Former commissioner tries to re-introduce himself to Portlanders
On Labor Day, Charlie Hales took the opportunity to blog about his experience 10 years ago when he had a hand in repaving North Interstate Avenue with a city work crew.
'Good union workers, out in the hot sun with truckloads of hot asphalt,' he wrote, harkening back to the way the crew leader coached him on how to control the machine.
Hales recalls being impressed by the crew's work ethic, saying the city wouldn't be where it is today without its labor unions.
In next year's race for mayor, Hales - a former city commissioner from 1993 to 2002 - claims the advantage of having had a hand in literally shaping the city's parks, transportation and planning efforts.
Because of that, many would consider him the ultimate 'insider' in the mayor's race of 2012. But it's more complicated than that. Hales, aka 'Streetcar Charlie,' calls himself an 'insider/outsider,' because he's been out of the public eye doing private streetcar development work for the past nine years.
He worked at the Homebuilders Association of Metropolitan Portland for six years before being elected to city government, and put himself through college with construction jobs, framing houses.
Once he graduated from the University of Virginia, he started a small home restoration business before moving to Portland in 1979.
'It's nice to have a trade to fall back on,' says Hales, 55. 'Two thirds of my career is in the private sector; 'insider/outsider' is the right combination.'
When it comes to his view of the city, Hales says, it's in much worse shape than it used to be. He wants to bring his experience - while distancing himself from the city's current ailments - to lead Portland to a more prosperous future.
'This city is weird,' he says. 'I'm used to it. I can make it sit up and do tricks. That doesn't come overnight.'
Yet with so many city scandals lately - two federal investigations into city business, voter dissatisfaction with the lack of jobs and poor schools and alienated residents in East Portland - the big question is whether Hales' ties to City Hall will help him or hurt him on the campaign trail.
His major challenger in the race so far is New Seasons Market cofounder Eileen Brady, who's billing herself as a 'fresh start' for Portland. That's the challenge Hales will have to overcome.
'Charlie has already been a city commissioner; he's a known quantity. He represents the failure of past policies,' says Dan Yates, co-owner of the Portland Spirit and a supporter of Brady in the race.
Yates sees Brady, meanwhile, as 'a breath of fresh air into local politics; she's not the status quo.'
While Hales' supporters point to his list of accomplishments - spearheading the airport light-rail line and the 1994 parks bond, among others - his critics aren't swayed.
Many remain perturbed that Hales appeared to be caught off guard by revelations that he'd lived across the river in Stevenson, Wash. between 2004 and 2009.
He had fallen in love with his now-wife, Nancy, and moved in with her. Since Hales didn't disclose this up front, many speculated whether he did so to avoid paying Oregon's income tax.
In 2009, when his stepchildren finished school, Hales and his wife bought a home in Southeast Portland. 'If I'd known it would've been a big deal to anyone, I would've said it from the outset,' he says now. 'It was something I did for love, not money. And I never thought it would be of interest.'
Critics also point to the fact that Hales quit as city commissioner halfway through his third term in 2002 to take a job as senior vice president at HDR engineering. Hales, who was 35 when first elected to office, said the chance to promote streetcars around the country was too good to pass up. He also said he had five kids - three of his own plus two stepchildren - to put through college.
Hales doesn't have regrets. With HDR, he criss-crossed the country to help cities develop streetcar infrastructure; 19 of them have done so, he says, rattling them off.
He cites the streetcar work as evidence of his walking the walk when it comes to promoting the livable, sustainable values Portland prides itself on. 'I've proven that that was real, not just a notion of mine,' he says.
When a chance came to run for public office again, he says: 'I have a good life, a good job, but the desire to give back and my love for Portland is strong enough, it came to that.'
Growing war chests
The task for voters now is to distinguish Hales and Brady from each other, which may be tricky since they share many similarities.
Both candidates, who've coincidentally each raised five children between two marriages, share many of the same liberal views, like the proliferation of bike lanes and access to fresh food in every neighborhood.
They both oppose the current plan for the Columbia River Crossing, point to 'building partnerships' as the way to boost the high school graduation rate, and cite creating and retaining local jobs as their top priority.
