Mayor Wheeler speaking to protesters during a July 2020 rally.
Mayor Wheeler speaking to protesters during a July 2020 rally. NATHAN HOWARD / GETTY IMAGES

By now, you've likely seen the neon green buttons affixed to activists' lapels and yard signs popping up in Portland neighborhoods declaring, "Total Recall"—the clever name of the local campaign to recall Mayor Ted Wheeler.

While the campaign has been simmering since Wheeler was elected to a second mayoral term in November 2020, the organizers behind the movement were forced to wait until July 1—six months after Wheeler's term began—before officially filing their recall petition with the city's Election Office. With that behind them, the campaign is poised to kick off a volunteer-driven signature gathering campaign Friday.

Per the city's recall election rules, the campaign will have 90 days—early October—to collect at least 47,788 signatures (a number that represents 15 percent of Portland voters who cast a ballot in the last gubernatorial election) to qualify for a special recall election. If that goal is met, a recall election will be held within 35 days, in which Portland voters will simply be asked whether or not they wish to recall Wheeler. If the majority of voters choose to recall, the mayor's office will be immediately vacated, and another special election will be scheduled to fill the post.

Total Recall, the name of the political action committee behind the campaign, formally coalesced two days after Wheeler won the November 2020 election, according to the Oregon Secretary of State website. If you remember, Wheeler won the November runoff race with 46 percent of the vote against progressive urban planner Sarah Iannarone, who collected 41 percent of the ballots (the other votes were scattered among write-in candidates). The Total Recall PAC was formed by Alan Kessler, a lawyer and public records activist who worked on Iannarone's campaign, and boasts campaign finance advocate and one-time council candidate Seth Woolley as its treasurer.

The PAC originally positioned itself as a campaign to recall both Wheeler and City Commissioner Dan Ryan, who was elected to council in a special August 11, 2020 election. Ryan, who was targeted for recall after he opposed a $18 million cut to the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) budget in the fall, is no longer on the campaign's chopping block.

Wheeler also opposed the $18 million cut—but the campaign to unseat him goes beyond a single vote. The group's petition to recall Wheeler, submitted on July 1, points to somewhat vague problems with Wheeler's overall leadership.

"Portland has endured years of crisis," the petition reads. "When we needed a leader to solve problems, Ted Wheeler's inaction made our challenges worse. Portland has lost confidence that their government will be there in times of need. Our city is full of good hearted, decent residents. We should be an example to the world. Instead, with Wheeler as mayor, we have veered off course and our city's reputation has been tarnished."

The petition specifically cites the fact that Wheeler won the November election by less than a majority of the votes, and loaned $150,000 of his own money to bankroll his mayoral campaign. (While Total Recall calls this donation "illegal," the City Auditor ruled in November that the donation was in line with an Oregon Supreme Court decision.) Editor's note: After publishing this story, the Total Recall campaign re-filed its recall petition to remove the word "illegal," instead describing the loan "in violation of campaign finance laws" .

The campaign website also accused Wheeler of "standing in the way of racial and economic justice" and opposing "the policy goals of the Black Lives Matter movement," as well as failing to "address the ongoing housing crisis in our city."

The Total Recall PAC has collected just under $50,000 in contributions since its November inception. Most donations come in under the $100 mark, a designation that allows donors to remain anonymous. As of Tuesday, the PAC's top three contributors are E. Zack Stoltzfus ($5,000), an unemployed resident of Pennsylvania, Sean DeNicola ($4,500), a Portland janitor at Legacy Health, John Schroeder ($4,487), a Portland-based software developer for Amazon.

Recall campaigns aren't unheard of in Portland, but getting one on a ballot is. According to the Oregonian, the last time Portlanders voted to recall a local elected official—City Commissioner J. E. Bennett—was in 1952. More recent attempts to recall past city officials, like former Mayors Sam Adams and Charlie Hales, have fallen short on meeting the needed requirements to move forward.

Before this latest recall campaign leaves the starting block, we posed a few more questions to campaign director Audrey Caines.

PORTLAND MERCURY: This campaign originally included Commissioner Ryan. When did you decide to drop him from the campaign, and why?

CAINES: That decision was made well before I was brought on as campaign manager. But overall, I believe the PAC wanted to focus resources on what would be most beneficial for Portland—removing Wheeler.

There's another recall Wheeler movement in town, under the name Rose City Recall. They haven't submitted a recall petition. Do you have any relationship with them, or plans to coordinate?

No. We're aware that they exist, and are aware that they haven't filed a petition. We aren't sure of what their intentions are.

What do you consider the biggest challenges facing this campaign?

Honestly, one of our biggest concerns is hot weather and wildfire season, since it could limit our ability to gather signatures on the ground. We had a Pedalpalooza event planned during the heatwave that we had to cancel, and that made us think about how this summer's weather could impact our petitioning. That's why we're going to rely on circulating signature sheets online, which can be printed off and mailed in.

Were there any other campaigns that influenced this one?

Yes, last year's Universal Preschool Now campaign lead by Portland DSA. They had to adapt to COVID restrictions by focusing on online petitions, and we're now following their lead.

There has been a lot of talk about this campaign since you filed the petition last week. Is there anything missing from those conversations you want to clarify?

Yeah, there's one thing, which is that we are strictly a recall initiative. Our only goal is to get Wheeler’s recall vote on the ballot. Beyond that our job ends. We won’t have any participation in a special election [to replace Wheeler]. (Editor's note: On June 30, the Portland Tribune Editorial Board penned a column suggesting that, because members of Total Recall have close ties with Iannarone's 2020 campaign, organizers intend on replacing Wheeler with Iannarone. The Total Recall PAC has since shared statements on social media rejecting this plan.)

Lastly, what attracted you to join this campaign in the first place?

I saw it as a really significant opportunity for harm reduction in the city. I've seen the way Wheeler has negatively impacted peoples' lives, and want to combat that.