"MARK WIENER IS A TOTAL ASSFUCKER," says a political insider, who has worked with Oregon's most powerful political consultant in the past.
"Don't cross the man. He's the one person in this business you don't want to cross, because he knows everybody and he knows everyone. There's nobody and nothing that is beyond his reach. He is somebody to keep on your side."
Here's a nicer way of putting it.
"Mark Wiener is the man in the shadows who's elected the majority of city council," says Jesse Cornett, who is running against one of Wiener's long-term clients, City Commissioner Dan Saltzman, in May's election.
Obviously Cornett is attempting to paint Wiener—Portland's most powerful political consultant—as part of Saltzman's "status quo" operation in a bid to win this election. To no one's surprise, Wiener begs to differ.
"There's nothing I do that I think is particularly shadowy," Wiener responds, during an interview last week at his office on SW Morrison. "I don't hide. I'm in the phonebook, and I don't try to influence public policy, one way or the other. So it would seem to be to be a comment steeped either in ignorance or self-interest."
And what about the opinion from our anonymous political insider? Is Wiener "a total assfucker"?
"Unless the person who said that had his or her tongue firmly implanted in his or her cheek," Wiener responds, "I would say that's a great misapprehension of my role."
Fair enough. But politics in Oregon is a very small world, and it's true that Wiener has a fearsome reputation. So how much power is too much? And is Wiener wielding his massive political clout for good or evil?
CONSULTANT TO THE STARS
In addition to Saltzman, Wiener is a consultant to City Commissioner Randy Leonard and Mayor Sam Adams—a majority of city council. He's also taken $56,000 from John Kitzhaber, so far, to coordinate his campaign for governor, according to campaign finance reports. Not all of that money goes to Wiener—he takes roughly a 15 percent commission from each fee and distributes it among the various people who work on the campaigns.
"I only wish I got to keep all the money that was in those checks," he says. "I wouldn't have to drive my crappy car."
Mainly, Wiener coordinates mail and web campaigns, but he also gives invaluable strategic advice based on his considerable experience.
Here in Portland, Wiener has worked for former Mayor Vera Katz, former City Commissioner Erik Sten, former "mean girl" County Commissioners Maria Rojo de Steffey and Serena Cruz, and incoming County Chair Jeff Cogen. On the state level, he has worked for at least 25 legislators over the last decade. But finding people to talk, on the record, about his services is a difficult task.
"I don't want to be super paranoid here," says the person who called him an "assfucker." "But I don't want this coming back to me at all. You're going to have a great story that's totally un-attributable, but honestly, that's probably how it should be. Because if you've got the real shit on Wiener, then nobody is going to want their name anywhere near it."
As it turns out, not everyone is as reticent about coming forward, and some of them even have nice things to say.
"Mark told me, very simply, how to hone my message and what I needed to do to win," says Commissioner Leonard.
So what's all this about being a "total assfucker"?
"Did they say that about me, or about Mark?" asks Leonard. "I deny it, if it's about me. As for 'don't cross him'? Here's what Mark doesn't like. He hates it when people lie to him. He's a very, very loyal person and he doesn't like people who are duplicitous, underhanded, or sneaky."
Wiener coached former legislative intern Beau Breedlove in early 2008, as allegations were first surfacing about his affair with Mayor Sam Adams. At this point, Adams was lying to Wiener and others about having had sex with Breedlove, and says his relationship with Wiener suffered when the scandal broke.
"Mark was mad," says Adams. "And he had a right to be, and to him went one of my first apologies."
Indeed, Wiener told Time magazine he had called Adams a "fucking moron" after the lies had been revealed, and that he was "pissed and saddened by it."
Adams says his relationship with Wiener is now back on track, and defends his consultant as "incredibly talented, smart, and hard working." He also says that the ethical line with Wiener is very clear, between working as a consultant on elections and working as a lobbyist.
"In all my years here—and he was Vera Katz's consultant—he's never said, 'I want you to vote this way or that way,'" says Adams. "Or 'I think this is the way to go.' With other consultants, that does happen—but not with Mark."
In an awkward twist, Wiener also consults for Attorney General John Kroger—Kroger's campaign wrote him checks for $50,000 for TV and radio ads in the 2008 primary—and Kroger was in charge of investigating the Breedlove scandal. But Kroger broke all contact with Wiener during his investigation of Adams.
"Nor have he and I ever discussed the substance of the investigation or the results," says Kroger.
