Check out our interview series with Portland's mayoral candidates.
We have our first real shocker of the 2012 elections here in Oregon. One of the candidates, Charlie Hales, has responded to his Washington residency issue with this statement: “I didn’t move to Washington to cut my taxes. I moved to Washington to sleep with my wife, because she lived there.” Wow, a politician openly admitting he slept with his wife. You don’t hear that everyday.
Charlie Hales, a candidate for mayor of Portland, has been out of public office long enough to become somewhat of an unknown. Sure, we have plenty of media reports from his first go-around in politics back in the ‘90s, but hardened journalists are trained to hide their emotions. How did they really feel about the guy? Perhaps this story will give you a hint:
After City Commissioner Hales had spent over nine years on Portland City Council, and then left mid-term in 2002, the Willamette Week had a team of three interrogators work him over for a five-page exit interview—a vicious hit piece called, “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Hales.” Hmm. Okay, maybe the title was a little soft, but at least you’d expect some tough questioning.
After all, Hales had spearheaded a return to streetcars in Portland and was now leaving early to be an executive at a streetcar company. It was the classic revolving door between government and the private sector. These journalists would tear him to shreds, right? Not even close. Here’s one of their actual questions: “What, if anything, could be improved about Portland’s streetcar?”
It’s pretty obvious that Charlie Hales is an affable guy. The exit interview was not a vicious hit piece—it was more like a group hug. And he didn’t accomplish this just by being nice. Hales is clearly a high-caliber thinker, an effective leader, and—dare I say it—fun. So everything is great, right? Well, yes. Except for that one little problem.
See, Portland is still in a very contentious relationship with our current mayor. We’ve agreed to end it and start seeing someone new, but can you blame us for having trust issues? Can you blame us if we have a few questions for a politician who walked out on us once—when the right trophy gig came along—and is now crawling back asking for a second chance? You’re a good man, Charlie Hales, but isn’t that the Great Pumpkin in the room?
Actually, there’s another problem. Charlie Hales’ time in the city council marked the start of a series of public-private partnerships that have given us South Waterfront, the Pearl District, and a glut of condos, plus one light rail project after another. The city council is now so addicted to spending that the voters don’t know whether to have an election or an intervention.
So that’s the other big issue in the room: Whether or not these spending projects can continue in these terrible economic times, or whether they’ll lead Portland to fiscal ruin.
America has been hammered by the end of the housing bubble, but Portland’s leaders often seem oblivious to it all, living in a bubble of their own full of visons and happy talk. Sure, they boast about sustainability, but is their spending sustainable? Many believe the most egregious phase of all this started the last time Charlie Hales was on the city council, and now he wants to be mayor? Is that wise?
None of this is meant to sell the man short. For a description of his many accomplishments, and more information about his campaign, go to his website. Still, it’s time for some tough questions, so to his many good friends in Portland, bear with us. Let’s face it: We need to know. We’re coming off a bad relationship right now, and we’ve been hurt before.
NN: Charlie Hales, you served as city commissioner from 1993 to 2002, nine years. It’s now nine years later in 2011, and if you serve two full-terms as mayor you’ll be done around nine years from now. Do you realize you have a 9-9-9 plan going here?
HALES: That should—I hope—be the only resemblance between me and Mr. Cain.
NN: It is funny how some politicians are identified with one sort of wacky idea or another that follows them around. With you, it’d probably be the skateboard ordinance that basically said skateboarders have the same access to Portland’s streets as cars. It’s been quite a few years, so we can talk about it now. Was that one of those ideas you came up with at the office Christmas party, or did you lose a bet?
HALES: No, and I still think, as wacky as it was, it was a good idea, because the streets ought to be available to everybody who’s willing to use them safely.
NN: Wait, you’re sticking with that? You’re doubling down on the idea of skateboards mixing it up with cars?
HALES: As long as they’re wearing a helmet and a light at night, you bet.
NN: One major theme of your campaign is how the Eastside of Portland has been shortchanged. Why are we spending money to build trains to the suburbs when some of the roads on the Eastside still look like the Oregon Trail?
HALES: Well, that’s a good question, and we won’t spend general taxpayer money on trains to the suburbs, because we’ve been able to do it with big money from the federal government. Now, I can’t tell you if that’s going to keep happening because the federal government is dysfunctional at the moment.
NN: But we have shortchanged the Eastside, right?
HALES: Oh, we’ve clearly shortchanged the Eastside. I’m very proud of the stuff I did, the new parks and the community center out there, but we haven’t made any progress to speak of on the streets and the sidewalks.
NN: No progress? There are roads out there, that if the pioneers came, they would turn the wagon train around and go back. And by the way, it doesn’t even make sense from a skateboard point of view. You can drive a bicycle or car on a gravel road. You can’t drive a skateboard on a gravel road.
