Sam Adams, Mayor of Portland
since January 2009

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Portland Mayor Sam Adams
works to re-build public trust

By Brian Baker, Senior Correspondent

27 Janaury 2009: Sam Adams became mayor of Portland on January 1st 2009. The former chief of staff to Mayor Vera Katz had been a city commissioner during Tom Potter’s tenure. He was elected in May 2008 at the primary election when he obtained 59 per cent of the vote on a high turn-out exceeding 60 per cent and obviated the need for a November run-off.

Update 29 July 2011: Mayor Sam Adams announced that he would not seek re-election for a second term in November 2012.

With such a long-lead time it was not surprising that Adams had prepared an economic recovery plan to help Portlanders deal with the global recession and this was unveiled on January 13th 2009. He also published an extensive set of commitments for his first 100 days

But all this was put on hold on January 18th after rumours that he had had sexual relations with then 17 year old Beau Breedlove, an Oregon intern, in 2004, re-surfaced. Whilst Mayor Adams still denies this, he has now admitted to a sexual association between the two men when Mr Breedlove was 18 and that he lied about that in July 2007.

For a week Sam Adams stayed away from his office and considered his options. Meanwhile, the Oregon State Attorney announced that he had ordered an investigation into the events in 2004. It is a criminal offence to have sex with a minor under the age of 18 in Oregon.

Although many in Portland, including much of the business and media worlds, urged him to resign, Mayor Adams announced on the 24th January that he would continue and returned to work on January 26th.

In a statement he said “ I know l have let you down. And l ask for your forgiveness. I believe l still have a very positive contribution to make at a time of the worst recession for 60 years. I know Portlanders will not rely on my words and will look to my ability to deliver results in the coming months. I look forward to working with all of you to make sure that Portland moves forward.”

The Oregonian Political Reporter Anna Griffin wrote after his decision to stay on that “ the task will be difficult. Adams must re-think his approach and possibly scale down the scope of his vision if he is to succeed. If he is to work with colleagues now he will have to stop turning up late at meetings and learn not to hog the camera at city council and other events.”

Sam Adams is the first openly gay politician to be elected to lead one of the 30 largest cities in the US. This had not emerged as a factor in the election campaign in 2008 in part because the rumours about his association with Mr Breedlove had been quashed the previous year before he declared his candidacy. The media tip off at the time was traced back to businessman Robert Ball who was then a possible mayoral candidate. After the publicity about the ‘ slur ‘ he decided not to run.
The Portland Job Creation and Business Stimulus Package focuses on short-term actions notably by rolling forward as much as possible of the city council’s pipeline of planned capital infrastructure programme and extending loan programmes for small businesses and tax breaks for investors. Re-training for job seekers was also boosted...

Mayor Adams claimed that this $0.5 billion package would create or protect almost 5000 jobs and save 6% in construction costs by taking advantage of current lower bidding rates.

A high proportion of the spending is on water and sewerage with a new $138 million reservoir and $167 million in sewer system upgrades but a $3 million park and a $4 million greenway in the emerging South Waterfront area were also fast-tracked.

Sam Adams has direct control of the planning and transportation portfolios, financial management and emergency management. In a re-organisation of the council’s structure he has merged the Bureau of Planning with the Office of Sustainable Development into a Bureau of Planning and Sustainability under the leadership of Susan Anderson.

The budget processes have also been changed by Mayor Adams. Programmes must now be ranked by the department’s mission and by popularity with those scoring least likely to be dropped or deferred. There were cuts in revenue budgets for 2009 reflecting reduced income to the council during the recession.
In his campaign he emphasised education, notably reducing the high school drop-out rate, completing more sustainable transportation schemes and attracting more businesses, notably those in the expanding clean energy sector, to the city.

Throughout his career as a political official and city council member Adams has been fascinated by policy detail. During his 2004 contest for the council seat he campaigned with a placard saying vote for the wonk. According to Anna Griffin, “he works and he gardens.” He lives in a 1920’s house in Kenton, a fairly working class neighbourhood in the north of the city.

Whilst he has consistently burnished his green credentials he has been equally adept in promoting a business-friendly tone. He has described himself, and been described by others, as a mainstream politician. In Portland, more than any other US city, it is possible to be radical on sustainability policies and action whilst being pro business and cautious about finance and taxation.

