"I can walk the walk, whether it’s my history of park improvements, planting trees, or planning the city’s development. Only one of us has a depth of experience in local government. And that is me."
Back in April, Charlie Hales shared with BlueOregon's readers his vision for the city’s future that was shaped, in part, by his past experience as a city commissioner. Widely rumored to be considering a mayoral run at the time, Hales made his candidacy official with an announcement a month later. Hales was the first to declare himself a challenger for Portland’s top job, with New Seasons co-founder Eileen Brady declaring her mayoral intentions the following week. The candidacy of both Hales and Brady promised a spirited campaign to see whether either one would be able to unseat incumbent Mayor Sam Adams in next year’s primary or general election. This campaign never materialized, however, due to Adams’ surprising announcement last month that he was not seeking an election for a second term. Unless there is an announcement by an unexpected dark-horse candidate, it appears that the 2012 Portland mayoral race is coming down to a choice between Hales and Brady.
Nearly four months after his initial conversation with me, now-candidate Charlie Hales took the time to discuss his prior experience as city commissioner, his plans and goals as Portland mayor, and about how moving to the Washington State side of the Columbia Gorge was perhaps not the best tactical step if one is considering a potential Portland mayoral run. The following is a recap of that discussion.
I've lived in Portland since 2000, and the first local politics story I started following in Portland was your resigning from the city commission in 2002, and your eventual replacement by Randy Leonard. Now, I know there are personal reasons for everybody to both pursue and seek elected office, as well as resigning and stepping down from office. Let’s begin there, and if you could, explain to me your reasons why you left the city council.
Sure. Throughout my public and private sector experience, I have focused on cities. I love cities, and I love Portland. And I believe in cities, and how to make them more livable. When I first ran for office in 1991, Portland looked like it was about to grow. I didn’t want the city to grow stupidly; I wanted to help shape that growth. I wanted to tame that growth and shape it, both in collaboration with the private sector and the government. As head of the Parks Bureau, I wanted to figure out how to take a good park system- which was in reasonably in good shape, if not a little worn down- and make it a great park system. That was the rationale for the parks bond measure, making the city’s run-down parks system better. And I sought ways that the city could make use of these great streets such as Belmont and Alberta, these old streetcar streets. And that’s what led to the first mixed use project at the Belmont Dairy. And we found out that people liked them. It was a new idea for Portland, though of course it wouldn’t have been new back in 1925. But it was new to us, then. And on a grander scale we took a dead rail yard in Northwest Portland, and put a streetcar running through it to create the Pearl District. And basically what I helped create during my terms in office was the model for a healthy city, a city that has many transportation choices.
When I decided to leave the city in 2002, I had accomplished a lot of what I wanted to do. National and international delegations were coming to Portland each week. The idea of taking the lessons we learned from Portland to the rest of the country was appealing. I could do this in the private sector, which provided me such an opportunity. I wanted to serve as an emissary for Portland ideas throughout the country- which resulted in a streetcar in Phoenix, of all places!
And that was a great chapter of my life. Looking back on Portland then I’m concerned about Portland now. We need to figure out how to make a prosperous life for those who want to live here. Not necessarily a cul-de-sac with an SUV, but a prosperous life that reflects the values of those who live here. We need to make Portland both prosperous and livable. Right now, the city’s unemployment rate is over nine percent, and that’s not counting those who are underemployed. Or those who have given up and have dropped out of the work force. Or those who are “employed” yet not working like they want to be.
So, basically, the private sector provided you an opportunity to share the values and culture of Portland more so than you would have as a city commissioner?
Local government is inherently local, and I went to work for HDR, an engineering company with offices all over the country. I found myself working with young professionals who wanted to make transit projects happen. At HDR, I’ve worked real hard, and as a result I’ve made myself dispensable. HDR has received a couple of recent awards for streetcar design projects, projects that I wasn’t even involved with at all. That would not have happened ten years ago. There was nobody else around who had worked with streetcars as I had.
Okay, so back to resigning from your council seat. Shortly after that, you decided that the best step to take to eventually become mayor was to move to Stevenson, Washington. That seems like an odd decision to make, if you ask me.
(Laughs.) Clearly, I was obviously not making life choices based on politics. The fact of the matter is I fell in love with a woman who lived with her kids across the street from their high school in Stevenson, Washington. And so I moved up there to live with her as the kids finished and got through school. What happened is that there was not much to write about in this mayor’s race yet at this point, so some people decided they would write about me moving up to Stevenson for a bit. Would people expect, in this day and age, that the woman should relocate and bring her kids with her after she’s gotten married?
Where you working in Portland at the time? Stevenson’s a bit away, were you doing the I-84 commute every day?
I was not working in Portland at the time. I was working all over. I was working in Atlanta, Miami, Winston-Salem, running projects out of different HDR offices, living out of hotels.