HALES: Yeah, well, it’s important to remember that the city now has responsibility for the problem, but the city didn’t create the problem. That area was developed outside of the city limits with really no rules, and the city inherited the mess, so now we have to clean it up. It’s our responsibility and we ought to set about doing that.
NN: You told the Oregonian, “I’d like to see us systematically build streets and sidewalks in those neighborhoods.” That’s not much of a commitment, is it? I mean I’d like to see my favorite football team win the Super Bowl. Would you be willing to pledge that before we spend another dime on trams, trains, and bioswales, we’re going to bring the Eastside of Portland into the 1800s?
HALES: Into the 1800s. Yes, I think I’d like to see us putting a fixed amount of pavement down every year. It’s not going to get done in one year. But let’s say we’ve got 60 miles to do. Let’s do three miles a year. Let’s commit to that. Let’s do three miles a year until we’re done.
NN: You’ve said that you became city commissioner in the ‘90s because Portland was about to grow and we needed leaders to steer this growth. “Steer” is the actual word you used. Portland’s growth was like a bus and you were going to help steer the bus to a better place, right?
HALES: Yeah, some things worked. Some things didn’t. Some things that worked: we took an old rail yard and made it into a high density neighborhood downtown for people who wanted to live that way. We took some old rundown neighborhood boulevards like Belmont and added new housing on it. We also caused displacement for gentrification and built a bunch of poorly designed housing in East Portland.
NN: When you left office, you gave what amounted to an exit interview in August 2002 to the Willamette Week. At one point, you were talking about Portland developers compared to developers in other cites and you said something that was very revealing:
“Our developers are in it to make money, but typically here they are trying to make money by realizing a vision that has been made between them and the city. And that is the real genius about how we have been growing Portland in the past 10 years.”
Do you see the change? Somewhere in those ten years you went from steering the growth that the city was doing to the phrase “we have been growing the city.” You say “the real genius about how we have been growing the city.”
Doesn’t that sound like you caused the growth? When did city government go from steering the bus to creating the bus, and when did free market forces get thrown under the bus?
HALES: Well, if you look at projects like the Belmont Dairy, that took help from the city government to make that possible because that was the kind of development that banks weren’t financing, and nobody had much experience with. So it took a partnership between the city and the private sector to get that project done.
NN: Isn’t the danger of a planner-driven city economy that officials are no longer tied to economic realities? Real growth is replaced by their visions and it’s all funded from the future. Isn’t the model we’re following now no longer like steering a bus, and more like a streetcar that can’t be steered and follows the same track, no matter what’s happening in the economy?
HALES: Well, actually right now we’re mostly waiting for the bus. The economy is not here and we need it to come back.
NN: Now let’s look at the mechanism the planners use to fund their visions. By the way, you’ve spent a lot of time hiking in the wilderness and you’ve done a lot of work for “Friends of Trees” helping to plant trees in the area. How many trees have they planted so far?
NN: That’s a lot of trees.
HALES: That’s a lot of trees, and Portland is the only big city in the country where the tree cover is increasing.
NN: Since you clearly love trees and nature, let’s look at Portland in terms of the woods. Let’s say city tax revenue was a forest, a forest to be used for the benefit and enjoyment of everyone in the city. If so, aren’t these urban renewal districts equivalent to clear-cutting patches of the woods? These aren’t forest rangers managing growth, these are political loggers picking sections of revenue that will be removed for some project they choose. They decide what will be planted there with what seed money, and who will get paid to do it. My question is, aren’t we clear-cutting the woods so much with all these urban renewal districts, that it’s threatening the ecosystem of the entire city revenue forest?
NN: That’s a Brian Williams-style question. I’m sorry.
HALES: Let’s see if I can do this succinctly. Done right, urban renewal grows bigger trees that then become everybody’s property. Here’s an example: The Pearl District was an old rail yard. There was almost no value there. If we grow the forest there and then turn it over to everybody, everybody wins, so the trick is making sure that those urban renewal districts sunset at some point, and all that tax revenues goes back on the general tax rolls.
NN: But isn’t that saying this clear-cutting will eventually have trees again in 20 years?
HALES: Yeah, but there [were] no trees there in the first place, so we took a desert and planted some trees, and now we’re going to harvest them for everybody. The trouble is now we’ve got almost 15 percent of the city in urban renewal districts, so some of them have to sunset or else it is a bad deal.
NN: Yeah, it is a little ridiculous.
HALES: If we just keep rolling them over and over and over then the value never goes back to the general public.
NN: Fortunately, programs and projects are easy to get rid of. Thank God for that. They’re like Pentagon military spending. Come on, who are you kidding here?
