Novelty quickly seems normal in 21st century Portland. It’s all too easy to take for granted that a “faggot” from Newport could drive a 30 year public service career to become the first openly gay man in history elected mayor of a major American city (or at least one with it’s own TV show). No matter what anyone may have thought of Sam Adams at any point, he’s made history, and survived to talk about it.
After a rocky start, Adams’s tenure as mayor has been focused and effective despite a non-stop critical barrage from his detractors. Some of the criticism has been valid, of course. Adams made mistakes, and no politician pleases everyone. At the same time, some criticism has flowed from sources that would second-guess, diminish, and oppose anything a gay man does, simply for his being gay. Bigotry doesn’t end just because someone wins an election. Ask Obama. Fortunately, Adams has had the strength of character to deliver a solid performance, regardless of it all. If anything, he seems to have enjoyed rising to the challenge. He’s a man not easily beaten.
On his way to becoming “Citizen Sam,” Adams was happy to talk with Just Out one more time as mayor of Portland.
Just Out: So, when did you first fall in love with another man?
Sam Adams: Oh? Uhh … well, his name was Barry. It was years ago when I was growing up in Newport. He was a teammate on my basketball team. He was full of … exuberance … and he was smart, and popular, and um … he was very cute (grins).
JO: Have you ever personally faced openly anti-gay discrimination?
SA: Oh yeah…
JO: Physical violence?
SA: Yes, a long time ago. And I don’t … well, in this job you get called a lot of names. It just goes with the territory. So I try not to give them any power or encouragement by giving them any visibility at all.
One of the more humorous stories along these lines, though, was when I was a City Commissioner. I was showing a business representative, who was looking at various towns to locate in, a parcel of land near the Convention Center. We were driving around with staff, and sitting there talking — this guy was new to Portland and new to me — when someone drives by and yells out, “Sam Adams sucks cock!” And, this guy just turns to me and says, “I think we’re going to get along great!” It turns out he was gay, too (laughs).
JO: Have you ever resented being born gay? Ever wished you were born straight?
SA: I’ve never resented it but, yeah, there were times when I wished I were born straight; growing up in a small town where I didn’t know anyone else gay. I didn’t even know what the concept was, really. And I definitely didn’t know anyone who felt like I did. So, yeah, there were times when it was just incredibly lonely. And being teased was, well, you know, hard to bear. It’s just … this was back in the 70’s, and you’re completely alone … it was mortifying being called “faggot.” Yeah, it was mortifying.
JO: Knowing all you know now, would you run for mayor again?
SA: Absolutely. This has got to be one of the best public service jobs in the entire world. We have a city that has high expectations, plus a willingness to roll up our sleeves to meet and exceed those expectations. There is no more wonderfully challenging job than being mayor of this city. I love this job because I love the people in this city. It’s a combination of high expectations and very participatory residents. Which is great! I love it!
JO: What’s your approach to working in a job that invites constant public criticism?
SA: For me, it’s about keeping an ear open to all of it. Because even if the intent is malicious, I’m still looking to test my assumptions and make sure I have as clear a picture of something as I possibly can. That I’ve thought about all the potential questions and potential answers, and that they’re as accurate as they can be.
You have to be tough in this job, but, I’m on guard and my staff is on guard for making sure I have a clear understanding of what is going on. You have to listen to the criticism. Even the meanest, most vicious criticism you still have to listen and ask, “Have it I got it right?”
JO: How did it feel when you learned that [former Just Out owner/editor] Marty Davis had called on you to resign?
SA: Of course it was very disappointing. But … you know, I am very understanding of everybody’s reaction to that issue. I made a mistake. I lied. And, so while her call to resign was disappointing, I had to be respectful of everybody’s response [in January 2009, Adams admitted lying to the media about an affair he’d had with a young state legislative intern, leading to a public outcry which included some of Portland’s LGBTQ community].
JO: Two failed recall attempts and you’re still the mayor. What does that say about Portland?
SA: I think Portlanders are fair-minded people. That’s another reason I am so bonded with this city. Even before I ran for office — we’re not perfect, no city is perfect – time and time again I saw this city rally around what is fair, what is right, and do so in a progressive way that other cities might aspire to, but do not deliver on as often as Portland does.
JO: What has been your proudest moment as mayor?
SA: I am most proud of my work on education. There are very few panaceas in life, but a good education is pretty darn close. If you’re better educated, you make more money. You’ll be healthier. If you have an education, the numbers show you’ll be happier. Education comes in many ways: skills training, entrepreneurial risk, college, but not just college, by any means.
