There are plenty of unknowns in the ongoing campaign to recall Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler.
To wit: Will organizers, enthusiastic if not well funded, manage to collect enough signatures to get their efforts onto Portlanders’ ballots?
If they manage that, can they persuade enough city residents to vote out Wheeler—who won reelection last November with a plurality, not a majority—without having another mayor in place?
And the $64,000 question: if Wheeler is unseated (which would make him the first Portland mayor even to lose his seat via recall), who might replace him?
Portland Monthly spoke with a handful of city hall insiders—former employees, political consultants, registered lobbyists, and more, all of whom were granted anonymity to be able to speak candidly—to get the skinny on who might be waiting in the wings, should all the dominoes fall against Wheeler. (And given the mood of the city, anything seems possible right now.)
Here’s a cheat sheet to the top contenders whose names are being ever-so-quietly floated.
City Commissioner Carmen Rubio: Rubio, new to the city council this January, at first doesn’t seem like the likeliest mayoral candidate. But think again: she knows both the city and county well, having served as a staffer under former Mayor Tom Potter and City Commissioner Nick Fish, as well as on the staff of former Multnomah County Commissioner Serena Cruz. Her time as head of the Latino Network gives her access to a broad swath of the city’s donor class and nonprofit infrastructure. Her current bureau assignments include Portland Parks & Recreation, perhaps the warmest and fuzziest of any city-run portfolio (even if signing up for swim lessons is a blood sport). Most important, she has a reputation for behind-the-scenes consensus-building, which several sources singled out as a key priority for next-generation city leaders.
City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty: It can seem like everyone in Portland has an opinion about Hardesty, whose time on city council has been marked by bold advocacy for police reform and willingness to push her fellow council members on topics like expanding funding for Portland Street Response, which would send trained mental health workers to respond to unarmed distress calls, instead of police officers. Her clear, unapologetic stances have also brought her backlash—she’s spoken publicly about horse manure being left on her doorstep and other racially motivated retribution—even as she’s occasionally courted controversy with her own actions, like a public argument with a Lyft driver over COVID precautions in the car after a late-night pickup from the Ilani Casino in Ridgefield in November. Hardesty, a former state representative and head of the NAACP, has publicly campaigned to be the police commissioner, a job Wheeler has kept for himself—as mayor, she’d finally be in that position.
Former Mayor Sam Adams: This one is especially sticky, given that Adams, who did not make it out of the primary when he ran last year for a city council seat, is currently serving as a top adviser to Wheeler, in effect a deputy mayor role. It’s been Adams out front and center on the rehabilitation of downtown Portland in particular, including in overtures to downtown businesses and spearheading trash and graffiti cleanup efforts. On the other hand, Adams has baggage, including a scandal over a relationship back in 2005 with a then-17-year-old legislative intern, and when last given the chance to vote him into office for another go, Portlanders were not on board.
Multnomah County Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson: The former state legislator is a part of what's currently the region’s most functional governing body (that honor definitely doesn’t go to Clackamas County, we can all agree), and led the way on the Multnomah County's universal preschool initiative, enthusiastically supported by voters, which has the potential to be revolutionary for future generations. She’s also an East Portland resident, a diverse area that hasn’t typically been home to many Portland mayors but is rising as a political force as lawmakers apply a racial equity lens to more funding decisions. (Consider, for example, the recent $80 million set-aside by the Oregon Legislature to fund safety improvements along 82nd Avenue.)
Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek: Look, there is precedent for former Oregon House Speaker jumping to other prominent political positions—consider former Portland mayor Vera Katz, or current US Senator Jeff Merkley. Kotek has been a creature of Salem for years, and has weathered more than her share of walkouts and upheavals (including this year’s first-ever expulsion of a member of the Oregon House). She’s also championed a slate of progressive policies, from clean energy targets to state-supported affordable housing and mental health programs. But she’s facing pushback from national Democrats for her decision to share redistricting responsibilities with the Oregon GOP, and she might be more interested in taking a run at the governor’s office, which opens in 2022.
Former mayoral candidate Sarah Iannarone: Iannarone, who finished second to Wheeler in the 2020 race after running well to his left, has remained a frequent critic on Twitter of his administration, the Portland Police Bureau, and the city’s overall direction, and a staunch proponent of environmental initiatives, particularly those centered on bike infrastructure and public transit. Plus, some of her supporters are prominently involved with the campaign to recall Wheeler. But she might be otherwise occupied, having just announced that her interim position as executive director of the nonprofit Street Trust will become permanent.
Whoever might run, insiders say—and there is no given that Wheeler will lose his seat—will need collaboration and coalition-building skills, trauma-informed ability to navigate a bruised city, and willingness to push through reforms to day-to-day operations at Portland’s city hall. Otherwise, we could wind up right back with a recall vote, all over again.