Our New Mayor, Tom Potter
The unlikely journey of Tom Potter
Friday, November 05, 2004
HENRY STERN and SCOTT LEARN
On Sept. 23, 2003, Tom Potter gathered a dozen friends for a kickoff strategy session in the living room of his Woodstock bungalow.
As they spilled onto an ottoman and the floor, Potter calmly dropped his bombshell: He wasn't going to accept a dime of campaign money in his race for Portland mayor.
Participants recall a collective gasp. The ex-police chief's high-minded idea was politically stupid.
"Everybody agreed, forcefully, that he was out of his mind," said Mark Rosenbaum, a financial planner who became Potter's campaign chairman.
Who's stupid now? Potter, who for better or worse doesn't sweat naysayers, bent only slightly that night, agreeing to accept $25 contributions. Anybody could afford that, he figured.
Like so many decisions in Potter's campaign, doing less turned out to be the right call.
Fourteen months later, the burned-out cop who left the police chief post in 1993 had risen from a comfortable retirement to become Portland's 50th mayor, following a campaign strategy that shredded the political textbook.
Despite little money and a bare-bones platform, Potter's unorthodox run toppled Commissioner Jim Francesconi, who raised a record $1.3 million in defeat. Potter tapped a vein of longing for Portland's glory days when the city pioneered neighborhood involvement. He and his advisers also practiced what they came to call "Jim Judo," letting the seven-year city commissioner's tactics work against him.
In what Potter admits was his luckiest break, Francesconi's chase for big money turned into the political equivalent of a thirsty man gulping salt water.
With a calmness bred by years of police work, Potter sees himself as a badly needed steady hand. He prides himself on listening -- campaign staffers tell of having to pry him out of conversations -- and he wants more citizen input in city decisions.
But Potter goes much further than that. He sees himself as a city-transforming "change agent," a 64-year-old retiree with no political future to fret about who can revive community policing and begin addressing the root causes of crime, homelessness and unemployment.
Potter's historic victory has galvanized activists and neighborhood leaders. And it leaves Potter and his supporters dreaming of transcending politics as usual when he takes office in January.
As Potter tells it, the story began with a night on the town.
A funny idea
Just 21 months ago, Potter's mind was far from City Hall. On Valentine's Day 2003, he and his third wife, Karin Hansen, gathered with friends at El Gaucho steakhouse, Potter wearing a tuxedo, his wedding cuff links and a red bow tie that matched his wife's lipstick.
Amid chateaubriand, red wine and cigars, musician Skip Bowman suggested that Potter run for mayor in 2004.
"We all laughed," Bowman said. "We all know Tom and how much fun he was having traveling with his wife. He laughed as hard as anybody else."
Potter was happy in retirement, which included a $90,000-plus police pension. And as "Grandpa Cottage-Cheese Head," he was a reliable baby sitter for his 11 grandchildren, who all lived nearby.
But the seed had been planted. Potter was upset about the militaristic direction of the Police Bureau under then-Chief Mark Kroeker. And he didn't like the city overriding citizens on decisions such as covering the Mount Tabor Park reservoirs.
In July 2003, Mayor Vera Katz announced she would not run for a fourth term. On a steamy Sunday a month later, Potter left his mug of coffee on the dining room table, set down his newspaper and told Hansen, "I'm doing it."
Soon after, he dropped the news to his four children around the morning campfire at Nehalem Bay State Park. They ended up supporting their father. But said son Troy Potter: "My first response was, 'Dad you're nuts.' "
Winning over the left
Back in Portland, the mayoral door was opening wider.
U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer tearfully announced the day after Labor Day that he wouldn't run. Commissioner Erik Sten bowed out, too.
And while Francesconi collected cash and endorsements, unease about Francesconi mounted among Portland's liberals. They disliked his donor list and what they saw as his business-driven position against an anti-war resolution.
Potter, the immaculately groomed former cop and the product of an at-times overtly racist upbringing, might appear an unlikely liberal standard-bearer.
But he knew what it was like to be poor: He and his family lived briefly in friends' garages after his father died when Potter was 6. As a young man, he spurned much of his family's Southern Baptist roots but kept his mother's focus on good works. He supported the Vietnam War initially, then concluded that the government's war rationale was a sham.
By the time he became chief in 1990, Potter was an avowed progressive. He preached a "community policing" philosophy of citizens and police working together, and marched in uniform in gay rights parades, in part to support his lesbian daughter, Katie, also a Portland officer.
The still-thriving liberal regard for Potter became clear at his mid-November campaign kickoff. His supporters included a who's who of liberal lights, from ex-Mayor Bud Clark to Dignity Village's Jack Tafari.
For a rookie candidate, Potter had great momentum.
Then the whistle blew.
A rocky start
Potter hired a 23-year-old campaign manager, Max Sadler, who had never managed a candidate's campaign.
Then Potter gave a speech one dreary December morning to about 20 people at an industrial Rotary breakfast. The speech, billed as a detailed six-step plan to bring Portland government closer to the people, barely laid out three parts.
Former Potter critics resurfaced, throwing a cold splash on what had been an adulatory chorus and reminding Portlanders that Potter had decided to leave the chief's job a year early.
