MOST BIG-CITY BOSSES don't see this much excitement in a lifetime of political service—let alone their first two years in office. But when Mayor Sam Adams marks the midpoint of his first term next month, he can boast of surviving both a sex scandal and not one, but two recall attempts.
We asked nearly two dozen community and political leaders to look beyond the fact that—surprise!—Adams is still in office, and to talk instead about which of his policies in the past two years have helped the city and which have flopped.
The big thing people mention in regard to Adams' first two years? He's trying to do a helluva lot. Perhaps a helluva too much. Adams says he's focusing on four priorities as mayor: creating jobs amid a dire national recession, improving education, promoting sustainability, and improving public safety. But each of those broad goals, in turn, encompasses another list of "top" priorities: cutting carbon emissions, wooing manufacturers, reducing gun crimes, protecting our rivers, remaking the Rose Quarter, funding summer school programs, halving the high school dropout rate, building a bike network, laying streetcar tracks, enhancing the arts, revitalizing downtown, helping sex-trafficking victims, increasing police accountability, staving off deeper budget cuts, and... whew. You get the point.
Through most of it (and admittedly by his own doing), Adams has had to swim with one hand tied behind his back—swamped by a tidal wave of mistrust, betrayal, and disappointment after admitting he lied about his affair with Beau Breedlove. He's become the Oregonian's punching bag, his personal life has become fodder for gossip and news stories, and his rivals, sensing his star has dimmed, are lurking in the wings.
In light of that tough road, we've also asked our sources for some advice on how Adams should spend his next two years. Hey, maybe he'll even take it!
JOBS AND ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT
Rather than "the city that works," Portland's slogan recently seems to be: At least we're not Detroit! When he came into office, Adams pulled together an economic development plan that aimed to create 10,000 jobs by 2014. Just a little ambitious. The plan says the city should create jobs by attracting big businesses in four different "clusters" (sportswear, clean tech, advanced manufacturing, and software). Getting the city's first economic development strategy in 15 years written and approved was certainly a success, but the payoff has been mixed. Adams' office has used millions of dollars in subsidies to woo several large companies to open shop in Portland—but instead of creating employment over the last two years, the county lost 26,400 jobs.
A recent study commisioned by Portland's business community found we're less like, oh, Seattle and instead are more "like Pittsburgh or Cleveland."
Adams has gone on several high-profile trips to promote Portland as a good place to do business. This fall, after more than a year of talks, Danish wind energy firm Vestas announced it will add up to 200 people to its Portland workforce as well as retain 400 current employees in a newly renovated downtown headquarters (which the city is helping to pay for with an $8.1 million, 15-year, interest-free loan—a sweeter-than-usual package). ReVolt, a Swiss battery company, received $6.8 million in loans and tax credits from the state to locate in Portland and plans to create 150 jobs over the next five years.
The mayor also has attempted to make life easier for builders and developers by merging two bureaus into one: the bureau of planning and sustainability. However, chronically high unemployment and declining average income helped kick Portland from its ranking as the world's 45th strongest major metro area economy in 2007 to 102nd in 2010, according to a Brookings Institute analysis.
Eric Fruits, Portland State University economics professor, member of the mayor's economic cabinet, and president of the Laurelhurst Neighborhood Association: "Generally speaking, Sam is a great business booster. The people I've talked to in the business community really like that, when he goes out, he tries to namedrop Portland businesses and get people excited about Portland business. That's great. [But he also focuses on] ideas that are really expensive, but not very effective. To find a cluster [of industries] and direct all your resources toward it, I consider it almost a form of economic discrimination. We like clean tech, we like sportswear, but if you're not on our nice list this year, you're getting nothing. What happens when the subsidies go away?"
Mayor Sam Adams: "In the best of times, we had higher underemployment and higher poverty than Seattle and San Francisco. I've been very blunt. Our higher quality of life is not matched with a commensurate quality economy. We have to make sure we have more living wage jobs in this city. Those economic development strategies that came 15 years ago tried to be everything to everybody, and they pissed everybody off."
Jim Francesconi, attorney, former city commissioner, candidate for mayor in 2004, and rumored potential candidate in 2012: "The mayor can focus our community on not only expanding well-paying jobs but connecting them to our own residents. If he doesn't do that, it gets pitted as business versus the environment or business versus whatever. Part of his issue is he tries to do a lot of different things, and sometimes it's hard for the public to determine what's important. The mayor needs to continue to focus on this issue to build alliances with the business community."