They also want to boost the infrastructure in underserved areas of East Portland, and want to find ways to improve police interaction with the public and officers' dealings with the mentally ill.
When it comes to fundraising, Hales has hovered around the $155,000 mark. Brady's is steadily growing, currently at about $170,000.
Their list of contributors is revealing. Hales' list includes familiar names in the local business and development world: Zidell Company Chief Executive Officer Jay Zidell ($2,000), Columbia Sportswear President Tim Boyle ($5,000) and Portland Historic Landmarks Commission Chairman Art DeMuro ($1,000), and developer John Carroll ($5,000).
'He's just well-positioned,' Carroll says of Hales' public- and private-sector experience. 'I think he's well aware of the systems and how they work.'
Hales' largest single contribution - $10,000 - is from Al Solheim, a developer who's been called the godfather of the Pearl District.
Brady's list is virtually absent of well-known movers and shakers. She touts a 'truly grassroots campaign,' noting that of the more than 500 donors, 60 percent contributed less than $100.
Brady's campaign kicks off Thursday at Director Park; Hales' event is set for Sept. 17 at Mt. Scott Park and Community Center, one of the facilities built with the 1994 parks bond measure which he spearheaded.
Hales cites the $59 million bond measure as his proudest accomplishment, having also funded the Southwest Community Center and 114 projects at 99 park sites.
Just before he left office, however, his work to develop a Southwest Community Plan in the midst of a larger city density plan was a 'fiasco,' recalls Kay Durtschi, a longtime Southwest Portland activist who was involved in the talks.
'It just got to be a fight with a small nucleus of people,' she says. 'I think it was best to let everybody back off and cool their heels.'
Looking back, Hales says that as the planning bureau commissioner, he should have backed off when he saw that he hadn't achieved an agreement with neighbors about the plan.
'I didn't stay on deck during the storm,' he says. 'I was taking on too many things. I was just not listening carefully enough to the backlash and realizing how serious it was.'
Durtschi says she doesn't fault Hales for the collapse; she even went on to ask him to be her adviser in a run for state senate and would support him for mayor.
'Experience is the best teacher,' she says. 'There's a lot to learn about how a city like ours operates. You don't run it exactly like a business.'
A mixed history
Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who isn't endorsing anyone in the race yet, worked with Hales while their terms overlapped from 1993 to 1999. Hales was the third vote to refer the Portland Children's Levy to voters, Saltzman notes, and they shared the same sensibility that too much public process can be overkill. 'We're soul mates on that one,' Saltzman says.
'I think we're elected to use our instincts and good judgment,' Saltzman says. 'There has to be the right balance. Sometimes that's perceived as short-circuiting the process.'
Jim Forquer, president of the Portland Firefighters Association, says he isn't near an endorsement yet but was concerned by a statement Hales made about reexamining the role of battalion chiefs when looking at potential savings for the city.
Forquer says the positions are an industry standard, critical to managing incidents and evaluating firefighters' safety. 'He's said some things out of place; maybe he doesn't understand the manpower necessary to manage certain incidents,' Forquer says.
Hales clarifies that he isn't targeting any one bureau: 'We're in lean times in our economy; we ought to make sure every part of city government is delivering as much real service as possible with as little overhead as possible. No one is exempt from that scrutiny, public safety bureaus included.'
Oregon AFL-CIO President Tom Chamberlain, who recently took his name off the list of potential candidates for mayor, wants to know more about Hales' record and plans for labor in the city.
'If you have a history, it's fair to bring it up,' he says. Hales agrees. He wants people to recognize the past.
After all, the city might have gone down a different track without him. He tells a story about how TriMet engineers initially wanted to put the Interstate light-rail line not on North Interstate Avenue, but in the Interstate 5 freeway ditch, 'because it would go faster.'
Being an engineer (with a lot of engineer jokes), Hales saw where they came from but immediately put a stop to that plan.
'I had a lot of discussions about how it's a community benefit, not just an engineering success,' he says. 'I was able to steer that big, complicated ship of bureaucracy to the right place … and to get people to turn with you, that's the unheralded part of the job.'