If you want to know how to make it in Portland City Hall, ask outgoing Mayor Tom Potter and watch him hold up three fingers, referring to the number of city council votes needed to pass any initiative. “That’s the secret to Portland politics,” he tells me. “You need three votes to get anything done.” Most city governments have a strong-mayor system, where the mayor acts as CEO and maintains authority and political independence on hiring, firing, and legislative initiatives. Here, the only difference between the mayor and the four elected members of the city council is that the mayor assigns all the departments and bureaus. The mayor’s presence may be huge, but his powers are limited: decisions require a majority vote of the council. Potter tried to change that system in 2007 but says, “I got my butt kicked”—Portlanders voted three-to-one against it.
The key benefit of the weak-mayor system, as the theory goes, is that the greater the democratic input, the less public harm a city’s elected officials can do. A disadvantage for Adams: he may have to become a better politician. Because each commissioner represents different city bureaus—Nick Fish, for instance, works with fire and rescue as well as housing and community development—budget time brings, in Potter’s words, “a lot of parochial thinking.” And money and collaboration have been challenging issues for Adams—fiscal ruin and personal conflict haunt him.
Wendy Willis voted for Adams—“Sam will make things happen,” she says—and while she will not talk about one widely circulated dustup with him, the incident endures as an example of the occasional difficulties of working with Adams. When Willis was the director of the City Club of Portland, she and Adams got into an argument about registering lobbyists—Adams wanted anyone who appeared before city council to register, while Willis felt that young volunteers who researched an issue and brought it to City Hall for only fifteen minutes of their lives would be intimidated by such a requirement. Adams berated Willis in front of her peers so memorably, witnesses still marvel.
And few can forget the tram debacle. In 2002, the council approved the plan to connect the OHSU complex on Marquam Hill to the South Waterfront by tram, to keep OHSU from relocating to suburban Hillsboro. Space had grown cramped on Marquam, making parking a hassle, and employees detested having to drive down to SoWa, where the hospital’s Center for Health and Healing is located. (“Do you know what it costs to keep a [National Institutes of Health] researcher stuck in traffic for half an hour?” Kelley asks.) The tram would zip employees to SoWa in three short minutes. The plan went forward.
When Adams became commissioner of transportation in 2004 and began overseeing the project, some relationships grew contentious. “As soon as Sam took over, the spirit of the project became aggressive,” remembers tram architect Sarah Graham, a Portland-born partner at the Los Angeles and Zurich design firm Angélil/Graham/Pfenninger/Scholl. “From that time on, everybody worried about the politics of the project. We went from excitement to fear. Everyone was worried about Sam.”
Cost overruns took the project well past its $15 million budget, to $57 million. “Stopping the project was going to be [his] claim to fame,” Graham says. Adams demanded cuts—using a less expensive exterior paint for the tower than the sun-reflecting tone the builders had chosen, for instance—but Graham refused. “We’d had a specialist study how the sun hits the tower 365 days a year,” she tells me. “We’d chosen a gray tone so it wouldn’t heat up. The experts backed me up. Sam hated me.”
Eventually, developers and OHSU stepped up and paid most of the cost overruns. The city kicked in an additional $5 million. The tram ultimately was a coup for Adams, if also a costly human process. “God help you,” Graham said when I told her I was writing about Adams. “He’s very vindictive.” One person I reached begged, “Please don’t even say you reached me by phone.”
Adams admits he was harsh with Willis. And when I asked why so many people declined to talk to me about him, he said, “People regard me as fundamental to their livelihood. That’s why they won’t talk. But I have a reputation for being impatient. I sat in meetings with Vera where it was clear people were putting the shine on her, just telling her what she wanted to hear. It made me furious.”