Kelly Saito, chief operating officer of Gerding Edlen, the developer that will turn Meier & Frank's old warehouse into Vestas' new headquarters: "Without support from the mayor's office, none of that could have happened. His involvement was key, both from the standpoint of convincing Vestas to commit to the city and also to garnering the financial support that went into the project. It seems to me he's become much more active in [wooing businesses] personally in the last couple of years. That's appropriate and necessary when you're trying to recruit these kinds of corporate commitments, either to keep jobs in the city or to bring jobs to the city."
Scott Andrews, chairman of the Portland Development Commission: "I took a couple of trips with him in the past year and half. On one, we went to Chicago to see General Growth Properties, and while we were there—we were there for one day, left Portland and got there at eight in the morning—we went to one meeting after another until we got on a plane at three in the afternoon. That [trip] wasn't very successful. We went to New York a month and half later to visit with Saks to see if there wasn't something we could do to keep them happy. [Saks Fifth Avenue closed its Pioneer Place store this year, despite Adams' entreaties]. Again, not very successful. But the meeting with that Swedish department store that opened downtown [H&M] was on that trip as well—so you win some and you lose some."
Brian Libby, architecture critic and leader of the group Save Memorial Coliseum: "He's at a point in his administration where it's not about planting seeds anymore. It's about watering the plants. His first term is already tied to a bunch of small issues that he's got to see through. Because there are dwindling resources, I would advise him to focus. The city needs jobs. We have done a fabulous job creating a city where smart, creative, mostly young people want to migrate to. The advice I would give to Sam is to strengthen his ties with the business community. Get on a first-name basis, make the business community his brain trust and not his adversary."
Eric Fruits: "Sam sends very strange sets of mixed messages regarding businesses. He almost issued a fatwa against WalMart... while on the other hand he has a Twittergasm over H&M, which some people call the WalMart of Sweden. It's all part of this naughty and nice list."
Jill Nelson, president of the LGBT Portland Area Business Association: "I like his views on sustainability, making Portland a capital of sustainability. I respect the work he's done for the gay community, too. When there were hate crimes, he was very proactive. One thing in my experience and from what I've heard is that he's much more focused on bringing large business to Portland than helping small businesses, which are the backbone of our economy."
Eric Fruits: "A gentle criticism is he seems to focus more on tactics rather than strategy, in the sense that as an event comes up, he wants to react to it really quickly with a really quick solution that he can tweet about instead of having a long-term strategy."
TRANSPORTATION AND ENVIRONMENT
Mayor Sam Adams is a wonk at heart, and he's hoping to promote non-car transportation as a way to make Portland the most sustainable city in the world (a promise from his first state of the city address). But selling people on the benefits of bikes and solar power, and digging up millions in federal cash for streetcar projects has created serious controversy. In February, when the council unanimously passed the 2030 Bike Plan, what should have been a victory instead became a cudgel. Adams smartly fast-tracked plans to install $20 million worth of bioswales—green gutters that keep water out of our overburdened sewers—after realizing they also would double as traffic-slowing bikeway improvements. But poor communication led to an avalanche of criticism over "using sewer money for bike lanes," and it may have slowed momentum on the rest of the bike plan.
Randy Leonard, city commissioner: "I remember sitting in council, thinking, 'You're not explaining this well,' and it did blow up. It's a great example of Sam coming up with a great idea but being failed by his inability to explain it better. Maybe I'm being too much of a psychologist on this, but he should trust people more. Give them more information. When people are given the correct info, they generally will reach a good conclusion."
Chris Smith, planning commissioner and founder of portlandtransport.org: "The bioswale thing was obviously not the first implementation step we would have liked to see for the bicycle master plan. That's a case of absolutely sound policy that wasn't well communicated—so it became talk radio fodder. Anytime we're doing something innovative, we want people to think their dollars are working twice—not being stolen."
Rob Sadowsky, executive director of the Bicycle Transportation Alliance: "There's a little bit of trepidation or tempering on bike issues right now—perhaps over worry that [Adams is] perceived as bike, and bike-only. Yesterday a press release went out on climate change, touting all the great work we're doing on neighborhood greenways and it didn't mention the word 'bike' once. Know your audience; when trying to develop programs in areas that aren't very bike friendly, like Holgate, lead with the concerns of the neighborhood. But if a bike lane is in the works, tout that, too."
Sam Adams: "I was here when Earl Blumenauer began implementing the first bike master plan. Controversial then, controversial now. The sewer savings go to 'swales, and the more people learn about it, the more they support it. I'd rather be making good controversial decisions than be the kind of leader who hangs back and does the minimum."
