The Campaign to Recall Mayor Ted Wheeler Is Sputtering

Campaign staffers say recurring heat waves and the delta variant are to blame for their lack of signatures. Can they still pull it off?

By Cami Hughes August 11, 2021

Total Recall PDX has just 5,926 signatures in hand, out of the 47,788 valid signatures needed by October 6 to put the recall question onto citywide ballots. Why has signature gathering been so hard? 

Via a plaintive Twitter post on Wednesday, the campaign to recall Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler from office—aka Total Recall PDX—sent up a flare: Signature gathering, they admitted, was not going as planned. Currently the five-week-old campaign has just 5,926 signatures in hand, out of the 47,788 valid signatures needed by October 6 to put the recall question onto citywide ballots.

Proponents of the recall ding Wheeler for his personal contribution of $150,000 to his campaign, saying it violates campaign finance limits, (though it’s worth noting the state auditor has disagreed with these claims and dismissed the complaint.) And they’ve cast Wheeler as deeply unpopular, particularly given the malaise that has gripped Portland since the start of the pandemic, and his track record as police commissioner in a city where tensions over law enforcement tactics are constantly simmering. But if Wheeler is as unpopular as the Total Recall PDX folks claim, then why has signature gathering proved so tough?

Total Recall PDX is placing blame on summer heat waves and the rise and spread of the delta variant, which they say have cut down on the foot traffic needed for signature gathering as people stay home, instead of congregating at MAX stops or farmer’s markets, for example. Total Recall also doesn’t send out their signature gatherers, pair or otherwise, on weeks when the heat is expected to be higher than 95 degrees, like this week and next.

“We anticipated things like the heat wave or COVID impacts, but those have also changed in their own ways,” says Audrey Caines, Total Recall PDX’s campaign manager.

But Jim Moore, director of political outreach at Tom McCall Center for Civic Engagement and associate professor at Pacific University, disagrees with Total Recall PDX's scapegoating of the weather.

“Forget signatures. You have to have people out gathering where people are, and saying that three days of high heat kept people away doesn’t make sense whatsoever,” Moore says.

Total Recall PDX might be on life support, but it can still be resuscitated, Moore says. Accordingly, Caines and others have launched twin asks for more money—to hire paid signature gatherers—and new volunteers, who can commit to bringing in 100 signatures apiece.

But Moore recommends joining with other community organizations who can then gather signatures from their members, (a strategy that’s worked out well for social conservatives who have partnered with churches to collect signatures.)  Moore further suggests printing out forms and directly sending them to people, which bypasses the impacts both the heat and COVID has on the campaign, though Caines says it remains most cost-effective to hire signature gatherers.

Total Recall PDX is hoping to gather some 20,000 more signatures in the next two weeks to jumpstart their effort.

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