Last Thursday, October 25, Mayor Tom Potter finally managed to do what weeks of meetings and behind-the-scenes negotiations failed to: He brought both sides of the Interstate/Chávez street rename debate together—in stunned silence as he stormed out of a council hearing.
"I am irrelevant," Potter said as he left, angry that the other three men at the dais—Commissioners Erik Sten, Sam Adams, and Randy Leonard—were eking out a deal that would provide more process to the street rename, which Potter was solidly against. Because he was now in the voting minority, he was largely left out of the conversation. So he walked out.
As has been widely reported, his colleagues on the council, as well as staffers in the building, described themselves as "stunned." Sten, especially, was shocked, since he was in the process of trying to work out a compromise that would have had full—or nearly full—support from the council.
"I'm trying to find a way to work with you, and you're walking out on this discussion?" Sten asked Potter, to no avail.
"I'm a little stunned by the mayor walking out when I was about to support his position, but it makes it difficult to support his position if he's not here," he added.
The walkout threw the Interstate/Chávez process up into the air. The three remaining commissioners agreed to return with a new process on November 14, one day before Potter had scheduled an up-or-down vote on renaming Interstate to honor César E. Chávez.
But there are larger questions lingering—like what impact Potter's walkout will have on his ability to be effective through the last year of his term. Given that he's already a "lame duck" mayor (since he's not running for reelection), will the incident push him even further to the outside of his council colleagues? Will policy advocates shy away from approaching his office, going instead to other commissioners who might have a better chance at negotiating majority support for their cause?
According to numerous city hall insiders, the short answer is no—not because Potter's influence and authority have remained intact, but because his influence and authority have never really been much on display.
In fact, some city staffers see Potter's walkout last week as perfectly in step with his style thus far; as one person said, Potter has a reputation for being willing to negotiate and compromise only until he stops getting his way. His blowup in council chamber was simply a public display of his longstanding political style.
The following year will probably bring much reflection from the public and pundits on Potter's term as mayor; his recent actions will give them an excuse to view his term through a popular lens—that he was never able to reconcile the political requirements of Portland's city council, in which the mayor is only one leader among five equals, with his long career as a police officer and a police chief. As police chief, Potter was able to give orders, and subordinates could either follow his commands or get out of the way. As mayor of Portland, however, one still has to secure two other votes in order to win any policy debate—and that typically requires deft political skills and the ability to negotiate compromises with equals.
Most city hall denizens think Potter's blowup will blow over, and that little will change in the coming weeks. Policy advocates will still want to talk to him, but, as one staffer says, "He never talked to them anyway. They'd talk to his staff, but he doesn't listen to his staff either."