” Wheeler explained on Friday, in a line that echoed his predecessor.
“Nine months is obviously nowhere near enough time to get the kind of results I expect us to get,” said the man who took Hales to task for pressing for time.
He attributed the homelessness crisis (correctly) to widespread economic trends, as his predecessor often did. He noted that cities up and down the West Coast are fighting this battle, a go-to Hales point.
I tweeted out last week that Wheeler was sounding a bit like Hales these days, and his spokesperson suggested that was a cheap shot. But it’s not. It’s a reflection that the crisis Portland is facing is pretty easily the most intractable and complex issue Wheeler will deal with during his tenure.
Hales, who campaigned on a platform of nuts-and-bolts city maintenance, eventually understood how fraught the issue had become. Wheeler’s now grasping it, too.
The question is: What’s he going to do about it?