There are four kids in my own family. Two dropped out of high school, and two of us graduated. So I’ve personally seen behind the statistic of a high school drop out, watching my siblings suffer mightily. So, I know education is good for the city, but for me it’s also personal.
When you come from a hardscrabble or poor background, it’s really hard to get through school. It’s really hard if your parents are doing what they can to stay afloat, but they’re not there emotionally, or even physically, to encourage you through inevitable tough times. I’ve seen what happens to very smart people who drop out of high school, and don’t go on to get a trade or skill, or get to college.
So, we’ve had a major uptick in high school graduations, after four years of concerted effort with our Future Connect program, and after All Hands Raised, which is the new county-wide foundation for all the school districts in the city, plus enhancing our scholarship program, and doubling summer school. These things are about human potential and human infrastructure, so that young people can meet their full potential. And, we’ve done all this in a way that does not depend on a mayor for it’s future success. It’s built into the community, institutionalized in the public and private sectors, and inculcated in the community. That’s what I’m most proud of, because all of that will live on long after I’m gone.
JO: What does your gut say? Will we have marriage equality in 2014?
SA: Yes! I think so. I think that Oregonians are coming to realize that marriage strengthens society for everyone. Loving couples who have legal support and legal rights strengthen every community in the state, and there are LGBTQ couples in every one of Oregon’s 36 counties. We will be a stronger state when marriage is available for everyone.
JO: What does Portland need to do better?
SA: Our Achilles’ heel is that, as great a city as we are, our “greatness” is not accessible to everybody. We’re not living up to our progressive values when it comes to equity. When you compare Portlanders of color to Seattleites of color and San Franciscans of color, and you look at the economic and academic disparities that have existed in all three cities; in Seattle and San Francisco they’ve gotten more equal, while in Portland we’ve gotten less equal. So that’s our biggest challenge.
Our second biggest challenge is that we need to continue strengthening the economy for everybody. Our quality of life is not matched by our quality of economy. So, my service as Portland’s mayor has been focused on the “meat and potatoes” of business development. It’s not sexy work, but helping local business expand, succeed, and export around the world is what we need. Recruiting other businesses where we have gaps in our economics and ecosystem is what we need. So, I’ve focused a lot of work on that. It’s hard work. It takes a lot of time and a lot of patience. It’s behind the scenes work, because every company wants their secrets kept for proprietary reasons.
Our City Council report on economic development strategy, though, shows this hard work pays off. Our goal is to double our exports in the next five years, and we can do that. What’s imagined and designed and made in Portland is unmatched in terms of products and services around the world.
JO: What would you say to other elected officials about the experience you’ve had working with the transgender community, and Portland’s efforts towards equity for this community?
SA: I am very passionate about this issue, because we are all unique. If you are lucky enough to grow old, you will probably experience age discrimination at some point. Issues of equity and fairness should matter to everyone.
The transgender community has been marginalized even within the lesbian and gay rights movement. [Longtime leading local transgender activist] Lori Buckwalter really educated me. She was just a great gal. She and her partner and I would go to coffee or something, because I wanted to get educated. And, the amount of abuse that they used to take just walking down the street was so shameful and so hurtful … I felt embarrassed that in this city I love so much some would say such incredibly nasty and hurtful things to Lori and her partner.
So I am very proud of our work to provide opportunities and equity, including transgender healthcare benefits, here in Portland. I can’t believe that so few cities in the U.S. do that. This needs to change. I’m also very proud that when the Portland Police Bureau did an “It Gets Better” video, we had transgender police officers in that video. We have gay cops, lesbian cops, and transgender cops all together in the Portland Police Bureau “It Gets Better” video. It was a marker of improvement.
JO: If you could be any public official, anywhere, who would it be, and why?
SA: (Laughs) I’ve never been asked that question! I would say a member of the U.S. Supreme Court; probably still one of the most powerful yet legally secretive bodies in the world, definitely in the United States. Part of their esprit de corps is to be very stone-faced. But I’d like to know what is going on. I find it intriguing. And I’d want to be there when gay marriage is before them, so I could do my best to convince the majority that marriage for all — no kidding, no fooling — is what is called for by the Constitution, regardless whether the framers wrote it out explicitly. Because we’re either all created equal here in America, or we’re not.
JO: Who’s the most impressive person you’ve ever personally met?
SA: Hmmm … I am spoiled, because I’ve met a lot of impressive people. How do I narrow it down to one? Excluding family?
JO: Yes, public figures.