You mentioned the parks bond earlier. I’m wondering if the parks bond was successful given the times that it was passed in. I like to refer to the 1990s as the “good old days” when people still had jobs and money, and as a result might be interested in supporting something such as the parks bond measure. As we saw this past spring, a similar bond to fix up the public schools in Portland did not pass. Do you think if you tried to pass a similar parks bond now as you did back then, do you think it would pass?
I would like to work with Commissioner Fish on another parks bond measure. But I need to point out that it wasn’t as if people were easier marks to have their taxes raised back in the 1990s. We did our due diligence and made the voters realize just what return they would get for their investment. And the reason why the school bond failed was due to sticker shock. Five billion dollars is a lot of money in any economy. The school bond defeat isn’t necessarily a sign of anti-public investment. Those are our core values- Portland residents will do what it takes for the city’s parks and schools. But it was simply sticker shock that doomed the school bond measure.
Consider that with the parks bond measure I was able to provide funding for 114 projects for a budget of $65 million. We created two brand-new community centers- one in east Portland and the other in southwest. And we fixed up the Mt. Scott Community Center, where I am having my official campaign kick-off on September 17th. We connected parks with a series of parkways. People in Portland want transportation options with bikes and transit. People in Portland want parks, and they want schools. But when you ask for too much, don’t be too surprised when they say “No.”
Do you have any idea what that $65 million tax measure would be in today’s numbers?
Construction costs have gone up- but then they’ve come back down. I don’t think it would be much more than $65 million. Maybe $85 million. It is on my agenda to put together another parks bond with Commissioner Fish. And we learned lessons from that bond measure. For example, we leveraged with a lot of different groups to ensure different commitments. We got a lot of support from different stakeholders, which helped passage of the bond.
Okay, so the election’s tomorrow, you’re elected mayor and you go into City Hall next week. What are the immediate changes you would implement, and what would you continue to do the same, policy-wise?
Mayor Adams and I agree on many things in terms of policy. I would continue certain initiatives, particularly increasing transportation choices; transit planning; bicycle infrastructure; and continue supporting the city’s arts and culture. I would also pursue some things that Sam has wanted to do but has been unable, such as have the mayor be a strong leader for public schools and increase our city’s high school graduation rate. The current graduation rate is unacceptably low. I would lead a partnership with teachers and school districts to increase the graduation rate. That is on my immediate short list.
As for things that would be done differently, I would recruit for department heads by not solely picking people off my staff. I think these are some of the best jobs in the country. I would have a national search, and have the best in Portland compete against the best in the country to fill these positions. And, obviously, we need to tackle water and sewer rates and avoid using the funds collected for projects that aren’t associated with either water or sewage administration.
Earlier you mentioned the nine point unemployment percentage currently in Portland. What is the “Hales plan” to put Portland residents back to work?
We need to take a whole new look at the city economic development plan. PDC mostly only focuses on real estate development, and they have done a pretty good job in such areas as the Pearl and South Waterfront. I like that PDC has also focused on mixing up the housing available, including some affordable housing. But now we need to look at the city’s main streets, such as 82nd Ave, 122nd Ave, and Sandy. We need to figure out how to encourage growth in these areas. We need to look at fees, zoning, and other regulations available to the city to help develop these areas.
The city has been trying to pick winners in specific sectors, and I don’t think government can necessarily do that very well. Instead, government can create a beneficial environment for all small businesses. I’ll provide an example of the prototype for small businesses I would like to see develop. In southeast Portland, you have Kelly Roy running ADX, a space that allows innovative and creative people produce their products. She did this without any help from the city. Sometimes the city can be a good partner, but in this instance the city wasn’t involved and Kelly was able to get her project off the ground through a $150,000 loan from the non-profit Albina Opportunities Corporation fund. The city could definitely play a role as a partner for people who are smarter than me, and Kelly Roy is one.
Any thoughts on the curbside composting plan that the council unanimously passed this past week?
I think it’s a natural next step. Portland was a national leader when it came to recycling. We showed other cities how to do it. I think we could take a similar role regarding curbside composting. The pilot project showed a very high rate of participation, and I applaud that. As for budget concerns, there is always concerns about cost when you implement a new program. But this plan allows for an opt-out. If you are already backyard composting and removing that waste from the stream, then you shouldn’t have to pay for a service that you are not participating in.
For those who may not know either you or Eileen Brady all that well, what are the differences between the two of you that you would point out to Portland voters?
What people are going to find is that as candidates, Eileen and I are going to share very similar ideologies. We are both Portland progressives who promote values and ethics shaped by the city. But there is a big difference between myself and Eileen in the experience of translating ideas into actions. It is easy to talk the talk - and Eileen does a good job of talking the talk. I can walk the walk, however, whether it’s my history of park improvements, planting trees, or planning the city’s development. Only one of us has a depth of experience in local government. And that is me.