Portland has a Trump problem.
No, it’s not another symbolic lawsuit filed against the Trump administration by the City of Portland. It’s the fact that a US ambassador who played a key role in Trump’s potentially impeachable negotiations with the Ukrainian government also happens to be one of Portland’s most generous campaign donors.
While there have been no formal charges filed against Gordon Sondland, the founder of Portland’s Provenance Hotels, his involvement in Trump’s dirty work has local politicos scrambling to distance themselves from their longtime benefactor.
Here’s what we know: Sondland, who donated $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee, was made a US ambassador for the EU in June 2018. A year later, Sondland allegedly met with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky to advise how to “navigate” Trump’s brazen request to have the Ukrainian government investigate his political rival, Joe Biden.
In recently released text messages to another US diplomat, Sondland dismissed the idea that the White House was withholding $400 million in military aid from Ukraine until Trump got his Biden investigation. These conversations are now a central part of the impeachment inquiry against Trump. While Sondland agreed to answer questions about his actions before Congress, the White House blocked him from testifying hours before the scheduled meeting.
Sondland’s influence in Portland isn’t as easy to obfuscate.
Arguably Portland’s most powerful Republican, Sondland’s impact is everywhere: in Portland’s swankiest galas, its most upscale hotels, its trendiest bars, and its politics. Campaign filings show that since 2010, Sondland and his associated LLCs have dumped a total of $16,500 into Mayor Ted Wheeler’s campaign fund. Sondland’s wife and business partner, Katherine Durant, has added $6,500 to Wheeler’s campaign coffers.
Sondland’s also been generous to Commissioner Nick Fish. Since 2008, Fish has received a total of $3,000 from Sondland and his LLCs; in 2009, after Sondland donated $50,000 to keep an annual Washington Park festival afloat, Fish awarded Sondland the “Spirit of Portland” award.
Fish says he hasn’t spoken with Sondland since 2013.
“One of my roles as a City Commissioner is to ask wealthy people and public-spirited businesses to support good causes,” Fish writes in an email to the Mercury. Fish, who supports the impeachment inquiry, says, “If it is determined that [Sondland] participated in illegal conduct, he should be held accountable.”
Wheeler, whose job is up for grabs in 2020, has said little about the Sondland dilemma. Perhaps that’s because Wheeler could credit Sondland for jump-starting his political career. According to former Gov. Ted Kulongoski (another beneficiary of Sondland’s deep pockets), it was Sondland who suggested Kulongoski make Wheeler, a then-county commissioner, Oregon’s state treasurer in 2010. (He did.)
In an October 4 email to the Mercury, Wheeler spokesperson Timothy Becker said Sondland is an “integral part of our business community.” A day later, mayoral candidate Sarah Iannarone demanded Wheeler return Sondland’s past campaign donations. In a statement shared with OPB, Wheeler said, “We will be making a decision once we learn more about the nature of his role.”
With Sondland’s deposition delayed by an administration eager to conceal its alleged wrongdoings, it’s not clear when—or if—the “nature of his role” will come to light.
On January 15, 2017, two weeks into his term as mayor and five days before Trump’s inauguration, Wheeler tweeted: “We will protect American values and the values of our great city, Portland, Oregon, from Donald Trump.”
Does that still count when one’s career has been bankrolled by a key player in Trump’s latest clusterfuck?