SA: I’m comparing and contrasting all the people I’ve met. And, no one has impressed me more as a public official than Vera Katz. And to make sure this is an honest answer, I am comparing her to Bill Clinton, comparing her to Barack Obama, comparing her to all the amazing, talented international leaders I’ve had the good fortune to meet. And, I would still say the most amazing public official I’ve ever met is former Portland Mayor Vera Katz, who I had the great honor to work for.
Vera Katz had to overcome, on a personal level, escaping the Holocaust in a family that had previously escaped the Russian Revolution, and then come to live as immigrants in Brooklyn. She came through all that with a passion for public service. For decades she was a volunteer, a neighborhood leader, a volunteer lobbyist for farm workers. And later, when her son was older, she ran for the State Legislature. Here is a woman who by all laws of averages shouldn’t have, couldn’t have, there’s no way she could have possibly become the first woman Speaker of the Oregon House of Representatives, or Mayor of the City of Portland. So she is an amazing person who, by the way she’s led her life and the way she’s governed as a public official, is the single the most impressive official I have ever met. And I’ve met some of the best of the world’s best.
JO: Have you met the Dalai Lama?
SA: Yes, I have! What I liked about the Dalai Lama was that … well, he’s got a great sense of humor. I’m kind of a smartass, and … you could never say that about the Dalai Lama … but he’s very … mirthful (laughter) … and you don’t expect that. When you meet folks in person after seeing them being portrayed in the media, you notice the difference right away. Public figures have a public image the media have often set up. So when you meet them, sometimes it’s the same, and sometimes it’s just very different. The Dalai Lama is very approachable, very down to earth, with this sort of “twinkle in the eyes” humor.
He was really struck by our Royal Rosarians! He absolutely loved them! The idea that a city would have official greeters, volunteer greeters … he’d never seen that before, and he just remarked what a wonderful statement about a city that would have official greeters, who are there to do nothing but make people feel welcome.
JO: What would you tell a young LGBTQ person who said they want to get involved in politics?
SA: Do it, absolutely!
SA: Anything from volunteering with your local political party, or with one of the many great advocacy groups in Portland. You can go online and take free courses in public management and political science, but there’s so much in being a public servant or political activist that you can only learn by getting out there and doing it. So volunteer. Join your neighborhood association. Portland has a great neighborhood and business association network. There are all kinds of opportunities in our city based on how much time you have and what your interests are.
JO: Has anything about your perspective as a gay man particularly added to your ability to serve as mayor?
SA: Absolutely. I have an affinity for the “underdog.” At the same time, because I used to pass as straight, I got to hear what people said behind the scenes about gay people. So, I would say that it’s been very positive in being able to look at a situation and have a built-in awareness of injustice or untapped potentials for greater equality.
Social change isn’t always about injustice. Sometimes it’s that, even in the LGBTQ community, we haven’t always thought about opportunities we could take towards equity. When I was working to help co-found the Portland Q Center, I was struck that there were over 120 LGBTQ community centers around the United States, but nothing here. There was nothing unjust, per se, involved in that. Portland gets high marks for the LGBTQ community being highly integrated. We haven’t relegated ourselves to a “gay neighborhood.” But, the flipside of this is a sense, especially for vulnerable members of our community, of “where do I go?” for help, support, and a feeling of community. Seeing a need like this isn’t about injustice, but seeing an unmet need for equity, which is a perspective any LGBTQ person can relate with, and then act on.
JO: Any advice for Portland’s next mayor?
SA: Yes. I expect the next mayor to be a huge champion of marriage equality. The mayor’s office is an important bully pulpit for keeping injustices visible. Our next mayor will be a straight man, but that doesn’t matter. I still expect him to fight for and very actively promote marriage for all. I guess you could call that advice. Soon-to-be “Citizen Sam” is going to be an advocate to the next mayor to stay strong on this issue.
JO: Are you going to stay a citizen? What’s up next for you?
SA: I’ve got to make a decision on what to do next. My partner is an author so that provides some flexibility for us. Some of the offers I’ve had have been outside Portland, some inside. I’d love to stay in Portland, but I have to make a living. I’m not independently wealthy (laughs). But, I hope to stay in Portland.
JO: Anything else you want to say to Portland’s LGBTQ community?
SA: I’ve been a public servant for about 30 years now. I am very grateful for the support I’ve received from this community during my years in office, and am very proud to be a part of it.
About Leo Schuman
Leo Schuman is Just Out's political writer. He's also a recovering lawyer, software developer, and self-admitted politcal junkie. While not an Oregon native - he left Montana to come out in a "big city" (cough) - nearly 30 years in Portland have grown him a fine mossy layer. He and his husb ... er, "domestic partner", Michael, live in St Johns.