One thing everyone can agree on: Adams is good at passing plans. While former Mayor Tom Potter seemingly could solve any problem with a committee, the joke about Adams is that he makes plans about plans. In addition to the 2030 Bike Plan and the streetcar plan, at his urging council passed a Climate Action Plan to slash greenhouse gas emissions locally by 80 percent. But turning the plans into reality has been tough. Adams is a big backer of the streetcar and pushed its successful expansion to the Eastside. But the plan is expensive—clocking in at $147 million, including $27 million in urban renewal dollars and $75 million in federal funds—and brought criticism that the local dollars could have been better spent elsewhere. Future streetcar lines to Gateway, along MLK and Sandy could cost $60 million to $190 million.
Chris Smith: "The two standouts in Sam's first two years would be the streetcar system plan and bicycle master plan. Those are important to have in place, but the question of course is funding. We're scraping together small funding for the bicycle plan—I'd love to see 10 times that. For the streetcar plan, it's important to have one of those corridors be outside the central city, because if it's just a central city thing, it won't work. I'd love to see streetcar as a catalyst to make something happen in Lents and Powellhurst-Gilbert."
One of Portland's biggest partners in transportation planning is Multnomah County, which currently holds jurisdiction over the region's Willamette River bridges. Over the past year, Adams got promises from Multnomah County that ensured bike lanes and room for streetcar tracks on the new Sellwood Bridge. And in a deal this fall, he even squeezed out some (possible) cost savings that will help fund the troubled MAX extension to Milwaukie. That was a good outcome—but he needed a key assist from one of his mentors, US Representative Earl Blumenauer, to bring it home. His tough tactics—including a late demand that Portland take over the river bridges—wound up enraging county leaders, nearly scuttling the project.
Jeff Cogen, Multnomah County chairman and potential mayoral rival in 2012: "The most important thing is that where we are now is a good place. We're about to sign an agreement in the ways that we need to make it so the Sellwood Bridge gets built. In terms of whether I would have done something differently or Sam should've—in hindsight, the communication wasn't great."
Adams gets points for standing up against the Columbia River Crossing—he wrote a letter last winter with three other political decision-makers on the project that argued how plans for a $4 billion, 12-lane bridge to Vancouver would cause unbearable fiscal, environmental, and social damage. When the bridge project staff wouldn't answer critics' basic questions, Adams and his staff hired consulting firm URS to dig into the bridge's finances and show that a 10-lane bridge would work just as well as a 12-lane bridge and save (only) $50 million.
Mara Gross, policy director at Coalition for a Livable Future: "The city-contracted URS report was important. But unfortunately, Sam ultimately supported a project that's a debt bomb and shifts the problems to other parts of the system. A commitment to real solutions would have been supporting a significantly scaled-down bridge or stepping back to re-look at the project and how it's designed. The letters sent by Sam and other elected leaders spoke very strongly about local community impact and yet at the end of the day he didn't stand up for the good solutions he said he wanted."
Joe Cortright, chairman of the Oregon Governor's Council of Economic Advisors, Portland Development Commission consultant: "My main advice is don't be mayor when we have the worst recession in 80 years. But on the [Columbia River Crossing], there are still some unresolved questions, especially with the financial risk, and the mayor should be pushing a lot harder on those. This project will suck up revenue that will come to this region for the next couple of decades. It will have a huge impact on our ability to fund any other transportation projects. It jeopardizes the ability of Portland to do a bunch of things the mayor says he wants to do."
PUBLIC SAFETY AND POLICE OVERSIGHT
It's called baptism by fire. On May 12, just hours after Adams announced he was seizing the police commissioner's post from Dan Saltzman—and also replacing Police Chief Rosie Sizer with Mike Reese—Portland cops shot and killed Keaton Otis, the third mentally ill Portlander to die in an officer-involved-shooting in 2010. It was precisely this kind of controversy that led Adams, looking to make his bones on economic policy issues, to take the rare step of handing off the job in the first place. So far, he's gotten just passing marks. Discipline for the Aaron Campbell shooting—Ron Frashour, the cop who killed Campbell, was fired last month—was pleasantly harsher than many reform advocates expected. Police union contract talks have been opened to the public for the first time. But some have questioned his commitment to fending off union calls for a weaker system of citizen oversight, something the city may trade for concessions on compensation. And advocates clearly hunger for more open communication with the mayor.
