Charlie Hales Makes His Pitch to Be Mayor
"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.
By Kyle Curtis
Aug. 22, 2011
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Aug 22, '11
I have known and worked with Charlie for more than 20 years, in both public and private sectors. This interview summarizes his unique combination of values, vision and very practical experience getting things done for cities. He was one of Portland's best City Council members. With his added national, private sector experience, he is eminently qualified to lead Portland to a great future.
Aug 22, '11
Wow. His answer on why he quit in 2002 was really bad. So he is trying to sell us on the idea that he accomplished what he set out to do, and wanted to go into the private sector to quit the job he was elected to so he could cash in and "sell cities" outside of the state.
Aug 22, '11
Portland Schools is not the bailiwick of the City Council (or mayor).
That answer is bafflegab.
Aug 23, '11
There's a LOT the City of Portland could do to support Portland Public Schools. Better funding for Head Start programs to get promote school readiness among young children. Literacy programs or local tutors. Summer programs through parks and community centers. Scholarships for graduating seniors -- or even cash incentives to graduate. Grants to individual schools for specific programs. A city income tax dedicated to augmenting local funding for K-12 education.
You could certainly ask for details of what he intends to do, to argue the merits of any particular policy, or debate whether it's desirable for the City to support local schools at all. But there is nothing even remotely bafflegab in his answer.
Aug 23, '11
Not sure that is allowed under the charter.
Aug 29, '11
...or simple things like feeding them well...
There have been studies that show that one of the biggest influences on student performance, especially in lower-income schools is not more testing or longer school years... it's a breakfast program.
Other things like student-teacher ratios are also hugely important. And maintaining working buildings falls under CoP too.
Aug 22, '11
Housing, housing, housing. Who has the plan for housing? Have yet to hear from mayoral candidates on how they are going to handle the housing crisis, minority flight out of the city and homelessness.
Millions of dollars in declining revenue for the Portland Housing Bureau is going to hit this city up side the head.
What's the plan?
Aug 22, '11
Thanks for this interview. I am glad the back story about why Charlie moved to Washington is getting out there. I'm also glad to hear him talking about parks and natural area issues, as well as alternative transportation in such a sensible way. Charlie is a very strong candidate and we're lucky he is so committed to public service.
Aug 22, '11
Yeah, I have no quibbles with someone moving to Washington State - or anywhere else - for love. (Or for money, for that matter.)
But what still hasn't been adequately explained is why Charlie continued to vote in Oregon while his residence was in Washington and he was paying taxes in Washington.
I understand that there are different technical definitions of "resident" for different purposes. But what Charlie hasn't yet explained is whether he considered his home to be in Stevenson or in Portland.
Full disclosure: My firm is providing some technical services to Eileen Brady's campaign for Mayor. I speak only for myself.
Aug 23, '11
Kari, even with your "Full disclosure", I think you're walking a fine line commenting on the mayor's race, given your "technical" involvement in it.
Aug 23, '11
Who said Kari shouldn't comment about this or any other race?
Aug 23, '11
Paul, you're welcome to ignore my comments if you have concerns about my credibility.
This is well-trod turf. Over seven years, I've posted my disclosure hundreds of times. (Google reports over 2100.) But if I wasn't able to write about my firm's clients, BlueOregon would be a rather boring blog.
I disclose my financial relationships so that you - and everyone else - can decide how many grains of salt, if any, need to be applied.
Aug 23, '11
I thought it was pretty clearly explained in the original article in The Oregonian.
Asked whether he considered himself an Oregon or Washington resident during those years, Hales said: "Both."
Steve Trout, state elections director, said it's OK to vote in Oregon but live elsewhere as long as the person... expects to return someday.
"As long as there's an intent to return, that's totally legal," he said.
Seems like Charlie was in love with a woman and her family, in love with cities (and Portland in particular), and was in compliance with the law.
Aug 23, '11
Like I said, I understand that the technical definitions in the law allow one to be an Oregon resident for voting purposes and a Washington resident for tax purposes.
