Former mayoral thorn has lessons for Wheeler
Most politicians are able to claim a mandate after winning an election. Not Mayor Ted Wheeler.
Wheeler's Nov. 3 victory, with only 46.1% of Portland's vote, has raised yet another obstacle to his success: the prospect that his reelection lacks legitimacy. Had the Teressa Raiford write-in campaign not diverted votes from challenger Sarah Iannarone, the incumbent may well have lost.
So what can Wheeler do to make his second term a success?
The tenure of former City Commissioner Sten may be uniquely relevant. Perhaps more than any council member in recent history, Sten forged major change between 1997 and 2008. His success illustrates Portland's unusual form of government — in that sometimes he had the mayor's agreement, and often he didn't.
Today, despite Wheeler's distinctly underwhelming victory, the voters have presented the second-term mayor with a new City Council that — with the presence of Dan Ryan, Carmen Rubio and Mingus Mapps— is more likely to agree with the mayor than the previous council was.
In the wake of the election, some political operatives have murmured that Wheeler simply can rely on those votes to forge ahead. Sten, asked about the city's form of government, told the Portland Tribune that while the present times are very different from his time at City Hall, he believes the council works best when it's together. To that end, the mayor may want to reach out to the other senior member of the council, Jo Ann Hardesty, to repair their recently soured relationship and make progressive change, he said.
And given an election in which voters overwhelmingly supported stronger Portland police oversight, Sten said the first priority appears to be addressing the police bureau in a way that rebuilds trust and gets it right.
"I think that the hardest thing to do, but the most important thing to do as mayor, is to keep the council working with you," Sten said. "What they've got to have is a council that is united on a plan for police."
Complicating the situation is Hardesty's last-minute endorsement of Iannarone, and the recent vote in which Wheeler, Ryan and outgoing Commissioner Amanda Fritz voted down Hardesty and outgoing Commissioner Chloe Eudaly. Sten said that, based on Hardesty's decades of activism and large following among Portlanders, it would be a mistake to try to isolate her and move on.
"I just think she's so singularly important to this, that that's where he's got to start. But it's not a negotiation, where you send in your proxies and say, 'I'll give you this, if you give me that,'" Sten said, adding that the message should be a personal one: "This is bigger than you or I. Let's figure this out."
In the wake of the election, Wheeler has said he wants to work cooperatively with the council to pursue change.
Sten's tenure shows why that may be a good idea.
Sten: a political 'Goliath'
Sten was once termed a "political goliath" for his leadership talents. That included an ability to make change despite Portland's form of government — and to bypass the mayor if necessary.
Much as Wheeler's sometime opponent, Hardesty has done, Sten exerted his influence as an activist from the left. Often working behind the scenes, he amassed council majority votes and arguably had more of an impact on the city than many of Portland's recent mayors. For instance:
•He forced the remake of the Portland Development Commission from a secretive, developer-friendly agency that operated independently of City Hall into a more responsive agency that funded an unprecedented level of affordable housing.
•Sten spearheaded campaign finance reform and effectively knocked the Portland Business Alliance from its power perch at City Hall — delivering a series of political setbacks from which some insiders say the group has still not fully recovered.
•He engineered the city's improbable takeover bid of Portland General Electric and very nearly succeeded, despite the matter's complexity and big-money stakes.
On the brink of the Nov. 3 election, Sten endorsed Wheeler over Iannarone. But in terms of his political profile and history on the council, the former commissioner said he feels a bit more like Hardesty.
Sten clashed with Mayor Vera Katz to make change, and her successor, Tom Potter, after her. The culmination of the strife under Potter occurred, famously, when the incumbent mayor walked out of a City Council meeting in 2007 after declaring "I am irrelevant."
At that time Potter's go-it-alone style had allowed a coalition of three commissioners to join together and essentially run the city. Sten was a leader in that group.
Today, an advisor with the political consulting firm Strategies 360, he says it's better for Portlanders when the mayor works with their council, not against it.
"I can say in retrospect that when Vera and I went toe-to-toe on things, nothing good ever happened. And when we worked it out between the two of us, on a personal level, we solved problems," he said.
While Ryan, Mapps and Rubio may be open to Wheeler now, a mayor in Portland can't take his fellow commissioners' support for granted, Sten said: "what you don't want to do is create a situation where (the new council additions) have to choose between the two senior leaders of the council."
If Wheeler pursues policies with the entire council more or less on board, Sten contends, the city will follow.
No commissioner should get a veto, Sten said, but "on the council, when they had their best moments this summer were when Jo Ann and Ted were together."
Wheeler has voiced support for police reform, ticked off a number of changes, and voted in support of Hardesty's police oversight ballot measure. But his overall vision for unifying the city and its police hasn't necessarily been clear.
Said Sten, "I think he may not be able to get to that kind of (unifying) strategy on the council until he defines what it is that he wants, what he stands for."
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