Dan Handelman, Portland Copwatch: "The failure of the second recall effort is what enabled him to take over the bureau, and that's led him to be less responsive to community concerns than when he was up against the ropes. He's been somewhat responsive—meeting with the Albina Ministerial Alliance, for example. And there's been some positive movement. He supported the effort to fire Ron Frashour and discipline the other officers in the Campbell shooting. It still feels like there's just more public relations going on. On the one hand, they're doing things that are good, but they're doing things that are also good for the police. Behind closed doors, a lot of the same old things are still happening. I'd say he should remember what it was like when he thought his career was in trouble and he seemed to be paying more attention and listening to people. I feel he was more open to the community back then, in some ways."
Sam Adams: "The reforms we've supported are important to me. So, drug testing? Yes. That's been part of our negotiations with the police bureau. I absolutely support that. Annual reviews for the first time? I absolutely support that. Those are all really important, given that police have the legal authority when warranted to use lethal force. The level of oversight that most Portlanders expect is right on point."
After a surge of African American gang shootings this summer, Adams was criticized in front of TV cameras for a lack of engagement. It struck a nerve—playing into long-held complaints that he's more at ease with green issues than those that are black and brown. In the weeks after, Adams held several closed-door meetings with community groups and brought forward two ambitious proposals targeting youth violence. One was a five-point gun control package that creates exclusion zones and youth curfews, plus new penalties for failing to report lost or stolen guns. He also resurrected a gun crimes task force slashed amid budget cuts. But the gun laws, while hailed by public safety advocates, have sparked concerns over racial profiling and whether they adequately address root causes of violence. Adams answers that a committee will be closely studying the new laws, and he also points to a nascent effort to start up a social services hotline for youths seeking a way out of gang life. Also connected to crime issues (and job creation): lowering high school dropout rates. Under his watch, the city has found money to seed job-site and college visits and fund summer education programs. But the rate of Portland Public Schools students who graduate on time remains a stubborn 53 percent.
Lew Frederick, state representative from Northeast Portland: "His approach is interesting, but it's not getting to the main problem. So far he's not alone in not getting to the main problem, so I can't blame him for it. We need some sort of acknowledgment of what the real problems are: We have an economic collapse in the Latino community and the black community. Yes, death and destruction and pain and suffering are taking place because of violence. But I've got to tell you: If you want to get right into the middle and tweak something, I would try to find a way to tweak things so we are seeing true jobs, not make-work jobs, but true jobs."
Mike Reese, police chief: "He's a consummate consumer of details. He likes a lot of information. He's been really engaged in that. He's also done some really positive things for the police bureau, like helping us navigate getting a training facility built, being there after the shooting we experienced my first day as chief and his first day as commissioner, being willing to take risks like with the gun proposals, being willing to put his political capital behind his ideas."
Reverend Chuck Currie, United Church of Christ minister and police reform advocate: "The buck stops with him, and that is how it should be. Unfortunately, he hasn't shown much effectiveness. The mayor's gun control plan, which I supported with some important reservations, was never fully vetted in advance by community leaders and led to unnecessary opposition. The mayor doesn't do a good job of community outreach and, as we know, often doesn't show up for meetings. He's the AWOL mayor. He was correct to fire Ronald Frashour, but has been inept when dealing with the growing number of concerns Portlanders have with out-of-control officers whose actions taint the work of all the good people in the bureau. In many ways, the self-inflicted political wounds the mayor suffered in his first month has left him powerless and the city without real leadership."
Anonymous police bureau insider: He's been actually quite engaged, and in an appropriate way. You always worry: Is a commissioner going to weigh in too heavily and get too involved? He's attentive. He shows up for our meetings, at least.
Here's a criticism of the mayor: He can't take criticism. Community and political leaders were happy to openly critique Sam on policy points but worried about retribution if they spoke up even with constructive criticism of his working personality. "Political style" is the human stuff—how the mayor actually is to work with. And it's one area where Adams has always taken a beating, even before he was mayor. When the Mercury sat down with Adams for this story, he bristled visibly whenever we mentioned his personality as a politician and would try to steer things back to where he's most comfortable: policy and programs.
Randy Leonard: "I've worked with three mayors, Vera Katz, Tom Potter, and Sam. And Sam has been by far the most collaborative and the most, I think, approachable in terms of council members being able to sit down with him. Because you have five politicians, each of whom would not be here if we didn't have our own ambitions and vision of what needs to happen. It is more of a challenge than it might appear to have one person be the head of the group and have all that work boil down into an agenda we can all agree on."
Anonymous city planner: "Sam has two ways of operating—shoot from the hip, hand it off to staff and move on. Then he has the way of moving very carefully and slowly, so that by the end, the opposition has either been co-opted or moved on."