But that's not the question I asked.
Certainly, I know many life-long Oregonians who take temporary work assignments in other places (DC, for example) with every intention of returning - and yet change their voter registration because they feel it's inappropriate to vote here without paying taxes here.
Aug 24, '11
You said Charlie hadn't adequately explained which place he called home; he has said both.
I think it's possible to consider multiple places home. For example, it took me years of living in Oregon before I answered it was my home, rather than saying both Colorado and Oregon were my home.
And I don't think paying taxes is a requirement for voting; we got rid of poll taxes for a reason.
I know plenty of people who decide where they will have the most impact in voting, rather than simply defaulting to the place they pay the most taxes. As long as they're acting in accordance with the laws of the election and revenue authorities, I see no problem with that.
Are you suggesting we change our voting laws and tie them to income tax laws? Then change the law.
As far as I read it, Charlie followed the laws. He voted. He paid taxes. He lived with his partner's family. End of story.
Aug 23, '11
This is the biggest non-issue I have ever heard of. the city of Portland has many major problems facing it. I want to hear how candidates stand on theses, and what experiences they have had to demonstrate they they can achieve their promises. Kari- I love you, but get serious!
Aug 23, '11
Well, I have to weigh in on the school issue. First of all, the bond was $548 million, hardly five billion. Maybe it was a typo or he is mixing it up with 50% of the critics' projected actual cost of the CRC mega bridge. In any case it was just not "sticker shock". It was poorly put together with little real community input.
He has a record on schools by the way. He was on the city council when Portland's schools were developing a system which created massive inequities between the poorer parts of Portland and the high school attendance areas of Cleveland, Wilson, Grant and Lincoln. I don't remember him speaking out against these inequities. And I don't hear him now speaking out against them. Of course, for the last decade in Portland it has not been good politics to do so. I mean our "education" mayor stood by while this was taking place also. And now his Cradle to Career program misses the entire point of trying to make the schools themselves better. Of course, the mayor has no actual say over the schools so he can be excused for his unwillingness to tackle the schools directly. Would have been nice if he had spoken up for poor kids though.
On Hales' website he states he will work on increasing the high school graduation rate and connecting more kids to Portland jobs. I have to agree this is just "bafflegab" without some sort of steps laid out which he would follow.
There is lots the city could do to help. But whomever is elected mayor can only make improvements if he or she has some understanding of the real problems. Don't see it in Adams and haven't seen it yet in Hales. Maybe Brady can grasp the complexity of the school problems and come up with a plan which has some real help particularly in engaging kids in the middle schools, certainly one of the most damaging problems facing PPS's kids.
Aug 24, '11
Steve, that's my mistake. It's been pointed out to me, and I attend to correct it. I'm also travelling on the east coast, so haven't had a chance yet.
Aug 25, '11
On jobs and economic development, I worry that any mayoral candidates that does not mention the need to increase international exports as a key long term strategy is not prepared or willing to give Portland the 21st century leadership it needs.
On education, I do give credit to Adams for his out-of-school support programs and hope they continue. I agree with Steve Buel that a mayor could speak up more for poor kids and the inequities in the current system. But most of all, from my perspective, we need a mayor that will advocate for educational changes that will support an increasing export strategy (more immersions in targeted trade languages like Mandarin, Japanese, and Portuguese, and paid high school study abroad, for examples).
Aug 26, '11
My esteem for Steve Buel aside, there are some candidates who cite ten years experience, and the translation is one year's bad experience, repeated nine times, but this feller, Hales, has tangible accomplishments.
Sep 14, '11
I only have one major concern that directly affects me. What are you going to do about the gang activity that has overtaken my neighborhood? I've lived in the same apartment for over 20 years and the neighborhood has changed so many times in those years, We have had nothing like what is currently happening out here. I know you've said East County will finally get better attention. I guess I just need to know if this is a priority with you. Thanks.