Potter's $25 contribution cap didn't help matters, said Sadler's replacement, Marlis Miller.
"People were not interested in meeting with a person who was taking $25," she said. "People saw it as a sign he was not serious."
That liability, however, was about to become an asset.
Back at City Hall, Sten had been working for more than a year on a "clean money" proposal for public financing of city campaigns.
Sten, who would eventually endorse Potter, set up an April hearing on the unfinished proposal, spotlighting Potter's $25 limit -- and Francesconi's record fund raising.
The local media jumped on it. Within weeks, a complaint was filed against Francesconi's campaign that would result in the indictment of developer Tom Moyer for allegedly illegal contributions. Francesconi was eventually cleared. But the damage was done: He was the "million-dollar candidate" with single donations of as much as $20,000 from inside players.
The issue had been bubbling for months, Sten said recently, but Francesconi continued his fund raising without realizing the downside. "Jim set it up like a $20 bill left in the street."
By the May primary, Potter and a cadre of true-believer volunteers had captured the city's left and neighborhood leaders upset at City Hall. He was endorsed by Sten, the council's staunchest liberal. And though Potter had no campaign ads, his 5,000 lawn signs dominated the city's liberal neighborhoods.
Francesconi polls showed Potter on the rise. But Francesconi's well-financed TV ads -- generic political fare -- didn't help. Before the primary, some of his supporters were in tears publicly, blaming the media for zeroing in on the front-runner.
Despite being out-raised 12 to 1, Potter drew 42 percent of the vote on May 18, to Francesconi's 34 percent.
Supporters whooped at Potter's campaign party. Some cried. Potter, by contrast, sat quiet and cautious, refusing to comment.
Potter said publicly he expected to win the primary, but admitted later that he didn't really think he would. That night, Potter and his wife couldn't sleep.
"The most thrilling part wasn't the point spread," Potter said. "It was the fact that this low-budget campaign tilted the playing field about how campaigning worked in Portland, that common sense of, 'We did this, didn't we?' "
Potter boosted his donation limit to $100, helping him narrow the money gap. But he was no longer the underdog. And his opponent was fighting mad.
"Jim Judo" strikes again
In June, Francesconi vowed to run a "fun" campaign that returned to his community roots.
Then, in early August, he ran ominous radio ads blasting two Potter personnel decisions when he was police chief. The ads were based on newspaper clips but omitted crucial facts, leaving Francesconi open to charges of distortion.
At Potter headquarters, a staff beefed up after the primary was outraged. Some urged Potter to sling dirt on Francesconi and his record -- some going to reporters directly. Potter says he was angry but didn't want to go negative.
Doing less worked: Former Commissioner Mike Lindberg, once a member of Francesconi's kitchen Cabinet, threw his support to Potter. The union representing the city's cops yanked its Francesconi endorsement. "Jim Judo" had struck again.
Meantime, Potter operatives had blanketed many inner-Portland neighborhoods with lawn signs.
On the ground, Potter began to look unbeatable. By August, he had set up a transition committee for the mayoral post.
Only a scandal could derail him -- and tipsters were urging reporters to look into his past consensual relationships with women.
In September, Potter met with two reporters for The Oregonian to discuss those issues. He was angry, showing an icy fury that associates say can rise when he is challenged.
He said he had done nothing wrong and that his personal matters were "none of the readers' business."
None of the women reportedly involved previously with Potter would talk. Willamette Week and The Oregonian ran stories that raised the issue. It wasn't a deal killer.
In the candidates' final televised debate, Francesconi had clearly honed his message. He was punchy instead of wordy, sharp instead of fuzzy.
But there was only a week left until Election Day. Ballots had already been out for 10 days.
The race was over.
Tough tasks ahead
Potter's campaign party Tuesday night drew about 800 supporters, four times the primary-night turnout. But it held little drama.
More comfortable now, Potter talked with the children scattered about Southeast Portland's Melody Ballroom. As well-wishers lined up for a handshake or just a word, he took the time to linger in one-on-one conversations amid all the hubbub.
"Portland is a great city, and now that we've got the right mayor, it's going to make us even greater," exulted businessman Harold Williams Sr.
But Potter could have a short honeymoon. He plans to yank all the bureaus from commissioners for six months, setting up potential showdowns.
Many supporters have projected their own hopes onto Potter. Disappointment will follow when he must decide against some of them. Business leaders flocked to Potter after the primary, but their capacity to make life unpleasant -- demonstrated by their break with Katz -- remains alive. Some names swirling for Potter staff positions tote their own baggage of conflict with Potter's new city colleagues.
And with Potter pledging to be outside City Hall half the time, critics will look to see if Sten controls the agenda as part of his own mayoral aspirations in 2008.
Political gamesmanship annoys the mayor-elect. But Potter resolves to govern with serenity.
"I'm at peace with myself," Potter said the day before he would officially make history. "I just figure what's going to happen is what's going to happen. If I can make things better, then so be it."
Reporter Amy Hsuan of The Oregonian contributed to this story.
Henry Stern: 503-294-5988; firstname.lastname@example.org
Scott Learn: 503-294-7657; email@example.com
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