New Seasons founder links progressive ideas, vibrant economy
Eileen Brady drives a 2005 Subaru Forester with kayak racks on top.
At 18, she spent two weeks in jail for participating in a 'no nukes' protest.
She gave birth to her two children at home, and she eats fish but no meat.
But her guilty pleasure usually takes over when she visits friends Doc and Connie Hatfield, founders of Country Natural Beef, the 120-family ranching co-op in the tiny Eastern Oregon town of Vale. 'I do love their hot dogs,' Brady admits. 'It might be the old Chicago baseball fan in me.'
The 50-year-old cofounder of Portland's New Seasons Market is well aware she's a bit of a hippie, and she's proud of it. 'My mother thought it was a cult,' Brady says of her penchant for organic food in the early 1980s.
But the only woman to set foot so far in Portland's 2012 mayoral race is selling herself as more than just another Portland progressive cliché. She's a greenie with business cred, having served on boards of the Oregon Business Association, the Oregon Health Fund and Zenger Farm, among other organizations.
Brady earned a small fortune leading a team of software engineers and designers through the dot-com era, and is a co-owner of the Portland company that publishes the Chinook Book in six states and online.
At the Portland nonprofit Ecotrust, she was vice president of the Food and Farms program, which links local farmers with chefs, food processors, grocers, schoolchildren and the public.
'You can have a progressive set of values and a vibrant economy,' Brady says. 'Ecotrust is a great example of that. New Seasons is a great example of that. You can be idealistic and practical at the same time.'
Brady's supporters - a vast network so far, considering she's raised $75,000 in just three weeks - are hoping the double dose of idealism and business sense will be exactly what's needed to lead City Hall at a time when many citizens are feeling alienated by often confusing spending decisions of current elected leaders.
'I think we need to have some leadership at some level about something more than being No. 1 at sustainability,' says Bonny McKnight, chairwoman of the Russell Neighborhood Association in East Portland, who hasn't met Brady but likes the idea of a woman and a City Hall outsider running for mayor.
'We need to bring people back into participation, not being told what is going to happen. Don't invest two years of staff time to come up with a proposal.'
Brady agrees with that sentiment. This summer she plans on visiting all 95 city neighborhood associations to talk with people over cups of coffee, check in with business owners, attend festivals, meetings and other events.
'East County has legitimate gripes,' she says. 'They feel they've been neglected and they really have. … They need a seat at the table. There's a lot of talent and leadership, we need to develop it. … We need to see we're not as divided as we think.'
Tribune Photo: Christopher Onstott • Eileen Brady (center) and daughter Caitlin O'Brady talk with Regina Hauser and Sarah Costello (right) over coffee at the Ecotrust Building about an upcoming sustainable event. Brady and her supporters say her sustainable chops mixed with business leadership qualifies her to lead the city as mayor in 2012.
Raising the most money
Since declaring her candidacy June 1, Brady is off to a running start. Having not held elected
office, she won't have the automatic name recognition as rival former City Commissioner Charlie Hales, who served from 1992 to 2002.
Brady and other candidates also won't have the boost the incumbent candidate has in a race, if Mayor Sam Adams decides to seek a second term.
The deadline to file for the race isn't until March. So far the only other candidate officially running is Max Brumm, a 19-year-old Clackamas Community College student who graduated from Lincoln High School last year.
Brady stands alone in her fundraising efforts; neither Hales nor Brumm have reported any contributions.
When asked about Adams' weaknesses as mayor, Brady demurs. 'I'm not running against Sam, I'm running for Portland,' she says.
As for Hales, she says: 'I'm not a career politician. Voters are going to have a clear choice. Democracy is alive and well.'
Since leaving City Hall, Hales worked on big-budget projects at the Portland office of architecture-engineering firm HDR Inc. Prior to that, he did government affairs work for the Home Builders of Portland.
Portland pollster Tim Hibbitts says Hales has the balancing act of trying to run as an insider/outsider, who has city government experience but isn't happy with the current climate and wants to come in and fix it.
If Adams enters the race, Hibbitts says, 'he's certainly vulnerable' because of the sex scandal and other controversies during his term, and will have to sell his accomplishments.
Brady, meanwhile, has to run as an outsider who 'clearly knows enough about Portland city government and is not a rookie,' Hibbitts says. 'People can be nervous about that. But if she gets over that hurdle of being able to talk reasonably intelligently about some issues … I think she's got a great shot.'
