Urban Achiever

This Rising Political Star Could Redefine the Portland Region

And you probably don’t even know her name. (It’s Lynn Peterson, and she’s taking over Metro.)

By Randy Gragg Photography by Nicolle Clemetson December 21, 2018 Published in the January 2019 issue of Portland Monthly

Lynn Peterson learned to sew before she was 10. She made dresses but took a bigger shine to ’70s jumpsuits—a pragmatic choice, and one she still favors when she can get away with it. “It’s like wearing PJs to work,” she says.    

Peterson has, likewise, crafted a career in politics of her own tailoring. Her next mission is suitably hands-on and geeky: taking over as president of Metro, greater Portland’s regional government. Peterson won May’s primary with a huge 56-point margin to clinch the office, her candidacy powered by endorsements of a caliber more often seen for a gubernatorial candidate: 80 current and former elected city, county, and state leaders, including both Washington and Oregon governors and the Vancouver and Portland mayors. Equal parts politician and super-wonk, she gave an election-night victory speech that swung from thank-you’s and big visions to “performance-based metrics for the region, so we can be very transparent about what goals we’re hitting for our people.”

Now—though most people have only vaguely heard of the agency and few could name its elected leader—Peterson is poised to give the role potent new force. For 30 years she has stitched cities and regions together through the oft-unglamorous fabric that binds them: transportation. A civil engineer by training, she has held top jobs at Metro, TriMet, and in Gov. John Kitzhaber’s administration. She then ran the Washington State Department of Transportation, playing an instrumental role in the largest transportation bill in that state’s history.

“Lynn is a really creative engineer,” according to David Bragdon, a former Metro president. “Plus, she builds coalitions. To get those talents in one person is incredible.”

Peterson’s big primary win meant she didn’t face a November runoff. But the fall election delivered even more momentum as voters overwhelmingly (59.4 percent) gave Metro a new mandate: $652.8 million to spend on affordable housing, estimated to produce 3,900 units.

Conceived in the 1970s largely to do long-range planning and manage garbage, Metro may be oddly suited to the task of addressing the region’s housing crisis and other sticky problems. It enjoys rare freedom from the vexing local governmental tangles of policing, homelessness, and social services—and, consequently, ducks the constant blasts of social media bullhorns aimed at city and county leaders. In relative obscurity, Peterson and the agency can work quietly to weave new policies. First stop, housing. Next, shaping what those who know her anticipate will be the largest, most comprehensive transportation rewrite in the region’s history.

“It is time for this region to put forward a transportation package,” she said at her victory party last May. “We have done so much with so little, but so many people have been left behind. So we’re going to raise enough money on our own to take care of our people the way we want to take care of them with our Oregon values: that it’s clean and green and affordable and equitable.”

At a time when city hall is suffering a malaise—an exodus of top bureau leaders, a mayor who has said he “cannot wait” for the last 24 months of his term to be up—Peterson could become a kind of mayor of the region. But with 24 cities, three counties, and 1.8 million people within Metro’s boundaries, Peterson’s drive, skills, and quirky charisma will be put to the political test.

“I’ve always benefited from a healthy respect for my own ignorance,” says outgoing Metro president Tom Hughes, who’s finishing two terms of affable, below-radar leadership that solved problems while rarely stirring controversy. “Making decisions in public compels you to be quiet. The danger coming in with Lynn’s background is that she already knows the answers to a lot of the region’s questions.”

On a warm, hazy August morning, Lynn and Mark Peterson and their three puffy malamutes, Nukka, Tikani, and Sila, lounge at Champoeg State Park outside their Airstream trailer, which usually sits at their Lake Oswego house. Since her mother and stepfather moved in about a year ago, Peterson and her husband have at various times camped in the basement, rented the place next door, and stayed in the trailer. Their new home (seen above, in progress) is nearly complete, one of Lake Oswego’s first ADUs: all of 800 square feet, with nearly as much in deck, backing up to the woods.

Where will the Metro president entertain? “What?” she exclaims, her voice jumping a register. “Build a bigger house for something you do once a year?”

