Getting on a Zoom with former Portland Mayor Sam Adams is disconcerting.
Does one refer to him as “Mayor Adams” or “Mr. Mayor” the way that former presidents keep the title for the rest of their lives, even though he left that office almost a decade ago, after a single term? But that’s weird, given that he now serves as a hybrid of Silvio Dante and Paulie Walnuts to current Mayor Ted Wheeler’s Tony Soprano, right? (His actual title: director of strategic innovations.)
“Call me Sam,” he’ll inevitably say, which is fair enough, given that’s how most Portlanders think of him, too. There may be no other Portlander’s backstory that we all know more about than Adams’s, from growing up as a gay kid in coastal Oregon to a 10 year stint as revered former Mayor Vera Katz’s righthand man, starting in 1993, to his own seat on city council by 2004 and a glide path to the mayoralty in 2009, at the start of the Obama years, when everything seemed possible.
That’s where one Beau Breedlove enters the chat, and things get weird. Adams’s mayoralty never quite recovered from the disclosure that he’d covered up his relationship with Breedlove, who had been 17 years old and a legislative intern in Salem at the time, and asked him to keep their brief affair on the DL; after a single term, he opted not to run again and was out of city hall for the first time in years. Stints in the nonprofit world followed, including time spent heading up the Portland City Club and in DC, but the city—and its government—have its hooks in Adams, and by 2020 he was staging an ultimately unsuccessful campaign for his old seat on the city council.
Voters responded with a “no thank you,” but by early 2021, with virtually the entire city in a foul mood, a battered-on-all-sides Wheeler came calling. An early tell: When Wheeler had his now infamous confrontation with a heckler at the Hillsdale McMenamins and wound up pepper-spraying the guy (who turned out to be an heir to the Alpenrose Dairy fortune, because you cannot make this stuff up), Adams was by his side, loudly defending him. His appointment to the mayor’s staff was announced four days later.
Adams is about 18 months into that job now. During that time, he and his team have emerged as a nexus of power at city hall, a speed-dial call for the power brokers who grease the city’s wheels (those who haven’t decamped for the suburbs yet, anyway), and those who need the mayor’s sign-off.
Candace Avalos, the executive director of environmental justice nonprofit Verde and one of the city’s emerging new guard of leaders, who has sat on citizen police oversight committees and the latest charter review commission, puts it matter-of-factly: “He is the person whose ear you need to have in order to have the mayor’s ear. That’s the dynamic that has arisen in the last year.”
Adams’s own take on this is a punchier line, one that’s clearly gotten a good deal of use: “We recycle everything in Portland." (Beat.) "Even former mayors.”
Look at any of the major initiatives to come out of Wheeler’s office in the past 18 months—a greater use of executive orders (particularly on public camping), the reconfiguration of the Portland Police Bureau’s gun violence reduction team, the appointment of so-called czars to oversee intractably sprawling problems like trash and graffiti, and efforts to bring the city back to life after two-and-a-half years in thrall to the pandemic—and you’ll invariably find Adams’s fingerprints. In fact, before it became clear that the ill-fated and poorly organized attempt in summer 2021 to recall Wheeler was destined for implosion, political insiders say Adams’s name often came tops on donors’ lists of potential successors.
Which prompts some questions: Does Portland have two mayors, despite electing only one? Depends on whom you ask, but Adams, predictably, demurs—he serves at the pleasure of Wheeler, who he says is, to paraphrase one George W. Bush, “the decider.” Well, then. What does Sam Adams want now?
To understand the current dynamics inside city hall, insiders say, you have to understand just how different Wheeler and Adams are. Wheeler is famously conflict-averse, says a consultant who has previously worked with him; he has at points seemed to be gutting out his second mayoral term with the grim determination of a man who has climbed Everest and run marathons and simply will not let this job get the best of him. Adams is a brawler (“an enforcer, a bulldog,” says Laurelhurst Neighborhood Association vice president TJ Browning, who has tangled with him over two decades) and a political animal trained by Katz, whose sweet exterior belied a steel core.
“Sam is a man of action,” says Jim Middaugh, the executive director of the Multnomah County Drainage District, who spent eight months as Wheeler’s communications director before leaving in May 2021. “And sometimes he moves faster than others might like to. That creates some tensions. Under the circumstances, action is really important. The things Sam is working on are tied to things that the mayor was frustrated about not being able to make progress on before Sam arrived.”
