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Scott Bruun: An Early Look at Portland’s Mayoral Race

Wednesday, September 16, 2015


There is much to admire about former-state representative Jefferson Smith.

Smith is intelligent and articulate, with a solid sense of humor. That’s why it was disappointing four years ago when his Portland mayoral campaign foundered. Don’t get me wrong, Smith’s actual policies would have been ruinous for Portland. But his vibrancy, creative thinking and resonant voice were sorely missed in what would become a hum-drum mayoral race.

On the other end of that 2012 mayoral campaign, from a policy and personality perspective, was Eileen Brady. Unlike Smith, Brady seemed less drawn to the notion of larger city government simply for the sake of larger city government. Her business experience and perspective have long been the missing ingredients of an effective city hall. Yet despite her qualities, she was no communicator. She could never quite connect to Portland’s pulse, and her campaign suffered accordingly.

So that left us with affable Charlie Hales, the Goldilocks candidate. Not too hot, not too cold. The feeling at the time was not so much that Hales won, but that the others lost.

There was nothing particularly compelling about Hales’ pre-mayoral credentials or campaign. Yet politics is about looking forward, not back. He won the race fair-and-square. So even with our apprehensions, we smiled, forgot about the past, and convinced ourselves to be optimistic toward Portland’s future. Every elected leader deserves a honeymoon, after all.

Now four years on, with that honeymoon way back in our rearview mirror, Portlanders from across the political spectrum are realizing they got left at the altar.

Looking at the history of Mayor Hales and his rudderless administration, we see broken promises, poor decisions, and a propensity to capitulate at pressured moments. Under his leadership, city hall has careened from one disappointment to another.

Hales caved to left-wing pressure and did a 180 on the issue of a new, jobs-creating propane terminal. He was AWOL on the issue of Hanjin and the loss of hundreds of Portland shipping jobs. He was the poster-child for mealy-mouthed appeasement when Greenpeace hijacked a Portland bridge. And his handling of street repairs has been a case study in what not to do in municipal government.

True, Hales moved Portland’s homeless population. But our city has done embarrassingly little to address the habits and pathologies that incubate our homeless crisis. A meal and shelter are critically important, but they alone won’t solve the issue. It’s one thing to move people around. It’s another thing entirely to foster the outreach, recovery and transitional work opportunities that might actually improve the situation. In these areas, our city and our mayor have fallen short.

Perhaps at the heart of it, Portland’s Charlie reminds some of another Charlie: Charlie Crist of Florida. Crist was the Republican governor of Florida who effortlessly tilted whichever way the wind blew. In 2010, transitioning from a Republican to an “independent,” he lost the campaign for a U.S. Senate seat to Marco Rubio. Crist then wrote a narcissistic memoir explaining his continued transition, this time to a full Democrat. He ran as a Democrat, and lost, in a comeback bid for the governor’s office in 2014.

Charlie Crist is a smiling, affable guy. You can’t really dislike him. But at the same time, you know that whatever compass he may have will always point back to his own self-interests. In that regard, Crist and Hales have more than first names in common.

This is not good for Portland. Yet it is a tremendously good opportunity for aspiring mayoral candidates. A perfect situation for term-limited State Treasurer, Ted Wheeler.

To absolutely no one’s surprise, Wheeler announced his candidacy last week. He had to run for something, right? Sure, Portland City Hall is not quite Mahonia Hall. But for Wheeler, Hales is a much easier political target than Kate Brown would be in a Democrat gubernatorial primary.

Wheeler is intelligent, ambitious and accomplished. He clearly demonstrated his management chops at both the Multnomah County Commission and the state treasurer’s office.

Wheeler has made missteps, including his bad habit of applying wrong solutions to real problems. Cases in point include his plan to use bonded taxpayer debt to mitigate student debt, and his idea for a mandatory, state-managed worker-savings program. Said differently, Wheeler seems to default immediately to a government solution for every problem rather than working with community and business leaders to find real answers.

Nevertheless, Wheeler is quite formidable. No one, especially Mayor Hales, should underestimate someone who has literally stood on the summit of Mt. Everest – as Ted Wheeler has.

Wheeler may not be the right answer for Portland. But his bid to unseat Hales may create the real debate and contest of ideas that Portland missed four years ago and so sorely needs now.

Scott Bruun is a fifth-generation Oregonian and recovering politician. He lives with his family in the 'burbs', yet dutifully commutes to Portland every day where he earns his living in public affairs with Hubbell Communications. 


Related Slideshow: SLIDESHOW: Ted Wheeler Announces Portland Mayoral Candidacy on Rooftop of Revolution Hall

Oregon Treasurer Ted Wheeler was joined by the press and many close friends, family members, and supporters on the rooftop of Revolution Hall off of SE Stark so that he could officially make his candidacy announcement for Portland mayor in the 2016 mayoral race.

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Wheeler's podium before his arrival.

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A string of Wheeler supporters stood behind him during his announcement. 

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Wheeler supporters wait for his arrival.

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Representative Lew Frederick (D) from District 43 is a Wheeler supporter.

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A Wheeler staffer readies reporters for Wheeler's entrance.

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Media and Wheeler staffers at the announcement speech.

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A reporter at the announcement speech. 

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Ted Wheeler arrived on the rooftop to heavy applause. 

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Representative Lew Frederick (D) from District 43 gave the opening speech at the Wheeler mayoral announcement.

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The Portland business community turned out to speak on Wheelers' behalf. 

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The owner of Mother's Bistro, Lisa Schroeder, gave a speech in honor of Ted Wheeler's candidacy announcement.

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Lisa Schroeder and Ted Wheeler shake hands. 

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Ted Wheeler gave his speech with supporters surrounding him. 

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Mayoral Candidate Ted Wheeler spoke of repaving roads, helping the homeless, issues of racial equity, and resurrecting the "Portland weird" of former Portland mayor Sam Adams. 

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Supporters and media watched as Wheeler spoke. 

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Wheeler greeted supporters after his speech. 

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Wheeler shook hands with supporters after his speech. 

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Ted Wheeler's wife, Katrinka Wheeler, whispers something into her husband's ear as he thanks friends and supporters after his announcement speech.

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Ted Wheeler hugged one of his supporters. 

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Ted Wheeler's mother pets a visiting dog after her son's announcement. 

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"He's an ally to the LGBT community, he cares about making the situation better for the homeless -- and he has a long history of showing that he cares," said owner of Mother's Bistro Lisa Schroeder. 

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Katrina Wheeler speaks with her husband's mother as well as friends after her husband's announcement speech. 

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Media and Wheeler supporters stuck around after Wheeler's speech. 


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