IF I COULD HAVE ONE WISH come true for Portland this holiday season, it would be for a truly strong candidate for mayor. Over the past couple of months, I’ve interviewed the first three serious contenders—Charlie Hales, Eileen Brady, and Jefferson Smith—at Portland Monthly’s Bright Lights discussion series. All of them are earnest and knowledgeable. Two are charismatic. And one is very, very funny. But I’m anxiously waiting for one of them—or someone else—to put those key leadership needs together with two more: focus and spine.
When Portlanders talk about who they want to run their city, they usually shout out a list of what they want done, as though we were electing a CEO. The candidates, in turn, sound like echoes: let’s create jobs, increase safety, house the homeless, fix the schools, lower taxes, build more parks, and fill the potholes (the latter, please, only if you don’t block the traffic). Sure, a mayor might be able to make those things to happen—in other cities. In Portland, to get anything done, the mayor has to negotiate. To put it succinctly, we aren’t electing a boss; we’re electing a legislator.
Portland’s quirky governance is called a “weak mayor system” for a reason: the person who holds the title is just one vote among the five-member city commission. As many a Portland mayor has put it, to run the city, you have to know how to count to three. Former mayor Tom Potter never learned that fundamental fact. He confused being mayor with his old job—police chief. As a veteran staffer in City Hall, current mayor Sam Adams learned the weak game well, but, unfocused and further weakened by scandal, he has often been outflanked by other commissioners who play it better. Not surprisingly, the most recent mayor who understood the system best was three-termer Vera Katz—but only after realizing she hadn’t been elected queen. For Katz, being mayor was just another version of her old job: Speaker of Oregon’s House of Representatives.
Indeed, to truly thrive at leading Portland, you have to show the public a warm smile, a big heart, a well-stocked tool belt, and a road map, but inside City Hall you need wit, cunning, and backbone. You also need a willingness to wield the one extra power the Portland mayor has: assigning the other commissioners the city bureaus they will run. There are plum jobs (parks), the tough ones (fire and rescue), and the ones everybody likes to complain about (transportation and development services). The strongest of our weak mayors—for instance, Neil Goldschmidt—handed out bureaus like majority leaders in Congress might give committee assignments: in a strategic, if sometimes ruthless, exertion of control.
Among the city’s wonk class, scarcely a conversation starts these days without a mention of the race—testimony to just how starved the city is for a direction. Maybe Hales, Brady, or Smith will grow into a candidate we can truly rally around. But as their more polished campaign personae emerge after the holidays, enjoy the smiles, savor the promises, and laugh at the jokes—but then measure their weight in steel.
Editor in Chief