Now Kroger and Wiener are working together again. But will Wiener continue to work with Adams if he runs for reelection in 2012?
"It's a long time between now and then," Wiener says. "[Sam's] got to decide what he wants to do before anybody else decides what they want to do."
And what would it take for Wiener to drop a client?
"In the context of a race, if a client did something I thought was particularly unethical, that could be a factor," he says.
And outside a race?
"If I genuinely thought that the other person in the race was better at the time, or somebody who I had an even longer-standing relationship with," says Wiener. "Those are tough decisions, but they don't come up too often."
Wiener was born in Brooklyn, New York. He graduated in theater from Portland's Reed College in 1978, and went back to New York where he worked as an actor and cab driver. He worked six years for Assemblyman Chuck Schumer, who is now a US senator, before returning to Portland. Initially, Wiener worked for Kevin Mannix, back when Mannix was a Democrat. Eventually he landed a job working for then County Commissioner Dan Saltzman in 1993.
Wiener impressed his colleagues with his ability to take his boss' remarks and "make them more articulate," says Mike Delman—who worked as chief of staff in former County Commissioner Gary Hansen's office at the time. But there was a steely focus in his work even then.
"He never misses a day in the office," says Liz Kaufman, who recruited Wiener in 1994 to work with her at M&R Strategic Services—a branch of a New York lobbying company. "He comes in the day after an election. He's shown up on Christmas Day. He loves to work."
Since then, Wiener has carved out a niche as the king of the negative campaign mailer—particularly in statewide legislative races—at his political consulting company, Winning Mark.
"Statewide campaigns involve talking to a smaller voter audience [than city campaigns]," says Kaufman. "Maybe there's 20,000 people who vote, and you've got to pick out some number of people who you're going to send a lot of mail to."
VICTORY AT WHAT COST?
"What does Winning Mark do?" says his company's website. "Whatever it takes to help our clients achieve their goals."
"Mark Wiener is all about winning," says Kevin Looper—who ran the recent Yes on Measures 66/67 campaign, which gave Wiener's firm about $800,000 in direct mail work. "And I'm certain—without taking sides in the race—that the one thing Jesse Cornett would like more than anything right now, than to campaign against Mark Wiener, is to have Mark Wiener working for him."
Cornett denies it. In fact, he once employed Wiener as a consultant on his campaign for Oregon Senate in 2006. And the experience left a bad taste in his mouth.
"I felt like he convinced me to sell my soul to the devil to win that race," says Cornett. "Mark had me convinced that the only way to win was to go negative. We did, and I almost won."
Cornett was running against Rod Monroe, who was campaigning for Senate for the 12th time. In a mailer for Cornett, Wiener brought up an article in the Oregonian from 1990, accusing Monroe of anti-Semitism.
"When he ran for state Senate 20 years ago, he blamed his loss on—believe it or not—'a lot of Eastern Jewish money,'" read the mailer, which went on to quote the Oregonian from March 13, 1990: "Monroe has told at least one Oregon lobbyist that he felt he 'was the victim of a Jewish conspiracy,'" read the mailer.
Cornett narrowly lost to Monroe—by less than 200 votes. But he still regrets that mailer. And Senator Monroe also remains bitter about it.
"They definitely tried to imply that I'm anti-Semitic," he says. "And I'm absolutely not at all. It wasn't from anything I said. Somebody said something in a newspaper, made something of it, over 20 years ago, and of course, they bought it up.
"I have never made any anti-Semitic statements, or anything that would imply any anti-Semitism," he continues. "[Wiener and Cornett] quoted somebody anonymous, who said something that I'd not said."
As for Cornett, he says he's learned his lesson.
"I never again hope to have [Wiener] in my employ," he says.
Wiener says that's not the way he remembers it at all—claiming he had Cornett's "enthusiastic approval" to send out the mailer.
"I believe that he was quite pleased and enthusiastic about drawing the contrast," he says. "Having said that, from a strategic point of view, he was probably right. If you're running against somebody who is much more familiar to the electorate—who is either an incumbent or has been—you're probably not going to win without drawing some sort of comparison. That's just the physics of a campaign."
A HIRED GUN
Wiener's mailers may be brutal, but they're effective.
"What Mark does very well is pushing effective messaging without it coming back to the people he works for," says a campaign expert who wishes to remain anonymous, because he's "got to work in this town." For example, on the mailer accusing Monroe of anti-Semitism, the words "Jesse Cornett" only appeared twice, in 12-point type on the other side of the card.
