Mayor Wheeler gets personal in State of the City speech
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler is here to stay — until he's six feet under.
That, at least, was the mayor's message as he addressed the cameras and a who's-who crowd at Veterans Memorial Coliseum during his 2019 State of the City address on Monday, April 29.
"It's the city I love," Wheeler said of Portland. "It's the city I'll die in."
Wheeler's apparent cradle-to-grave commitment to the Rose City is at odds with his overheard comments in November about running out the clock for the last two years of his first term, not to mention the long-standing murmurs that the mayor would rather style himself as Gov. Wheeler.
But the 45-minute monologue appeared to offer a window into Wheeler's intimate reasoning for serving in public office, which he called "the most meaningful work of my life" but also "not easy."
The speech began with Wheeler's reflections of his years studying business at Columbia University in Manhattan in the late 1980s, a step toward an "unfulfilling" path on Wall Street that he ultimately avoided.
Wheeler described a formative study of homelessness while taking a course on nonprofit management, which led him to interview people living on the streets. They told him about the "unrestrained bitterness" of feeling ignored, which Wheeler said he recognized in his own actions.
"I realized that thread of humanity is woven in me, it's woven around you and it's woven around us," Wheeler said, according to a prepared copy of his remarks. "We are all bound by these universal needs of wanting to be seen, to be loved, to have a purpose."
Indeed, the speech was packed with personal anecdotes, including stories about a Spanish-speaking couple who were helped out of a moldy garage and into affordable housing by JOIN, as well as a Portland Police Bureau crisis negotiator, Officer Bill Ollenbrook, who convinced a young man not to jump off the top spire of the St. Johns Bridge.
But the speech also hit listeners with a blizzard of statistics, including the 660 units of affordable housing completed or in progress by the 2016 Portland Housing Bond; the Portland Housing Bureau's 1,800 new units to be finished this year or next; the 2.5 million pounds of litter taken off city streets since summer of last year; the 35,000 people helped to stay or return to housing, or find shelter or access to services last fiscal year.
After segueing from housing to police issues, Wheeler said he will be "announcing soon the first steps" to allow service providers and mental health experts to respond to 9-1-1 calls instead of law enforcement. Wheeler additionally promoted his initiative to encourage private employers to raise their wages and hire with diversity in mind, known as Portland Means Progress.
He praised the rest of the City Council by name, noting Commissioner Nick Fish's work on creating 2,000 new permanently supportive housing units, Jo Ann Hardesty's "commitment to social justice," Commissioner Chloe Eudaly's work "reaffirming" Portland's sanctuary city status and Commissioner Amanda Fritz's oversight of the opening of five new parks during Wheeler's term.
Wheeler said he decided to stage the speech in a sky-lit corner of the Coliseum because the "storied" building, like Portland, is in transition.
"We are not going anywhere," Wheeler said. "We will be in the trenches for you every single day to make sure we build a Portland that is welcome and prosperous for all."