The two 49-year-olds met at the University of Wisconsin as freshman engineering students, and married three years later. As a mere sophomore, Lynn jumped on her career train with a job at the Wisconsin Department of Transportation. Mark’s field—megapixel lens optics—is so specialized that only five US cities offered satisfying career choices. Wilsonville’s InFocus hired him in 1994. They settled in Lake Oswego for the equidistant bike commutes to his office and her early jobs in downtown Portland.

Friends describe the duo as nerds—usually “consummate nerds.” In the late 1990s, they built an electric car—from scratch—20 gel-cell batteries, 20-mile range. They ride a custom tandem bike, and sport matching tattoos of howling malamutes. Mark, a tall, muscular six-footer, also wears a 53-tooth bike chainring tattoo on his right calf. He answers questions with bullet-like economy. Lynn, a compact five-foot-four, pours forth with complicated weaves of history, politics, and management theories—even on the subject of their personal lives. Consider their dog choice: “Malamutes want to make decisions with you. You learn to work as a pack. Ask them to sit for no good reason, and they’re like, ‘Explain to me why?’” Her midwestern twang, sailor-worthy vocabulary, and car-horn laugh could earn casting in a Coen brothers movie. A marital tension? The sewing machine: Mark’s penchant for inventing large, ever-more-lightweight tents messes up the settings for Lynn’s clothes.

From her first Oregon gig—studying Highway 30’s capacity for the state Department of Transportation—Peterson scaled the region’s transportation bureaucracies like a competitive rock climber, while picking up master’s degrees in civil engineering and planning at Portland State. In 2002, she won a seat on Lake Oswego City Council; later, the Clackamas County Commission. She led the commission’s expansion and became its first-ever chairperson. She explored a bid for governor before John Kitzhaber opted to run for a third term in 2010. “It seemed like the right time for somebody younger with a local government background,” she recalls. After winning, Kitzhaber quickly tapped her as his senior transportation and sustainability adviser.

In Clackamas, Peterson’s vision sometimes extended to horizons the semi-exurban county’s far-flung voters weren’t quite ready to march toward. She pushed hard for the MAX Orange Line and a new Sellwood Bridge. Both eventually got built, but anti-tax activists put up billboards yelling “Protect Clackamas County ... from Portland Creep,” defeated a $5 vehicle fee to pay the county’s share of the bridge, and passed a ballot initiative against funding light rail. After Peterson resigned to join the governor’s office, the county commission swung hard to the right. She attributes the shift to the era’s Tea Party insurgency among rural voters. As dozens of activists protested issues as small as a tree code, sometimes she had to shut down meetings. “There are a lot of citizens in Clackamas County,” Peterson says, delicately, “who believe the benefits of government have not reached them. They were new to politics and didn’t know what to ask for.”

County Commissioner Martha Schrader, whose tenure stretches back to Peterson’s reign, describes the time as a backlash—and a warning for the future. She calls Peterson a “shooting star” in a Metro county where the rural-urban divide demands the “slow and steady.” “Lynn is one of the brightest people I’ve ever worked with,” Schrader says. “She’s driven. She’s a change agent. But politics is not about just the grand vision. It’s bringing people along. Shooting stars can burn out.”

As a 19-year-old civil engineering student, Peterson dreamed of one day running a state transportation department. (Remember: consummate nerd.) In 2013, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee handed her the keys. During a three-year tenure, she oversaw widening and new tolling programs for the giant floating freeway bridges between Seattle and Bellevue; revamped the ferry system’s creaky management; and handled the Skagit Bridge collapse and the Oso landslide. She steered the largest transportation funding package in the state’s history, $16 billion, with $1.3 billion devoted to transit, bikes, and pedestrians, plus an additional $54 billion authorized for Puget Sound light rail. Leading state legislator and budget author Reuven Carlyle described her as “the architect."

But six months later, architect turned political pawn. Even though Peterson had performed her job for three years, the state senate had never formally confirmed her. Despite overwhelming bipartisan support for her bill, a Republican senate leader who wanted to stick a thumb in Inslee’s eye snuck her nomination onto the agenda one Friday afternoon, with 15 minutes’ notice. Inslee was traveling. Peterson herself was in Portland, picking up the malamutes. Democrats pleaded. All sorts of elected officials fired off texts and calls in support, but her nomination sunk on party lines. Inslee’s office called the move “shameful.” One Democratic senator summed it up as “aim and fire, at an utterly unsuspecting and innocent victim.”