NN: Okay, Willamette Week had three people asking you questions back in 2002 at that exit interview, and at one point they express concern about the new head of planning. That part’s irrelevant now, but just listen to the statement they make at the beginning of their question.
They say, “There was a period of time in this city, and not that long ago, when the Planning Bureau was the spiritual heart and soul of this community, and the planning director helped make this city distinctive.”
By the way, when they said that, were they actually sitting in your lap or did they have their own chairs? Never mind.
HALES: They weren’t praying either even though they were talking spiritualism.
NN: The point is, by the end of your time as commissioner, this town was knee-deep in the planning Kool-Aid, wasn’t it? We were marinating in it. The planning bureau as the spiritual heart and soul of the city? Isn’t that statement all the proof you need that we had entered an age of out-of-control city planning, an age we’re still in?
HALES: Who says Portland is the most un-churched city in the country? We’re all members of the Church of Urban Planning. Portland… sometimes we believe our own hype, but we have done some things right in this city. I mean, we do have a healthier and more livable city than we had 20 years ago, but, and you pointed it out, there are a lot of parts of Portland that aren’t on the postcard, that aren’t on the tour for the group from out of town, and need to be made into good Portland neighborhoods.
NN: On your website you say that one reason you’re running is that you believe “we’re just not getting things done.” Wait, just a second, all Portlanders see are endless projects rolling in like waves on the Oregon coast. I thought I’d give the tree analogy a break and go with the Pacific Ocean. Isn’t the real problem that the city planners are getting too much done and that Portland’s financial future is becoming undone?
HALES: Well, we’ve got an awful lot of process done if you call process product, but I’d like to see tangible improvements, I’d like to see parks where there are missing parks like Cully and East Portland and see better bus service where there isn’t enough bus service. I’d like to see real street improvements where those Oregon Trail streets exist.
NN: But these plans they come up with are actually working against better bus service. They’re curtailing bus service and the working poor who use bus service are often finding their service cut while we do something else in the wealthier parts of town.
HALES: I’ve been out on the doorstep a lot already campaigning, and I hear a very strong desire for, “I want somebody to get in there and make things happen,” and they want somebody to get in there and remember the basic stuff of city government. Do that first and then see if we have any money for anything else. So, I hear you, and you are where a lot of people in Portland are.
NN: Now I know it’s early and campaign messages can change, but why would we want a mayor who thinks city government should be doing more? Could you blame the voters if they said, “Thanks, Charlie but you’ve done way too much already?”
HALES: Well, I don’t think city voters are looking for someone who will get little done, so I think it’s a matter of how you prioritize and what you focus on and again, I think that “back to basics” message is loud and clear. I hear it.
NN: A week ago, one of your opponents, Max Brumm, said that by leaving your office before your last term as city commissioner was up, to take a big job in the streetcar industry, you had pulled a Sarah Palin. Are you worried you’ll be thought of as Caribou Charlie?
HALES: Choo Choo Charlie, maybe. Umm, public office is a responsibility, not a life sentence or a cushy job, and I stayed 10 years to get the things done that I thought the voters wanted me to do, and I’ll stay for my full term if I get elected this time. I understand that concern.
NN: Who were the real estate developers who were trying to hire you? You mentioned some offers locally.
HALES: Oh, I had some offers from local real estate developers who will have to remain anonymous, but I took a job with this planning and engineering firm and it helped cities all over the country follow our example.
NN: Max went on to suggest you should have a reality show called Charlie Hales’ Washington, an obvious dig at your residency issues. Is this 19-year-old starting to get on your last nerve?
HALES: No, he’s not getting on my nerves. He’s free to engage in whatever hyperbole he wants to.
NN: Max is a good kid though, isn’t he?
HALES: Yeah, he’s a good kid. Yeah, he’s taken a few too many jabs. You know, if you’re running for a cameo appearance, you should probably just try to look good and not try to make the other guy look bad.
NN: As long as we’re in this mode, any snarky shots at the Eileen Brady campaign?
HALES: Nah, nah.
NN: You know I’ll try to get her to say something about you.
HALES: Well, good luck. She might but…
NN: You know her?
HALES: Yeah, of course. She’s a nice person. She hasn’t worked a day in local government, but…how’s that? Snarky enough for you?
NN: What do you say about Eileen Brady’s run-in with the police at the park? Do you believe it when they suggest she played the connections card and told them she had friends on the city council? What reason would the police have to make that up?
HALES: Well, I’m not going to speculate on that at all.
NN: You’re not going to stick up for the police on this?
HALES: Nor am I going to stick up for Eileen. She has to paddle her own canoe on that one.
NN: Is it up sh*t’s creek?
HALES: It might be. She’s certainly looking for the paddle.