The Magazine

Total Recall

The bid to oust America's most leftwing mayor.

Sep 21, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 01 • By ETHAN EPSTEIN
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Portland, Oregon

In recent years, Portland has become a fêted city among American liberals. What with its "fair-trade" coffee fixation, strict urban development rules, and bike-friendly transportation policies (despite its famous hills and rain), this sleepy corner of the Pacific Northwest has come to epitomize the bobo ethos. The election last November of an ultra leftist mayor only confirmed the progressive march of what was once a conservative logging town.

Now, less than a year into his first term as mayor, Sam Adams finds himself in hot water, fighting for his political life against a tenacious, grassroots recall campaign.

Adams's possible downfall is the result of yet another political sex scandal. During the mayoral campaign, questions were raised about the candidate's relationship with a male legislative intern who was 17 when Adams, a member of the city council, was 44. The candidate vehemently denied any untoward behavior, labeling the allegations, in true John Edwards fashion, "scurrilous" and imputing homophobia to his accusers. The story died down, and with the support of the city's political and media establishment, Adams carried a healthy 58 percent of the vote.

The honeymoon was brief. In late January, just days after the mayor's inauguration, a local alternative paper confronted Adams with evidence of an affair. He was forced to admit that he had, in fact, had a sexual relationship with the intern, one Beau Breedlove. And he admitted not only lying to the public, but asking Breedlove to lie publicly as well. Adams, however, denied breaking any laws, claiming the two had only been "friends" while the intern was underage. Adams asserted, moreover, that the teenager had "initiated," and was therefore responsible for, the liaison.

Within days, Portland's daily newspaper, the Oregonian, its two largest weeklies, and its leading gay magazine had demanded that the mayor resign. The state attorney general initiated a criminal investigation into the possibility of statutory rape, spurred by Breedlove's contention that he and Adams were involved before he turned 18. A grassroots campaign to recall the mayor, spearheaded by a local college student, took off. But Adams, after a brief "period of reflection," declined to step down.

His short tenure in office has been marked by myriad failures: confusion over the siting of a planned baseball stadium, constantly shifting plans for a new bridge to Vancouver, Washington, and high unemployment. Even the proudly environmentalist mayor's plan to charge shoppers for using plastic bags has gone nowhere. And while Adams will not be indicted (the attorney general's office could not corroborate Breedlove's claim), the recall campaign continues.

Some 500 volunteers are circulating petitions all over Portland demanding a vote. Facing an October 5 filing deadline, they have collected nearly half of the required 32,000 signatures.

The recall campaign is deliberately positioned as nonideological. Jason Wurster, the Portland State University undergraduate who is leading the effort, is a self-described "progressive" and "member of the bicycling community." He got his start working on political campaigns during Ralph Nader's 2004 bid for president.

The message of the campaign is simple: Adams abused his power by having a sexual relationship with a teenage intern, then broke the public trust by lying about it. While Portland's few conservatives are largely backing the effort--Wurster estimates that about half the campaign's volunteers are on the right--ideology may not be what motivates them. Says Wurster, "This is about restoring public trust in government."

That message has not stopped angry defenders of Adams from harassing campaign volunteers. Last month, a local journalist approached a signature collector, claimed he wished to sign the petition, and then scribbled all over the sheet, invalidating signatures in the process. Other volunteers have been subjected to profanity-laced screeds including the omnipresent charge of "homophobia" from passersby. Adams himself has kept his response to a minimum, but Randy Leonard, Portland's city commissioner and a close ally of the mayor, has made profanity-laden charges imputing bad faith to recall volunteers.

With mere weeks until the petitions come due, it remains to be seen whether enough valid signatures will be collected to put the measure on the ballot. If it does come to a vote, the result will show just how far the people of Portland are willing to extend their ballyhooed "tolerance."

Ethan Epstein is a writer in Portland, Oregon.