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Rose City recall last sank a mayor in the 1950s

The movement to recall Portland Mayor Sam Adams is an old method in a new scandal

Portland Mayor Sam Adams has admitted to a sexual relationship with a man who had just turned 18, some 24 years younger than Adams at the time of their liaison. The affair is a worsening soap opera in the Rose City, which a few months ago elected Adams with little opposition.

Adams lied about the relationship when running for mayor, and that is the ostensible reason some people are pushing for a recall, which would require 30,000 signatures to get on the ballot. A recall campaign cannot begin until Adams has been in office six months; even recall promoter Adam Berg says in The Oregonian it's a long shot barring some additional complications.

The last time Portland recalled a city official was in the 1950s. The reasons outlined in the recall petition were less specific than lying, and certainly didn't hinge on sexual orientation. Councilman Jake Bennett was recalled for, among other sins, "discourteous, abusive, uncouth, insulting, with personal, scandalous attacks, insults, ridicule and abuse toward respectable citizens ... " Some 58 percent of Portlanders voted Bennett out of the office he had held off and on for more than a decade, and the city hasn't had a recall election since that time.

Jake Bennett was unrepentant and actually stayed in politics. By the time I encountered him he was a discourteous, abusive, uncouth and insulting member of the Oregon Legislature serving a North Portland district. Jake was by that time long in the tooth and largely irrelevant, but never ignored. He served there from 1963 through 1969, struggling to his feet to rage against targets right and left.

Oregon was one of the early states to initiate the recall of elected officials, a populist version of impeachment — an official is removed by vote of the people, rather than the Legislature, as is taking place in Illinois. Initiated in 1908 (by initiative), the recall has been used six times in Portland, with only Bennett and Councilman John Mann (1932) actually removed from office. A number of other efforts failed to get sufficient signatures, according to Jewel Lansing's comprehensive history of Portland government, Portland: People, Politics and Power, 1851-2001. Multnomah County has used the recall four times, and all four targets — the entire county commission in 1924 and Sheriff Mike Elliott in 1949 — were removed from office by the voters.

Fervor for recall has been replaced by initiative and referendum fever, as Oregonians send a steady stream of measures to the ballot by signature. Populism hasn't disappeared, it's simply chosen a different outlet.

Floyd J. McKay, professor of journalism emeritus at Western Washington University, was a print and broadcast journalist in Oregon for three decades. Recipient of a DuPont-Columbia Broadcast Award for documentaries, and a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard, he is also a historian and holds a Ph.D. from the University of Washington. He resides in Bellingham and can be reached at floydmckay@comcast.net.


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