Sam Adams was born in Montana in September 1963. After his parents separated he lived with his mother and three siblings in Eugene, Oregon where they relied for a time on food coupons. Family life was difficult for a while and Sam lived alone for some of his high school years. He subsequently went to the University of Oregon.

Whilst a student there he worked as an intern in Congressman Peter DeFazio’s campaign. He later worked for DeFazio, still an Oregon member of the House of Representatives, in the late 1980’s and subsequently for the Oregon State Democrats caucus and its then legislative leader Carl Hosticka.

In 1991 Vera Katz chose Adams to be her campaign manager in her mayoral contest and his efforts were rewarded when after her victory he subsequently became her Chief of Staff. The youngest Chief of Staff ever in Portland he served in this position for 11 years before leaving to prepare for his entry into elected politics.

His emphasis on partnership between the institutions and the citizenry was evident in his high visibility around the city’s numerous neighbourhood and community associations throughout his four years as a city council member.

Sam Adams also built on the business friendly reputation he had acquired whilst working at the heart of the machine for Mayor Katz. And he demonstrated a acute sensitivity to the nuances of Portlanders by opposing Mayor Potter’s attempt to secure extra powers for the mayor’s office in a 2006 ballot which lost heavily.

Tom Potter had appointed him Commissioner for Utilities which gave him control of the Transportation Department. He used this to promote bicycle infrastructure in the city , he is a regular cyclist himself, and added to his reputation for efficiency by re-establishing financial and delivery time control over the aerial tram project which had been over budget and behind time.

His prudence in financial matters reflects problems in his own past. In the 1980’s he had to declare himself bankrupt.

The content of the 100 days programme demonstrated his determination to be outward looking whilst also supporting grass roots involvement and initiatives and to sustain but also effectively manage council services. Several pledges in the programme reinforced the strength of Portland’s neighbourhoods and the city’s traditions of civic involvement and volunteering.

He plans to make annual trips to both Asia and Europe to network, learn and promote Portland’s businesses. Mayor Adams is also driving forward with region wide initiatives including creating a regional economic strategy council and, more widely, to develop co-operation between Portland, Vancouver BC, Seattle and San Francisco in a North West Coalition of Progressive Cities.

Aware that those US cities which prepare best for life after the recession will have a competitive edge when investors start looking for projects again Adams is making it a priority to resolve a stalled convention center hotel scheme and to progress the development of a signature retail street in the downtown area.

The stimulus package included removing a cap on tax breaks for developments close to transit hubs. He will hope that measures to help local business to weather the recession will ensure the sector’s support for expensive projects, notably in sustainable transportation.

His commitment to making Portland a place of sustainable mobility dates back to the beginning of his time with Vera Katz. In 2008 he told Rotarians that “ a great transportation system never guarantees a great city but a lousy transportation system always guarantees a lousy one.”

Mayor Adams wants an early start on a Eastside streetcar line and to secure all the funding to construct a Portland-Milwaukie light rail line which will include a new transit, bicycle and pedestrian crossing of the Willamette river in the south of the city.

Meanwhile, a new Gibbs Street pedestrian bridge over the Interstate 5 freeway, which will connect a stressed poor area blighted by the elevated road to the emerging South Waterfront area, is one of the public sector projects fast tracked in 2009.

Un-phased by the pressure he is likely to be under from the city’s large green lobby Sam Adams said at his January 5th 2009 public inauguration event that “ Portland is the ideal starting place for this nation to get serious about environmental sustainability. We can show what’s possible, setting an example the rest of the world can follow. And we can prove sustainability pays off.”

To that end he has drawn widely on expertise in the region’s academic, business and trade unions sectors to set up a Planning and Sustainability Cabinet which he chairs himself.

But all of that ambitious agenda is now conditional on the mayor regaining the trust of his colleague commissioners and senior staff and the wider Portland communities.

Vera Katz, described by Anna Griffin as his ’ surrogate mother’, said after he announced his decision to continue that “ this is going to be exceptionally difficult. This time has been humiliating and distracting and it is all his own fault.”  

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