Rob Sadowsky: "He gets hit from everywhere. Some advice for the mayor: Stop reading comments on blogs. Understand the limits of social media like Twitter and Facebook in that they're minute-by-minute pieces but it's hard to develop a full campaign around them... it can come off like ADHD."
While Adams sees himself as a capable juggler and multi-tasker, his critics (and even allies) say he's too overburdened to be as effective as he could be. They point to drawn-out debates and U-turns over Memorial Coliseum and the Rose Quarter and problems finishing the city's plan to protect the Willamette River from industry. Since adding the police bureau, he's got one of the heaviest loads for a mayor in memory. After this year's budget process, he's hinted he'll rethink the current distribution of bureaus.
Anonymous political insider: "A couple of frustrations in working with Sam—he can't focus. He's working on 17 different things at a time, and he can't focus on one thing at a time. He doesn't do what he says he's going to do. It starts on the little things, saying, 'I'll come by your office tomorrow,' and he doesn't come by."
Sam Adams: "We're focused on three and, more recently, four priorities. The work of achieving those priorities happens on an initiative-by-initiative basis. I don't expect the media, with every initiative, to tie it back to the goals we're trying to achieve. Don't focus on the echo chamber. Focus on what I've done. Every mayor is criticized for being unfocused. I'm sure there are mayors out there who are more focused than I am. But not many."
Friends and foes alike also paint him as overly sensitive, noting his penchant for battling the Oregonian as he begins to shape a potential reelection narrative. And sometimes, they say, he can get in the way of himself, becoming all too willing to extend a middle finger. Like when he called into O columnist John Canzano's meathead radio show, cavalierly attempting a policy chat on why it didn't make sense to spend $30 million-plus to keep the Portland Beavers in town. Some invoke his spat with Multnomah County, which almost killed the Sellwood Bridge rebuild. Others see his cold, matter-of-fact takeover of the police bureau, in the heat of the budget process, after Sizer ripped him in a press conference. Then again, the council under his stewardship, compared to Potter's, has been almost creepily harmonious. They've banded together for tough votes, on things like expanding social services or making budget cuts that have paved the way for the city's relatively sunny financial position. So does that make Adams tough, a jerk, or both?
Randy Leonard: "When you have a police commissioner who gives a green light to the police chief to go out and hold a press conference blasting the mayor in a misleading way, misreporting what the actual discussions were, I don't know what choice Sam had. Dan has to bear a lot of responsibility for what happened, and I don't think I've seen that happen. Sam would have failed as mayor if he hadn't done exactly what he did, exactly when he did it. For me, it was an important milestone in Sam's progression as mayor, in terms of demonstrating his effectiveness. If he hadn't done that, I'd have lost a lot of respect for him."
Anonymous political insider: "When you compare him with his immediate predecessor, Tom Potter, Potter was heralded like Caesar, but he came in and did nothing for four years. The Oregonian has put the target on Sam as you know. It's going to be death by 1,000 cuts by that newspaper. It's not really two years. Sam's got 18 months to pull it off. There are some formidable candidates out there, but I wouldn't count Sam out. He's a junkyard dog."
Anonymous city staffer: "It's hard to give advice to someone who's generally opposed to taking it. He needs to stop acting like a chief of staff, micromanaging and not trusting people, and start acting like a mayor. Getting things through his office is a pain in the ass, because Sam has to sign off on every little thing. He needs to worry less about how he's going to be criticized and he needs to let someone stand up to him, to tell him when he's crazy. He feels like he has to win because he always feels threatened. There is a level of bunker mentality."
Brian Libby: "The best thing I see about Sam Adams is he is boundlessly looking at new ideas on how to improve the city. He's the kind of guy who would be looking at a transit system in Germany at 3 am and email it to his underlings suggesting we try it, too. I think sometimes because he's an idea person, he can forget about the follow-through and taking [the necessary] time. He may email that German transit system at 3 am, but the next week it's something else he's excited about. He's very smart, very passionate, but he's not above succumbing to attention deficit disorder or vindictiveness. He definitely has human frailties."
When it comes to Adams, everyone in this town has an opinion. And when they talk about Sam, in bars, on buses, in clothing-optional hot tubs, mostly what they talk about is this: Will Sam run again? If so, does he have a shot? Will people open their pocketbooks? Voters rejected Portland's public financing system this November, so if Sam runs, he'll have to rely heavily on contributions that may not come easily. Although incumbency remains a powerful advantage for Adams, sources say potential rivals already are gathering pledges. So what's his answer? "I haven't decided yet."