Wheeler takes office at a time when many Portland-area residents are wondering if their city is tipping in the wrong direction. Rents and housing prices are reaching levels that average wage earners cannot afford - threatening to make Portland a playground for the affluent. The streets have acquired a new grittiness as homeless camps multiplied.Wheeler has vowed to do something about these and other issues, and he followed that promise with a good deed last week, opening the Portland Building as an emergency homeless shelter two days after a 51-year-old man died of hypothermia while sleeping outside in freezing temperatures.
Ted Wheeler is just two weeks into a four-year term as Portland mayor — which means he still has 206 weeks to go. It's too early to pass any firm judgments on his progress so far, but his initial moves demonstrate that Wheeler understands how to use his office's limited powers and press his agenda on all fronts.
Because of Portland's distinct and dysfunctional system of government, it is difficult for any leader to get all city bureaus working in a unified direction. That's because each city commissioner is given oversight of multiple bureaus and allowed to control them as individual fiefdoms. With no single person in charge of a cohesive city government, bureaus often fail to communicate with one another and sometimes work at cross purposes.
That makes Wheeler's job particularly hard. The issues he campaigned on — homelessness, affordable housing, jobs and police accountability among them — can cross bureau boundaries. So how can Wheeler implement his ideas when he doesn't control all the bureaus?
When the new mayor met with the Portland Tribune editorial board recently, he answered that question neatly by announcing he would make all his bureau assignments temporary. He reiterated that pledge when he handed out bureaus to his colleagues last week. If city commissioners are not adequately pursuing Wheeler's agenda after next year's budget is adopted this spring, he will reassign their bureau responsibilities.
That sort of raw use of power is unusual, at least in recent years, for Portland mayors. However, Wheeler is correct in believing he won't make the kind of progress he has promised unless he provides robust leadership. Giving fellow commissioners a reason to fear him — a little — isn't necessarily counterproductive. Of course, Wheeler also needs to develop positive relationships with those commissioners and city employees who are expected to carry through with his initiatives.
Our experience with Wheeler — during his time as Multnomah County chair — is that he is capable of building support and keeping his focus on bigger goals even as he deals with the small crises that arise each day. He displayed his political dexterity last week when he had the good sense to apologize at a news conference for what he said was an oversight when he assembled a group to talk about racial equity. Wheeler says he left some important people out of the discussion, and he owned up to his mistake.
Humility and contrition are actually positive traits for a leader. Too many of Oregon's public officials have chosen to evade or get defensive when they've erred — and that's what leads to trouble.
Wheeler takes office at a time when many Portland-area residents are wondering if their city is tipping in the wrong direction. Rents and housing prices are reaching levels that average wage earners cannot afford — threatening to make Portland a playground for the affluent. The streets have acquired a new grittiness as homeless camps multiplied.
Wheeler has vowed to do something about these and other issues, and he followed that promise with a good deed last week, opening the Portland Building as an emergency homeless shelter two days after a 51-year-old man died of hypothermia while sleeping outside in freezing temperatures.
Wheeler also suspended spending affordable housing bond funds until firm goals and priorities are set. We support that because many previous projects have averaged around $200,000 per unit, which is too high, but expect him to rectify that soon.
Wheeler is setting the right tone at the beginning — by sending a strong message to other commissioners that he expects cooperation and results. How his style will play out over the next 206 weeks is unknown, but there's something to be said for a fast start out of the gate.