Perhaps the most famous example of this is Adams’s memo proposing that the city, state, county, and Metro work together to build three National Guard–staffed shelters that could hold as many as 1,000 unsheltered Portlanders apiece, strategically leaked in late January of this year. It touched off a full-throated wave of outrage among the city’s progressive activist class, who compared the idea to a concentration camp.
“There was something I appreciated about him trying to think big, but he isn’t thinking big enough,” concedes Kaia Sand, the executive director of Street Roots. She says the Adams memo provided a logical jumping-off point for her subsequently developed “3,000 Challenge,” a blueprint that lays out possible paths for how “the same number of people could be housed, rather than cordoned off,” from converting motel rooms to permanent housing to having nonprofits sign leases for previously unsheltered clients.
Adams himself says his trial balloon was “useful” as a way to convey the urgency of the moment to decision makers at the state and county level. Its brashness served another purpose: when, within a few weeks, Wheeler issued a handful of executive orders on houselessness, including using eminent domain to appropriate private land for public use as managed camping areas and a ban on roadside camping, they played as comparatively less extreme, and drew more muted opposition.
As spring 2022 wore into summer, the mayor’s office signaled another change in its approach to houselessness, based on research and ideas shaped by Adams and his team.
The idea was a more proactive approach to sweeps, and the city promised more warning, more direct contact with those affected, real-time data about shelter beds, and on-demand transportation for those who accepted the offer.
The strategy was piloted in Old Town, the downtown area’s Ground Zero for widespread public camping. At a valedictory press conference at the Lan Su Chinese Gardens in June, Wheeler said the strategy was paying off, and would be replicated in other hot spots citywide, though a critical follow-up in the Oregonian suggested that there was little data to support the contention that more people were choosing shelters under the new approach.
Adams says he’s a true believer in the approach. “We are offering what I think is a more compassionate and effective offer to those that we are asking to move, and we are getting more people to say yes to going to shelters. It’s producing early results, though we have a long way to go,” Adams says. “And it is in that shelter context that relationships can happen” that set people on the path to permanent housing, he adds.
Jessie Burke, the co-owner of Old Town’s Society Hotel and chair of its neighborhood community association, was a cohost of Wheeler’s Lan Su press conference, at which she told the crowd that the mayor’s office had showed up for the neighborhood, adding, “It is compassionate to try and find solutions, and with great urgency. It is apathetic to continue to find reasons why every idea won’t work … remember, some people gain if we fail to find a solution.” Adams’s assistance and institutional knowledge, she says, have been “invaluable” as the neighborhood has grappled with sprawling sidewalk camps and incidents of violence, including a machine gun shootout half a block from her hotel.
"Institutional knowledge" is a nice way of saying that someone has been around the block. Adams can certainly claim that, and in that context, the city’s current uptick in gun violence feels familiar to him; he won office during the Great Recession of 2008, another moment in the city’s history when gun violence was on the rise.
He's also got his own experience with Portland's full-throated protest culture, which erupted during his mayoralty outside Portland City Hall in 2011 during the Occupy movement's heyday, resulting in a 38-day occupation of Chapman and Lownsdale Squares.
Adams came to his current job about six months after the disbanding of the Portland Police Bureau’s Gun Violence Reduction Team on the heels of the Black Lives Matter protests of summer 2020, when thousands of Portlanders swarmed the streets to demand police reform; the team had long been dogged by allegations of racial profiling.
By January 2022, though, the Portland Police Bureau rolled out its new “Focused Intervention Team” with the goal of reducing gun violence. Advocates groused that it was simply a rose by another name. Adams helped shaped the FIT and disputes that—what’s different this time around, he says, is the new team’s “community oversight group” created to help with staffing up, reviewing its efforts, and providing feedback. Among the group’s members: Kimberley Dixon, whose son was killed nearly a decade ago in Gresham in an act of gang violence, and community activist Lionel Irving, who served 12 years in prison for manslaughter.
But gun violence in Portland has continued to rise—shootings so far this year are nearing 700, up from around 600 at this time last year, though homicides have trended slightly downward. In mid-July, Wheeler issued yet another emergency declaration, deputizing public safety czar Mike Myers to coordinate efforts to head off shootings before they start, and quickly funnel resources to on-the-ground gang violence prevention programs.
