Illustration by Ryan Alexander-Tanner

TOM CHAMBERLAIN, the head of the Oregon AFL-CIO and an occasionally rumored political candidate, was seated somewhere rather conspicuous during the luncheon that accompanied Mayor Charlie Hales' State of the City speech last Friday, January 30.

Chamberlain was taking his meal just a few chairs from Hales himself, at the same table just in front of the lectern where the mayor would speak. That meant Chamberlain was one of Hales' special guests—with Hales poised to deliver something special in return.

He let it drop that he'd be tying himself, no matter how cautiously, to labor's local push for a $15-an-hour minimum wage when he puts out his budget this spring.

"So what else can a city, our city, do about economic opportunity? Another passion of mine: living wages for city workers," Hales told the grandees gathered at the Sentinel hotel. "This year we'll be proposing [in] my budget that all full-time permanent employees and contractors of the City of Portland make $15 per hour. It's the right thing to do."

That stagecraft, however, also left Chamberlain as something of a political scarecrow.

Hales—though he won't say so officially—is pretty clearly going to run for re-election. And he just sent one helluva message to rivals thinking they'd have a better chance at winning over labor, and especially labor's bounty of campaign assistance:

Keep away. It's mine.

That's partly bluster. While groups like Service Employees International Union Local 49 immediately cheered the mayor (SEIU was among the few unions backing Hales early in 2012), activists in the local 15 Now movement quickly reminded everyone that the plan still leaves out hundreds and hundreds of the city's part-time and seasonal workers. Hales' staff expects to spend just $1 million helping to bump pay for about 100 contract workers and a relative handful of full-time workers.

But the symbolism of pushing for $15 in any form remains plenty potent. It makes it more difficult for labor sources to dismiss the growing-if-grudging realization that Hales hasn't been as bad as they might have feared—despite some bad blood over the push to unionize park rangers and questions about Hales' support for front-line cops and firefighters.

And Hales, by nodding to progressive goals, might be hedging his bets after upsetting big wheels in the business community with his and Commissioner Steve Novick's paused push for transportation revenue. Last election's endorsement from the Portland Business Alliance, now that it's clashed with the mayor on street funding and other issues, may not be as easy to cinch.

Low-wage workers weren't even the only left-leaning or populist constituency Hales shouted out. He pitched tax breaks for businesses that hire returning convicts. He promised more affordable housing. He talked about places like Lents and NE MLK, and took on developers with threats to tighten city rules for demolitions and infill development.

Maybe we've finally met the real Charlie Hales. Or at least the Charlie Hales who's figured out that winning in Portland without facing a scandal-damaged opponent (sorry, Jefferson Smith!) means connecting with people outside the city's more-moneyed neighborhoods.