REVERED AND REVILED, but never ignored, Randy Leonard has been Portland’s blue-jeans-wearing, git-out-the-way-I’m-gittin’-it-done politician for 18 long years—nine in the legislature, then nine on city council. Soon he will be out. No lobbying, no consulting. Done. The irascible water bureau chief leaves behind a long trail of political wins and bruised opponents. But last year, he took a brutal hit with the tragic suicide of his adult daughter, who had long struggled with drug addiction. When he retires from Portland City Council this year, the former fire lieutenant is planning to do something uncharacteristic: cool his heels.
WHAT’S HELPED ME and hindered me in my career is my ability to be decisive. As process-oriented as people think Portland is now, 10 years ago it was a lot worse. When I was a lieutenant, if I was the first company arriving to a fire, what I wouldn’t do is call around to all the other firefighters and ask them how they felt about the fire: “How do you think we oughta get that person outta that window?” You’re trained to make decisions—and to make them quickly.
IRONICALLY, one of the positive things coming out of a career in the fire service is you recognize early on that there’s finality to life. You recognize there isn’t a lot to be afraid of when you’re alive. What’s the worst that can happen? You lose an election?
MY JEAN CLOSET IS GREAT. I used to be really snobby about it, I used to only buy Levi’s 501s. But now I buy ’em at Costco, and they’re $12.95. I’ve never talked about it with Kitzhaber, but I’d show up to his office looking like this, and he’d be looking like this, and we’d pull out a bottle of Wild Turkey and we’d have a shot and talk about Republicans.
“LIMOUSINE LIBERALS” was the quote I used, I think, when I was running for office in 2002. I don’t think it’s gotten any better, and it’s quite possibly gotten worse. I’m wondering if Portland is out of touch with reality.
I DON’T THINK there’s anything I regret having moved too fast on. When I moved fast, it was for a reason. I don’t inherently move quickly, I do it as part of a strategy.
I HAVE 13-YEAR-OLD GRANDSON, Cole, who I help parent, so that’s become a priority in my life. I’m probably not going to do any of the things I thought I would do until he graduates from high school. I’ve said many times that if I had to do it all over again, I would have waited until I was, like, 40 to start having kids. I felt like I was just more focused, patient, and present as I got older. I missed a lot of my kids’ stuff because I was at the fire station.
MY DAUGHTER KARA struggled with addiction issues for years, and that explains a lot of why I focused on the things I did before her death: getting people into treatment and some of the more nuanced approaches in those efforts. Sometimes just offering treatment and a place to stay is not enough—you have to force a person to recognize that they’ll be in jail or choose one of those options.
I’M NOT EVER GOING to look for a job. I’ve struggled to get to a place where my car is paid for, where I don’t owe credit card bills. I turned off my cable TV. I know in the worst of all scenarios, I can make my house payment and do the things I need to do with Cole. I don’t really care for extravagant vacations or fancy cars. I drive a Jeep Liberty diesel that I burn biodiesel in. It gets pretty good mileage. I’m by no means well-off, but I can pay my bills.
I’M INTRIGUED by people who continue to run for office in their 70s. Don’t you have other things you’re interested in? I’ve done the things I want to do, but at the end of the day, it’s a job. And I recognize that we each only have so many years on this earth. I want to do something different.