The ticklish task of recalling Portland's mayor

The city prizes its tolerance of gays, so those trying to recall Mayor Sam Adams will have to walk a fine line
Portland Mayor Sam Adams

Portland Mayor Sam Adams City of Portland

Like impeachment at the federal level, recall of an elected official is a two-stage process, and the first step to recall Portland Mayor Sam Adams began Tuesday when petitions were issued to force a recall election in the fall.

Adams has admitted to having a sexual relationship with an 18-year-old man, after denying the affair and asking the young man to lie about it during Adams' election campaign in 2008. This sounds like the saga of President Bill Clinton a decade ago, with a sexual liaison covered up, then exposed and sent to the jury as a lie. In the case of Clinton, the first step was impeachment by the U. S. House of Representatives; the second was trial with the U.S. Senate as jury. In the case of Adams, the first step is getting 32,183 signatures of registered Portland voters within the next 90 days; the second step is a citywide election, unless Adams voluntarily resigns.

The Clinton affair was pre-ordained; a rambunctious Republican majority in the House rammed impeachment through, knowing it would never gain conviction in the Senate. The Adams affair will be less easy to predict — a mass of voters is always less predictable than a well-organized legislative body.

As I noted in this space in January, Portland hasn't recalled an official in the last half-century. In that half-century the city, once staunchly Republican, has become predictably Democratic and gained a reputation for liberal politics. "Keep Portland Weird" reads one bumperstrip. A Portland friend, deeply liberal, complains that the city has become "The Soviet of Portland."

Certainly the city has changed, and most particularly in the number and influence of young people, who have flooded the city from other locations, bringing with them a libertarian outlook to matters of sexual preference. Adams was open about his sexual orientation in his 2008 campaign, and won easily.

Adams' cover-up, and coercing someone else to aid in the cover-up, may be another matter, however. Petitioners, or at least their leaders, seem to recognize this difference, pledging that the campaign will not be "anti-gay" but will focus on Adams' cover-up of the relationship. Whether the leaders can convince the 600-odd people they say are ready to circulate petitions to abstain from homophobic arguments is another matter. Adams' fate may well depend on how well organized petitioners are and whether they can conduct themselves in the politically correct manner Portlanders prize.

Portlanders have enjoyed the city's reputation for tolerance, quality of life, and leadership in environmental matters, but the Adams saga has been embarrassing at best and deeply offensive at worst. Poor judgment and tacky behavior might have been excused, but a cover-up lends legitimacy to those who feel the mayor will be plagued with his foolish behavior for his entire four-year term.

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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