In any case, the mayor's race of 2012 will be about economics, and getting back to basic services rather than fringe efforts, Hibbitts says.
'Small, impossible idea'
From outside City Hall, she's had a hand in shaping city and state policy on a variety of issues during the past 25 years.
She was part of the Mt. Tabor Reservoir committee and Metro Blue Ribbon Bike Trails Commission, was founding board member of the Portland Sustainability Center and adviser at the Voice for Oregon Sustainability and Innovation.
In 2002, she helped kick off then-Gov. John Kitzhaber's initiative called Oregon Solutions, a council that worked on fostering new models for community governance and problem solving.
While there isn't any public criticism of Brady yet, the most rumbling is heard about whether New Seasons is 'anti-union' because the stores' employees are not unionized like other major grocery chains in the region.
There's no evidence to support that claim. To the contrary, the market provides insurance benefits for employees who work as little as one shift per week. Spouses and domestic partners are covered by the company's insurance.
'I'm very much looking forward to having a partnership with labor (groups) of the city,' Brady says. 'I want the public employees to be heroes of the city.'
Brady says creating the progressive work culture at New Seasons was a conscious decision during the company's launch.
The cofounders were her husband, Brian Rohter, whom she married in 1997 after they met while working at Nature's Fresh Northwest, along with local businessmen and friends Stan Amy and Chuck Eggert.
In the early days, they met in a tiny upstairs office at Brady and Rohter's Mt. Tabor home. Originally, Brady says, the store wasn't going to have a meat department in the spirit of vegetarianism. Instead, the 10-store grocery chain today has made a name for itself working with Country Natural Beef and other ranchers across the Northwest.
The store's name came almost by accident: a combination of 'seasons,' which they liked but was trademarked, and Brady and Rohter's favorite brand of tennis shoes: New Balance.
One name that was rejected: 'Stone Soup,' after the folk story that involves villagers bringing an ingredient to an empty cooking pot. It didn't quite have right ring, she says.
So they launched New Seasons with a sizable amount of their savings, including the dot-com earnings, into the investment. They also gathered support from 50 of their closest friends for the venture, Brady likes to say.
While Rohter ran the store full-time, she led the human resources and staffing and marketing efforts. As of last year, Rohter named a new chief executive officer, Lisa Sedlar. Rohter and Brady now have a minority share in the company.
Brady says her priorities for the city are addressing the livability and work force needs by paying attention to people - businesses, young workers, people who feel disenfranchised from the system - and nurturing them to grow, the same way her own company flourished.
'It was a big risk,' Brady says of New Seasons. 'Almost all of it was a small, impossible idea.'
• Brady's 'mom' instincts guide life philosophy
The oldest of five children in an Evanston, Ill., Irish Catholic home, Eileen Brady's mother coordinated congressional campaigns, which had Brady knocking on doors as a precinct captain at age 12.
Her late father was an attorney and historian, and served on the local school board.
Brady came to the Northwest to study 'organizational design and behavior' at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., working afterward at Nature's Grocery.
There, she met husband Brian Rohter - who coincidentally grew up 15 minutes away from her Northside Chicago hometown. Now married for 14 years, they've raised a blended family, with two children of her own plus Rohter's two daughters.
One stepdaughter, Sadie Morrison, 34, stepped up to run the online shopping program for New Seasons after the company launched, and the other, Casey Rohter, 31, is an interior design student in San Francisco, where she lives with her girlfriend.
Daughter Caitlin O'Brady, 28, works with the Rangelands Program at Ecotrust after completing a graduate program at Yale University. And Colin O'Brady, 26, is a training to compete in the 2016 Olympics as a triathlete.
The past three years have been rough: both Caitlin and Colin suffered near-death experiences. Caitlin was in a car that was struck head-on by a drunk driver. She fully recovered from injuries suffered in the wreck.
Colin landed in a hospital in Thailand after 23 percent of his body burned in a bungled tourist activity called fire rope jumping.
While she sat with him for three weeks in recovery, Brady says her son told her: 'Mom, you always say we've gotta have a big goal. I think I want to be a triathlete.'
'I said, 'I just want you to walk,' ' Brady says.
Both events helped put her life in perspective. 'It helps you understand what's precious in life,' Brady says. 'You should do what you really want to do. Make the big decisions with your heart.'