On the Town

This is Jim Middaugh's story, and he's sticking to it. In the first place, he says, he never really considered running for City Council until Jan. 10.

He remembers the day quite well, he says, because at the time he was walking to lunch with his boss, then-Commissioner Erik Sten.

Just eight days earlier, Sten had announced his decision to resign in the middle of his term, so naturally the conversation turned to the question of who would run for his chair on the council.

As Middaugh recalls, he mentioned that he'd been approached by City Hall types urging him to run, but said he'd decided against it.

Despite a life spent mostly in politics and government, says Middaugh, he'd never really considered the possibility of being a candidate himself.

Certainly, he says, he'd never once discussed the possibility with Sten, for whom, as it happens, he'd worked for the past seven years - first as administrator of one of the bureaucracies under Sten's control, then as his chief of staff in City Hall.

• • •

In point of fact, insists Middaugh, it wasn't until that fateful day in January, as he and Sten were walking to lunch, that the subject of Middaugh's political aspirations came up at all.

'Oh,' Middaugh recalls Sten as saying, 'I didn't know you were interested. You'd be a strong candidate. You should go for my seat.'

Then, he says, Sten told him: 'You should go Voter-Owned' - which, as we all know is the current euphemism-of-choice for the city's public financing program.

And thus it happened, that a record 10 days - just under the wire for the Jan. 31 filing deadline - Middaugh collected 1,700-plus signatures, qualifying for more than $140,000 in public money to campaign for Sten's seat.

Given the timing of Sten's announcement, no one else even considered going for public financing - leading some to believe that Sten, the ultimate City Hall game player, had arranged things with that in mind.

Certainly, with all the projects he'd left on the table, it would make sense if Sten wanted someone besides City Hall-outsider Nick Fish to take his place on the council.

But if Middaugh's story is true - that the subject never came up until lunch on Jan. 10 - the timing is probably just a coincidence.

• • •

And then just this month, Sten was accused of trying to slip a measure through City Council that would have given Middaugh another $200,000 for a possible runoff against Fish.

Both Sten and Middaugh say there was no intention of taking advantage of a loophole in the public financing system - and if so, we should probably chalk that up as another coincidence as well.

But to be perfectly honest, I'm not sure just what to think of Middaugh's revelation last week, in response to a direct question at a campaign event, that he first learned around Thanksgiving of last year that Sten was going to resign.

That's six weeks before Sten announced it to the public - and still another week before the lunch where Middaugh says he first discussed his political future with Sten.

The question, of course, is why Sten didn't announce his decision immediately and give any number of worthy candidates a chance to collect signatures and qualify for public money.

Instead, he and Middaugh kept it to themselves.

Now why would they do a thing like that?

Contact Phil Stanford by phone, 503-546-5166, or by e-mail at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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