Peterson still breathes fast when recounting the events. “Most of all, I hated leaving the team,” she says. “There was not a day that went by that I wasn’t talking to the governor.” She had started quilts for a quintet of pregnant top staffers. “But,” she adds, “by Monday morning I was already on another track.” Smart Growth America, a Washington, DC–based advocacy organization, hired her to consult on projects such as bringing economic development and broadband to Appalachian communities.

“I got to continue what I was doing—practical solutions,” she says, “just all over the country.”

Reflecting on Washington state’s landmark transportation package, Inslee notes that 80 percent went “multimodal”—transit, bikes, and pedestrians. “Lynn is that great combination of a change agent and a hard worker,” he said by email. “She is incredibly knowledgeable and brought practical solutions to WSDOT that will benefit the agency and the state for many decades to come.”

Celebrated by planners and governance wonks as “the only elected regional government in the country,” Metro has a hazy public image. Its roots include the Columbia Region Association of Governments, which historian Carl Abbott describes as “miniature United Nations” appointed by region’s cities and counties. In the ’70s, CRAG took over solid waste and the Oregon Zoo. By public vote in 1977, with Clackamas County notably in opposition, it became an elected government. Two years later, it renamed itself Metro. Only in 2003 did it gain an elected president,

Metro now oversees a grab bag of services: regional parks, the zoo, recycling, the convention center, the Portland Five performing arts facilities, to name a few. Outgoing president Hughes recounts a recent day that began with a briefing on how a bull elephant needed sexual tutoring and ended with a meeting to allocate tonnage of solid waste.

But beneath this eclecticism is considerable—if seldom fully exerted—muscle. As the chief arbiter of Portland’s urban growth boundary, Metro can rewrite any city’s zoning ordinances. It can take over TriMet. Bragdon, in particular, steered Metro’s taxing authority to expansive new territory as president from 2003 to 2010, leading two successful open-space bonds with which Metro spent $363 million to buy 17,000 acres of high-value watersheds and land for new parks.

“The opportunities with Metro are in things that aren’t being done,” Bragdon says now. “We could take action without asking everybody in the universe for permission, and having 12,000 meetings.”

“Lynn,” he adds, “could change the conversation around transportation in a big way.”

Upon returning from Washington State, Peterson got a new tattoo: Alis volat propriis, “She flies with her own wings,” Oregon’s state motto.

“In Latin, it actually refers to cities and counties,” she contends. “It’s about a bottoms-up approach.” She bats away the suggestion that this very au courant tatt might be, say, future branding for a real run at governor. “Most of the issues I care about are local,” she says. “The feedback loop is quicker and more fulfilling. If there was a call to higher office, sure. But I don’t see that.”

Indeed, a political sea change across the region bodes well for, as Peterson likes to put it, “getting shit done.” The city of Milwaukie is now led (since 2015) by a transportation and climate-change progressive, Mayor Mark Gamba. Clackamas County has turned from tea party to technocratic. Washington County will now be led by a new chair, Kathryn Harrington, who is finishing her third (and, due to term limits, final) term on the Metro Council this month. 

On the council Peterson will lead, there’s deep experience: four members are in their second or third term. (The council has term limits, so no one can serve more than three.) She is joined by two other newbies, both coming in as experienced, on-the-ground organizers. From the west side comes Juan Carlos González, 26, the Forest Grove–born son of Mexican immigrants, who grew up in his father’s landscaping business, earned a degree from Georgetown with a double major in economics and government, and has been working as the director of development and communications for Centro Cultural de Washington County, a nonprofit that aims to support and empower Latino families. And from the south is Christine Lewis, 34, a seasoned political wonk who was the campaign manager for Portland’s 2016 $258.4 million housing bond campaign and has worked for the state’s Bureau of Labor and Industries.

“They’ve been waiting like the rest of the region for the next big thing,” Peterson says of her new young colleagues, “and I think the council is excited about that level of energy, about how to push on the next big thing.” Plus, she notes with a Midwest metaphor, “We’ve got at least four people who have history, which is important when you’re thinking about new initiatives, not going back and re-hoeing the same row that you thought you just weeded.”