Nevertheless, even Wiener's detractors agree that he's better than anybody at isolating a phrase that will motivate voters. For example, when he sent out mailers against former Mayor Tom Potter's efforts to make a strong mayor system to replace Portland's commission form of government, Wiener put a picture of George W. Bush next to the words, "We have already seen what happens when we give too much power to one man."
"I respect Mark's work," says City Commissioner Nick Fish, who lost two campaigns—Leonard's and Adams'—that were coordinated by Wiener, before finally winning the race for Erik Sten's vacant city commissioner seat in 2008.
Even City Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who successfully ran with public financing money on a "community involvement at city hall" platform in 2008, says she would have hired Wiener for her race, "if he had been willing." She even met with Wiener to discuss it—but he turned her down, and ended up staying out of the race entirely. Why?
"Well, I try to be careful about my bandwidth," he says, meaning he doesn't like to take on too much at once.
"I like Amanda and met her a couple of times, and I gave her a lot of advice for free," he continues. "And I did end up voting for her in the general—but yeah, nothing against her whatsoever."
"I think he's very tied in to who's going to pay, and it's his living," says another political candidate who has worked with Wiener in the past. "And who's going to pay tends to be the people who are going to win. He's also very tied to labor campaigns because they're also well funded, or to clients who have a deep funding base. Like, Dan Saltzman—he's tight with him, because Dan Saltzman's going to cover his bills."
What does Wiener think of Portland's Voter-Owned Elections, which financed Fritz and are financing Cornett and are slated to be on the ballot in November? Again, it's a "bandwidth" issue, he says.
"It would seem difficult that this is one I'd take on," he says. "Particularly in a busy general election, where other things are happening for me."
CHICKEN AND EGG
Having Wiener as a campaign consultant tends to intimidate rivals, particularly in busy primaries.
"When you have Mark on your side, people are more likely to support you," says the former candidate who worked with Wiener in the past. "Because he's perceived as a winning consultant—to have picked the winning side."
Wiener defines his politics, broadly, as "progressive," although he's nervous about "rigid ideologies." Nevertheless in the past, his mailers have called out candidates for apparent weaknesses, weaknesses that are shared by Saltzman in his race against Cornett.
When Wiener designed mailers for Charlie Ringo against right-winger Bill Witt for the Oregon Senate campaign in 2002, he latched onto Witt's commitment to Major League Baseball, for example.
"With our schools in trouble Bill Witt had two words to say..." read the mailer. "Play ball!"
School cuts had harmed our "kids, our community, and our future," read the mailer. "And what was Bill Witt working on? He was leading the effort to spend $150 million in public money on a baseball stadium. Apparently, Major League Baseball held a little more appeal than solving the problems with our local public schools."
Replace the words "baseball" with "soccer" and "public schools" with "the police bureau," and you have two of Saltzman's biggest campaign weaknesses, in a nutshell.
Wiener, of course, disagrees.
"I thought the deal being proposed for Major League Baseball [MLB] was very different from the deal that has been struck for Major League Soccer," he says. "The issues surrounding them were very different. For example, the deal for MLB, had it gone through, could well have reduced the amount of money available for schools.
"One of the things I appreciate about Dan is he stood up and said 'no urban renewal money' for this deal," Wiener continues. "So right there, if you just want to take the substance, the two deals are very, very different."
Many of those the Mercury talked to for this article became most animated when asked if Wiener is about "defending the status quo."
"When he worked for me against Jeff Merkley, I'd hardly say that was about the status quo," says Steve Novick, who ran for US Senate.
And Wiener points out that he has worked for upstart candidates in the past like Erik Sten or Jeff Cogen—who had never run for office before when he ran for county commissioner—not to mention Kroger for attorney general.
"Every election is about a choice between two people and I do try very hard to pick the person who, I think, is better," he says.
Which would make Wiener sound reasonable, likeable, even... winning... if it weren't for the elephant-shaped "assfucker" comment echoing around the room.
And while the comments about Wiener's awesome power may be, in part, the exaggerated product of political jealousy, I couldn't help but wonder: Is Saltzman "better" than Cornett in this race because he's a millionaire incumbent with a solid record for paying his consultant's bills on time?
The voters, of course, will get to deliver their verdict on May 18.
CLICK HERE to download a copy of the Mercury's full interview with Mark Wiener.