While some have wondered whether the mayor will be able to overcome what one close observer calls the “class chip on his shoulder,” Adams says the inflammatory days are gone. He blames his earlier temper on sleep deprivation. “My mind was waking up 127 times a night because of sleep apnea,” he says. He has had three jaw surgeries since 2006 to relieve his symptoms.
LEADERS ARE typically driven by some element over which they have no control but that shapes their fate. Barack Obama’s single mother taught him a form of boundarylessness. Bill Clinton’s single mother taught him relentlessness. Adams’s single mother gave him an appreciation for the feel of cities. Yet somehow Kara Adams’s influence also may have incited a demon regarding the handling of money.
Kara Adams lived at the edge of solvency, and her son fell even lower. In 1990, when he was still attending the University of Oregon and working as an aide to Congressman Peter DeFazio, Adams, twenty-seven, fell deeply into debt. He owed $23,493 in University of Oregon tuition, in medical fees for an uninsured emergency appendectomy, and to pay for what he calls “an expensive lifestyle.” He says he was earning around $17,000 a year and getting paid erratically by the Oregon House Democratic Campaign Committee while helping put his partner through medical school in Mexico. His parents didn’t have the resources to help dig him out, so he filed for bankruptcy.
Adams’s Chapter Thirteen file shows he landed in debtor’s court not only because of the tuition and the medical payments, but also because he had grown attached to objects of glitter and comfort, like a $650 cell phone and a running tab at Dairy Queen. Under the arrangement with the government, he agreed to repay creditors pennies on the dollar. Of the $23,493 he owed, he repaid $3,578.
But then, in 1994, while working for Katz, he reopened his own case. “I had given my word to so many small businesses that I would repay,” he says. Adams says he wrote each of his creditors a check for the entire amount he still owed and, between 1994 and 2002, paid back every penny. He says Dairy Queen was so appreciative they sent him a coupon—for five dollars, which he has never used. In cases where the stores had gone out of business, he says he donated the amount to a charity in the business’s name. He repaid some debts by selling his Datsun truck to his father for five thousand dollars.
“I learned the humility of failing in a public way,” he says. “I learned what it means to let people down.”
The bigger question may be why Adams fell behind in the first place.
When I asked Sam Adams, “Who is Sam Adams?” he made me an unusual and, according to him, unprecedented offer—a look at what he called his psychological file. He handed me a manila folder: baby pictures, his birth certificate, diplomas from the University of Oregon and a Dale Carnegie course in effective speaking and human relations, and, most interesting, his Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test, which measures a person’s psychological preferences.
The Myers-Briggs, a popular human resources tool, is believed to predict a person’s ability to work in teams and individually. Adams’s answers scored him as an ENTJ, which stands for Extroverted, Intuitive, Thinking, Judging. Anita Taylor, a certified Myers-Briggs expert who administers the test to all OHSU medical students, sees the ENTJ as a series of contradictions.
“People can’t predict how such an individual will make decisions,” she says. “He’ll see the world as possibilities. NTJs are visionaries. You’d expect to find them in places like Google, not in city halls, which are slow, methodical, plodding places.”
The evaluation may help explain Adams’s focus, which has been mistaken for impersonality. One recent Wednesday, the door to the city council’s meeting chambers opened and in walked a line of about fifty schoolchildren, none older than eight. They glanced shyly at the commissioners, who looked kindly back at them—everyone, that is, except Adams. He was studying a PowerPoint presentation on truck routes.
“Sam falls in love with big ideas, big projects,” as Katz puts it. “He has to learn how to land from three thousand feet.”
And so here is the view at that altitude in Month One of Year One in the mayoral life of Sam Adams:
“A lot of ink and energy get exhausted trying to define Portland—why did it end up this way instead of like Topeka or some other place ordinary?” as he puts it in his campaign video, which still circulates on YouTube (though not nearly as widely as the one of him being lowered by harness from the tram). “I think it has to do with that early-day spirit. The country grew and prospered and became wealthy beyond anyone’s dream. It got older. But as it did, in Portland that young-nation spirit never died or lapsed into complacency.
“The people here just continued to believe in, and work toward, ever-loftier goals. The results are breathtaking, and everywhere. And now it’s our turn to take care of it.”