In the shadow of the Laurelhurst Theater on a recent Monday, Heather Spencer and Danny Cage stood in neon green shirts, with clipboards clasped between their hands and a question holstered in their back pocket: “Do you like Ted Wheeler?”
In their experience, it’s rare to find someone who answers yes to that question.
Wheeler, who assumed the mayor’s office in 2017, won re-election during the November 2020 general election, eking out a victory over challenger Sarah Iannarone and write-in candidate Teressa Raiford. But his narrow win, which garnered only 46 percent of votes in Multnomah County, has been a prime talking point for Total Recall PDX, a political action committee, for which Spencer and Cage are volunteers, formed with one goal in mind: to boot Wheeler out of office.
When Spencer and Cage approached folks on Monday, asking if they like Ted Wheeler, only two people said they did and refused to sign their ballots. From others? “No, we hate him,” says one. Another: “Nah, I fucking hate him.”
“Right, left, whatever, everybody thinks he’s doing a bad job,” Spencer says. “We may not agree about tactics, but we all agree that he sucks.”
Cage, a 16-year-old Grant High School student, says he got involved with Total Recall PDX after the 2020 mayoral election in which he organized young voter outreach for Raiford’s campaign. He says one of his friends ended up having menstrual issues following the protests in 2020 when tear gas was deployed nightly by Portland Police Bureau and federal agents. A class action lawsuit was later filed on behalf of two protesters and the advocacy group Don’t Shoot PDX; Wheeler, who is also Portland’s police commissioner, later issued a temporary ban on tear gas. Cage says he relays this story, as he did to a couple on Monday, because, “It wasn’t our mayor who stopped that. It was a nonprofit.”
“I like to be able to hear the personal stories,” Cage says. “There are some people who just don’t like [Wheeler], and then there’s other people who have either been attacked by cops or they have induced trauma because of his administration."
While the effort itself formed after the November 2020 election, volunteers, like Spencer and Cage, hit the streets on July 9 in an effort to gather 47,788 signatures—or 15 percent of the total number of Portlanders that voted in the 2018 gubernatorial election—in just 90 days. If Total Recall PDX hits it mark, it will force a recall election. How many signatures does Total Recall PDX have? They don't know yet, but promise to release milestones as they come.
Recall efforts and elections are not uncommon in local politics. Oregon City mayor Dan Holladay was removed from his position after a recall election in 2020, and Spokane Mayor James West was also removed in 2005. Down in California, voters are trying to recall their governor, Gavin Newsom. Here in Portland, this is the third modern day attempt to remove a mayor from office.
It’s tough to predict whether the organizers of the recall effort will be able to collect enough signatures to get their cause onto the ballot. Successful ballot measure campaigns usually require gobs of money to pay for signature gatherers (as opposed to relying on volunteers) and a certain percentage of signatures will be invalidated upon inspection (Donald Duck is, after all, not registered to vote in Portland.)
But in the mood of the populace, after a dragging-on pandemic, an extremely visible houseless problem that’s spread to nearly all corners of the city, and trash heaps that are only partly mitigated by cleanup efforts, there are definite signs of trouble for Wheeler.
In a 1,400-person statewide poll conducted in June by the Oregon Values and Beliefs Center, 83 percent of Portland residents said it was likely that the city would be back on its feet within the next year or two, a much more optimistic outlook than that held by residents outside the metro area.
But the current state of the city—and Wheeler’s leadership—came in for some pointed criticism (“Sadness personified” was one of the more lyrical responses when asked by pollsters about perceptions of downtown and the city as a whole.)
“It’s sad, lonely and empty right now, and still a beautiful downtown,” resident Ruth Alice Anderson told pollsters, about the city’s downtown core. “It’s just that there is nobody there right now because of office and arts/restaurant/attraction closures. Protest damage is in a very small area, but it is overrun with homeless and trash because no one is there. We need people to return for it to come to life again.”
Again and again, voters told pollsters they saw a city that was “suffering.”
“Homeless problems are a big issue,” said Debbie Bensching. “Protesters are being harassed by police. There is a real disconnect between police and the community they are supposed to be serving and protecting.... There’s a sense of hopelessness and desperation in the downtown area. Please take steps to heal the city, listen to your citizens, show them that you care.”
Portlander Bill Cox said he gave credit to Wheeler for being open to changing the city’s “weak mayor” form of government, in which the mayor is ostensibly no more or less powerful than other city commissioners. But that’s about it, he said: “It saddens me to see the homelessness, trash, graffiti, boarded up buildings, etc. I think [the city] will come back because the silent majority of citizens will finally rise and rebel. But, they have to quit electing clowns to run the city. They need to look for real, demonstrated leadership.”
So what happens if Total Recall PDX is successful? What if a recall election happens and Wheeler is booted from his position? What then and who will be elected? According to Total Recall PDX campaign manager Audrey Caines, what happens next isn’t necessarily part of their focus. “Beyond [getting Wheeler’s name on the recall ballot] we don’t have anything to do with the special election that will happen, and so what we just communicate to the people in the community is that that’s their chance to take over and make a decision that will be best for them.”
Spencer trusts that someone who is qualified will step up and perform the duty. For her, “It’s just kind of a leap faith.”
“Even in the event that we got a Ted 2.0, for me, that’s still sending a message to Ted and the rest of the city council that people who are not going to live up to their campaign promises, that are going to violate campaign finance [rules], all of those things are really important, and they’re going to held accountable by voters,” Spencer says.