Sam Adams for Mayor Ad


CITY HALL is a beautifully restored little palace, an Italianate Renaissance wonder at SW Fourth Avenue and Madison Street. Completed in 1895 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974, the building is filled with a collection of original art—photographs, paintings, sculptures—that, for the most part, rotates monthly. The piece that never leaves is the one that hangs over Adams’s sofa. Kay, by Albina artist Alexander Rokoff, is an almost life-size Napoleonic painting of an African American woman in a white gown. Her feet are bare, callused—she is homeless; but holding a top hat and cane, she conveys a sense of grandeur. Kay is real. She came into Rokoff’s studio one day and said, “You paint everybody else; when are you going to paint me?” She is at once the image of poverty and plenty, both of which seem to shadow Adams.


He was born in Whitehall, Montana, to Larry Adams and Karalie Gibbons, the third of four children. His birth weight, ten pounds and eight ounces, made him an instant statistical phenomenon, ranking him in the ninety-ninth percentile of supersized babies. When he was two, the family moved to Richland, Washington; when he was three, they moved to Newport, Oregon, fifty-two miles west of Corvallis, on the coast. “We moved to a beach house beside a ravine,” his mother, who goes by “Kara,” recalls. “We had never been near a body of water—we relished that experience. In Montana, the outdoor world was what you do recreationally. In Oregon, it was to be marveled at and respected.”


Sam’s father taught special education, coached high school basketball, and operated a commercial fishing boat; his mother wanted to finish her college education—the University of Oregon, in Eugene, is about a two-hour drive inland. When Larry and Kara divorced (Sam was thirteen), the children stayed with their mother, and they moved to Eugene.


Their financial circumstances seemed to change overnight. “My mom, God bless her, persevered,” says Adams’s older sister Kim Adams, who runs a hair salon in Springfield. “We didn’t have a car, and she went to Safeway and she’d load up that grocery cart and wheel it home. I thought, ‘Get a car already.’ That’s a compassionate sixteen-year-old for you. She did what it took to feed us.”


On weekends, Kara Adams would herd her children into a borrowed car and drive to Portland—she was working on a bachelor’s degree in architecture and liked to study the buildings. The children knew Portland only as the big city from which they got their news; seeing it in person instilled in Sam a love for the bridges, the buildings, the energy of a city. “I am going to sound like a hayseed, but the buildings were so tall,” he tells me. “Portland has always been the shining city on a hill.”


This, in many ways, was Neil Goldschmidt’s Portland.