Still, the city’s anti-violence strategies can feel scattershot, even with the increased resources and layers of oversight. A non-city-hall staffer points to a mid-March moment when, alarmed by a headline-grabbing spate of shootings, Adams and company decided that it was high time for a press conference on the issue to telegraph the city’s commitment to combatting the violence.
The only problem? There was no agenda or new city-backed initiative to announce—and reporters can see right through press conferences that are held just for the wringing of hands. To fill the void, Kirsten Snowden, a chief deputy district attorney for the Multnomah County DA’s office, stepped up to the podium and gave a detailed account of that office’s severe staffing shortage. That became the headline, and the mayor’s office was not best pleased, feeling that the entire affair had been hijacked.
The incident is notable, in part, because it’s a relatively rare messaging-related misstep. “Sam is quite good at developing actions that help people recognize that the city is trying to make a difference,” says Middaugh. “He’s breathed life into the mayor’s objectives around trying to help small businesses, homelessness, garbage cleanup.” (Or several at once, like an ongoing effort to hire cohorts of houseless folks for living-wage trash pickup jobs.) This is a trickier strategy for gun violence, where real-life events and data set the agenda.
Sarah Shaoul, the founder of small-business advocacy group Bricks Needs Mortar, is familiar with this messaging machinery. She spent a year pushing the city to fund the recently rolled-out program that gives $500,000 worth of digital gift cards to be redeemed at locally owned shops and restaurants downtown, at Southeast Portland’s Mercado, and in the Cully neighborhood in Northeast.
The plan next is to expand the program to other parts of the city, including the Lloyd District and the Central Eastside—but all of it is now splashily re-branded as part and parcel of the city’s official “Here for Portland” campaign. “Here is the thing,” Shaoul says, delicately. “This is a program that will have great impact, and I’m thrilled that it’s moving forward. Good work speaks for itself.”
There’s a fine line between “community involvement” and “unpaid labor,” in other words, and Adams has been walking it. Consider one of his signature early achievements, the “action tables,” put into place soon after his arrival, to stimulate people and events to come back to the city.
Some of that strategy is paying off, particularly this summer, with the return of crowd-pleasing events like the Waterfront Blues Festival to downtown. Some of it isn't—office vacancy rates in downtown Portland stood at 19 percent in the second quarter of 2022, against just 8 percent in the surrounding suburbs, according to market reports from commercial real estate firm Kidder Matthews. And even the city's own employees have signaled an enormous reluctance to return to an in-office schedule for three or more days per week.
The challenge now, Adams says, is expanding whose voices get heard at city hall, something he says he tried to do with the action tables program: “It's so easy to get trapped in a bubble working in city hall and to think that the loudest voices that have the time and the privilege to have themselves be heard in our process reflect the majority of Portlanders’ perspectives. So, I wanted to help reinvigorate more community voices to help on these difficult issues.”
Part of getting your voice heard at city hall is knowing who to contact there. That hasn’t always been easy under Wheeler, many of the people contacted for this story say, given how much turnover there has been on his staff, including multiple communications directors, a chief of staff, a deputy chief of staff, an equity adviser, a director of government relations who lasted just over a year, and most especially the abrupt departure in April of Wheeler’s longtime aide Tom Rinehart, who had been serving as the city’s chief administrative officer. (Rinehart did not return repeated requests from Portland Monthly to comment for this story.) Some of those jobs have been filled, and some—like a communications director—remain open, creating a vacuum for a strong personality, like, say, Adams, to fill.
Meanwhile, new people have transitioned in, like Myers, the public safety czar, and chief of staff Bobby Lee, a former Eugene city council member who keeps a low-key public profile, though other city hall staffers say he is the one who keeps the closest pulse on Wheeler’s day-to-day movements and schedule.
One of the biggest rumors surrounding Adams is that, should Portlanders vote next November to restructure city government, removing responsibility for the daily administration of city bureaus from council members and consolidating it under a professional city manager, he’d be a shoo-in for the job.
As for Adams, when asked if he’s after the city administrator gig should it come to fruition—bringing with it concentrated power, a likely healthy salary, and no need to win an election—he gives a classic politician’s answer. “I have no interest … at this moment.”