Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler: 'I love this job'
A series of stumbles by Mayor Ted Wheeler in August and September had some City Hall watchers checking the calendar.
Was it really only nine months into his second four-year term?
In just a few weeks, the headlines included a failed "choose love" approach to street brawling; a reality TV producer turned mayoral communications director who lasted one week; record-breaking gun violence; and a mocked effort to boycott Texas even as Portland seemed unable to address its own problems.
Though the recall effort against him appears to have failed as expected, might Wheeler bail from the job as many other mayors have done of late?
With speculation buzzing in political circles that he considers Portland ungovernable, it seemed a good time to ask the latest in a long line of beleaguered Portland mayors what he's thinking.
(At a time when some people think Wheeler should keep his mouth shut to avoid digging a deeper hole, perhaps it's understandable that a fill-in spokesperson asked for questions before scheduling an interview. Versions of some of these questions were shared in advance; others were not.)
The following was edited for clarity and brevity.
Tribune: You had a communication director come and go pretty quickly. How do you explain so many of your staff members leaving over the past year?
Wheeler: Being on the mayor's team at a time when our city is facing several crises simultaneously is a lot of work. It requires a lot of evenings, it requires a lot of weekends. And the feedback that you get isn't always positive.
Some staff members have moved on to other fantastic opportunities. The way I put it is, I don't like to hire people that other people won't try to steal.
Tribune: You've said the non-intervention strategy for the Aug. 22 protest was a mistake. How was that decision made?
Wheeler: The expectation was that we would have two conflicting groups. We were very clear in the press conference we held in the days prior that we probably would not have sufficient resources to keep the groups separated if they were together.
We did reach out and consider the National Guard to supplement our resources but they were deployed on COVID duty, which I strongly support. (Editor's note: Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell told reporters the police bureau did not ask the Oregon National Guard for assistance.) We did the best we could with the resources we had.
The (city's Independent Police Review office) citizens review committee recommended that the police be less visibly present during these demonstrations. That was exactly what our thinking was based on public feedback at the time.
Well, now the public is saying they want more of a police presence. And they said so overwhelmingly.
Tribune: To clarify, you asked the National Guard if they could support—
Wheeler: We considered the use of the National Guard, And … we were told that that resource would not be available. Similarly, there were discussions with the Oregon State Police.
Tribune: What do you say to those who think you've seemed detached or disengaged from the public and from your job?
Wheeler: it's easy to see why people would confuse a lack of visibility with disengagement. I'm still very much engaged. People may just not see it as much as they would have seen it in pre-pandemic times.
Tribune: One connotation of disengaged is out of touch. In April, you called on the public to unmask 'antifa anarchists.' Pretty much everybody is anti-fascist.
Wheeler: I'm not talking about people who oppose fascism. I'm talking about our people who come downtown or into our neighborhoods late at night with the purpose of engaging in violence or criminal destruction.
Tribune: It seems like you're paying a personal toll in this job, including being attacked or accosted while eating out, whether it's by people left of center or by Trump supporters who get pepper sprayed. Is it worth it?
Wheeler: Of course it's worth it or I wouldn't be here. Look, I love this job. I like the fact that we have have this opportunity to not only solve some of these problems over the long term, but reshape this community in a way that people love it even more than they did.
I do not, under any circumstances condone people attacking or assaulting elected officials or appointed officials or community leaders of any kind. But by the same token, I understand that people are angry, people demand change, they demand a sense of urgency. And as long as my personal safety or that of my family or friends isn't threatened, I'm okay with the engagement.
Tribune: You've got three years and three months left. What are the goals that you are bent on achieving by the time you leave office?
Wheeler: We're in the process of reforming, refocusing and re-staffing the Portland Police Bureau. I will be bringing a body-worn camera proposal back to the city council as soon as during this fall budgeting process. The focused intervention team, to reduce gun violence in our city — I brought a proposal to Council in March, they did not fund the police component of that. But I went forward and directed the chief to use internal resources to begin standing up that team.
I am going to continue to champion the 311 call system. In other communities, the calls to police have gone down by as much as 30%.
Regarding homelessness, the goal here is to provide safe and humane alternatives to people currently camping in unsanctioned camps throughout the city. The long-term goal should be for us to enforce our existing codes around unsanctioned homeless camps anywhere in the city of Portland. To do that, we have to comply with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Boise decision, meaning if you're going to tell people they can't camp in a particular area you need to provide an alternative.
Tribune: So setting up safe campsites, as the city is planning, would facilitate sweeps of homeless people in other areas, like downtown Portland?
Wheeler: The rapid expansion of unsanctioned homeless camps is harming the public health, the public safety and the environmental health of this community. Now, not all homeless camps are problematic, but a lot of them are. We're starting by remediating the problematic ones that create public health, public safety or environmental hazards.
Tribune: The Portland Police Bureau is out of compliance with the federal settlement concerning treatment of people suffering from mental illness, as well as general police accountability. You've got all these outstanding complaints from protests in the wake of the George Floyd murder. I don't hear you talking about that. Why not?
Wheeler: These are discussions that are happening with the US Department of Justice. We're working through what we think are strategies that they would accept as part of our settlement agreement. That includes things like the expansion of the Portland Street Response, and I'm working with Commissioner (Jo Ann) Hardesty right now on a significant expansion of that program. There are many other issues that are currently under consideration in the context of that settlement agreement.
Tribune: Some city employees argue that Portland is being blamed for problems when there are other agencies that have a role. What agencies should be doing more?
Wheeler: There's a lack of affordable housing, there is a lack of support services for people who cannot be successful in that housing on their own. The mental health safety net in this state has been dismembered over a period of nearly 40 years.
It's going to require the private sector to step up, it's going to require the state to step up in a meaningful way. And yes, it's going to require the federal government and the Biden administration to acknowledge that we have reached a national crisis around mental health and substance abuse.
Tribune: A December 2016 interview before you took office mentioned your campaign promises to provide shelter space for half the people living on the streets by the end of your second year in office. You also talked about improving the relationship between the police and the community.
Wheeler: The world we're in today is fundamentally different than the world we were in previously. I'd be an idiot if I stood here and told you that the homeless crisis has gotten better, or that the public's trust in law enforcement has improved.
I also don't want to forget to mention that we are now seeing the real manifestations of climate change impacting the state of Oregon as well as the city of Portland.
Tribune: The perception is you're not picking up the phone to your fellow commissioners, you're not forging the sorts of coalitions as proactively as other mayors or commissioners have done.
Wheeler: As I said, earlier, I meet regularly with my commissioners, we have weekly standing meetings. I have a policy where, if a commissioner calls me, I pick up the phone right away, unless I happen to be presiding over a meeting. When it comes to forging consensus, we're the largest city in America that has a commission form of government. It's sometimes called a weak mayor form of government.
Tribune: Are you going to serve out your term, and do you think Portland is governable?
Wheeler: I'm committed to serving out the rest of my term and working with anybody in this community who wants to work with me on improving public safety, on reducing unsanctioned homeless camping in our community, in improving the livability of the city, particularly cleaning up the trash and graffiti, and those who want to continue to help with our economic recovery.
We have now put together the Charter Review Commission, and they will come back to the community with a recommendation around the form of government. It is my fervent hope that I am the last mayor in the history of this city to serve as mayor under the commission form of government.
Tribune: How do you achieve that without further disenfranchising people of lower incomes or people of color?
Wheeler: The effort is being led by a very diverse group of individuals that represent all corners of this city, as well as representing people of color and women.
I believe they will make a case around representation and inclusion. And I believe that will be a powerful message for the public to hear.
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