Nevertheless, old-timers warn of upturned rakes ever lurking in the regional political tall grass.

“Portland is Oz, and we’re the outback,” says longtime commissioner Schrader. “People here are capable and willing to foment rebellion.” Hughes, formerly the mayor of Hillsboro and 30-year veteran high school history teacher, wryly compares that city’s relationship to Metro as “like Burgundy to France.” 

“Hillsboro is big enough, mean enough, and wealthy enough to go its own way,” he says, “and it bristles when it’s reminded it’s part of the region. Hillsboro has to be persuaded.”

Outside the Airstream in Champoeg, a pack of youngsters wander by and rally the malamutes in a group howl. Peterson sighs a bit over her imminent departure for the first of several listening sessions. She’s already doing early work on her transportation agenda: gathering regular folks to talk about their likes and woes. “We’re just trying to figure out where people are,” she says.

Peterson leans toward wide, systemic diagnoses of the region’s growing congestion. In her view, the main choke point is archaic policies: funding is almost always focused on big projects using money divvied out by the feds or states. “What fits their rules drives the agenda, rather than a vision driving the agenda,” she says. “We need to flip that around and ask, ‘All right, what it is that we need to have in five, 10, 15, and 20 years?’”

Meanwhile, as she gets ready to take office, a long line of projects is already forming that could change the metro area profoundly. TriMet has picked a path for its southwest MAX extension to Tualatin, slated for 2027. Woes over a costly needed fix of the aging Steel Bridge suddenly pivoted into public conversations about a new bridge over, or even a tunnel beneath, the Willamette River. Major highway projects are percolating for Washington and Clackamas Counties. A reboot of the aborted, massive, Portland-Vancouver-spanning Columbia River Crossing (though nobody now wants to call it that) is gestating. 

To ask Peterson about any of these specific possibilities is to elicit a long monologue punctuated by deep-background knowledge, but nearly always focusing on the basic needs of people. She quickly plunges into how the ODOT-owned Tualatin Valley Highway needs to be redesigned for its rapidly urbanizing surroundings, bringing up traffic-signal timing and turning radiuses for freight trucks, as well as sidewalks, crosswalks, and landscaping. “There are literally mothers with kids in strollers” now walking in “a ditch right between a highway and a railroad.” Asked to diagnose the 2013 political collapse of the CRC project, she smiles and says, “It starts with the first bridge”—built in 1917. She then recounts the history that foretells both problem and solution: Vancouver businessmen raised the first $2,500 for engineering, then led a parade through downtown Portland, chanting, “We need the bridge and so do you.” Portland ponied up; the Washington governor and legislature vetoed any funding; Multnomah and Clark Counties ultimately built the thing. Future success, she believes, will come not through state legislatures dueling over money, but through empowered local leaders working together across the border. She adds, “Metro’s a great place to be a convener.”

Beyond new rail lines, tunnels, tolls, bridges, and all the other attention-grabbing, angst-stirring prospects of a growing metropolis, Peterson foresees a more fundamental rethink about “access” to quality of life: housing, jobs, and open spaces. “I don’t plan just to plan,” she says emphatically. “But we need to start from way up: is this region resilient for the future? Not just for an earthquake, but for the growth that we’re going to see? And to make it a healthy place to live? We need to articulate the full need. Then, we ask the voters, ‘How much are you willing to pay for?’”

This may be the question that sets the tone and possibilities for Peterson’s term, starting January 1—and, maybe, whatever she does for her next job. In a time when grand-scale politics have become about spectacle and posturing, one of Oregon’s most promising leaders likes to focus on the engineering: how things get measured, made, and measured some more. 

In another phone conversation, Peterson is nursing a battered finger, swollen blue. As she and Mark backfilled some rodent tunnels in their yard, he dropped a flagstone on her hand. She excitedly turns the subject to the fabric she bought the day before at the discount warehouse Mill End for the “swearing-in dress” she plans to sew. “It’s red with a black undertone,” Peterson says. “It’s not shiny. I don’t like shiny.”

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