Portland throws a mayoral election. One candidate applies.
Watching the constant political clashes of recent years, Seattle voters could be forgiven for yearning for a simpler time in urban democracy. A time of so-called “smoke-filled rooms,” when a city’s power brokers and political bosses decided elections out of the public eye, selecting winners without any real input necessary from voters.
Well, the dream of pre-determined elections is alive in Portland, Oregon. And soon, a man once registered as a Republican will almost certainly become mayor of one of America’s most liberal cities, anointed by a virtual who’s who of Portland's political heavyweights for reasons that baffle close observers.
Since 2004, every person elected as mayor of Seattle’s southerly sister city has decided against running for a second term, following three consecutive terms by Vera Katz. The latest in this trend is current mayor Charlie Hales, who’d been expected to run a fierce race against Oregon Treasurer Ted Wheeler for a second term. Hales shocked the city when he dropped out on October 26, explaining he couldn’t campaign and be mayor at the same time. Wheeler was left as the only credible candidate in the race.
Into this vacuum, some fresh challengers were expected in short order. This is because the election could be finished after May's primary – under local election rules, anyone securing a single vote north of 50 percent wins the position. To raise necessary funds and secure endorsements, political consultants like John Horvick, political director of DHM Research, agree that contenders must jump in by around Thanksgiving. And the list of potential challengers is shrinking.
“Anything can happen, but the field looks pretty clear at the moment,” says Horvick, referring to a field that consists of one credible candidate. “Every day, it seems less likely someone will jump in.”
Following Hales' announcement, some of the likeliest contenders for the position have decided that the job isn’t for them. Hales’ apparent choice for a successor, Multnomah County Chief Operating Officer Marissa Madrigal, announced on Monday that she would not run. This followed a similar announcement last week by House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson, who represents the city in the statehouse.
This reluctance could be partially attributed to an early show of force by Wheeler. Shortly before Hales announced he wouldn't seek a second term, Wheeler rolled out endorsements from three recent mayors of the city: Sam Adams, Vera Katz and Tom Potter. These early endorsements were all the more striking given Wheeler’s contentious relationship with Adams – he supported a recall campaign against the former mayor after an inappropriate relationship with a teenager was revealed by Willamette Week – and the fact Katz endorsed Hales in 2012.
“Those endorsements were very surprising, and caught me off guard,” says Horvick. “Many people don’t have a sense of what that was all about, what to make of that.”
These endorsements and a healthy show of fundraising may have scared off Wheeler's potential rivals. But there's another reason he's the only credible person vying for Portland’s highest office, and so many recent mayors have declined to reapply: being Mayor of Portland is a crappy job. Adams' scandal is cited as his reason for not running for re-election, but those we interviewed agreed Potter and Hales may have just decided the job wasn't worth fighting to keep.
Being Portland's mayor means being blamed for things you don’t control, says Joe Baessler, political director for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees in Oregon. The mayor decides which of the five city council commissioners get authority over the city’s 19 bureaus. But otherwise, the mayor is essentially just another commissioner.
“Everyone expects the mayor to fix their problems, and blames them when things don’t get done,” says Baessler. “But the fact is that being mayor of Portland is a prestigious position with very little power.”
In a description that may ring a bell for some Seattleites, Baessler says that Portland residents “can seem polite, but it’s all passive aggressive. We can actually be quite vicious.” Hales experienced their mannered wrath on a number of issues, he says. Wheeler will likely face the same if he’s elected, if people feel he isn’t doing enough with his limited power.
Wheeler hasn’t been a registered Republican for years, and comes from the tradition of moderate, environmentally conscious Republicans who were once prevalent in Northwest politics. But at the same time, Horvick points out that he’s “a middle-aged white guy who comes from money, in a city that just had over 25,000 people show up for a Bernie Sanders rally. It seems like a moment that begs for someone to come in from the left side of things, and he’s not the guy.”
Portland faces many of the same problems as Seattle – outdated transportation infrastructure, an escalating shortage of affordable housing, and more. But should an actual campaign for mayor become unnecessary, Wheeler’s positions on these issues, and his very candidacy, may fly under the radar for many Portland residents. An easy victory in May could be followed by his laying low for the rest of the year. And come January 2017, Oregon's biggest city may realize it put someone in charge with few questions asked.
All Ted Wheeler pictures courtesy of his campaign Facebook page.