Think Gay Politicians Can’t Get Elected? Tell It To Sam Adams, Portland’s New (Yes, Gay) Mayor

A couple weeks ago, Queerty offered gay cable network Logo a few ideas for new television series. Well, here’s another one: It’s the story of a handsome do-gooder gay politician who wins over the citizens of his city by riding his bike to work, keeping citizens abreast of what he’s doing via blog and campaigning by standing on street corners holding a sign that reads “Honk for the Wonk” after his opponent accused him of being to policy-driven. We’ll name him after an American patriot just to drive the point home.

The citizens of his city elect this guy mayor because of his commitment to the arts, culture, sustainability, healthy living and environmentalism, because those are the issues that are important to them. We’ll also give the mayor an equally handsome partner: an investigative reporter who reports on hot-button issues like the overlapping worlds of Mormonism, Boy Scouts, and child molestation. We’dll set the whole thing in a gorgeous small city surrounded by trees and mountains that’s on the cusp of being recognized as the sort of urban space that could possibly save us from the environmentally wasteful, corporate soul-crushing world we’re living in.

This isn’t a fictional television utopia, though: It’s Portland.

Today, Mayor Sam Adams will be formally recognized as mayor of Portland, Oregon, after last week’s official swearing-in ceremony. With 570,00 residents, Adams’ city is the largest to ever elect an openly gay mayor. (The next closest city with an openly gay mayor is Providence, Rhode Island, where Mayor David Cicilline presides over 172,000 people.) As far as success stories of LGBT politicians go, Mayor Sam Adams is what we call a Very Big Deal.

That he’s gay is only part of the story, however.

Sam Adams joins a growing list of progressive mayors who are reshaping the way Americans view cities. Denver’s John Hickenlooper has fashioned a “greenprint” for the city that zones the city based on environmental factors. San Francisco’s Gavin Newsom has not just championed equality for gays and lesbians in his city, he’s given its citizens universal health care.

But if any one place deserves the moniker The City of Tomorrow, it’s Portland. Unlike the sprawl of most western U.S. cities, Portland is dense and urban by design. This is due to an urban growth boundary that limits areas that can be developed. To compliment this density, the city has invested heavily in public transportation, be it subway, light rail, or aerial tram. The city is a bicyclist’s paradise — again, the result of public planning and government foresight. Environmental news and culture magazine Grist calls Portland the second most environmentally-friendly city in the world, just behind Iceland’s Reykjavik.

All in all, it’s actually not that surprising that Portland would elect a gay man to be its mayor. But at the beginning of what promises to be a very big year for gays and lesbians (see stories on New Jersey and Obama’s LGBT priorities for more), the fairytale story of Mayor Sam Adams is important, precisely because this is one fairy tale that’s 100% true.

Act I: Humble Beginnings

Born in Whitehall, Montana on September 3, 1963, Sam Adams and his parents moved to Oregon when he was three. His parents divorced soon after and his mother, Karalie Gibbons, did what was needed to keep the family afloat and for a while they were on food stamps and living in public housing. Sam’s older sister, Kara, recently told the Portland Monthly: “My mom, God bless her, persevered. We didn’t have a car, and she went to Safeway and she’d load up that grocery cart and wheel it home. I thought, ‘Get a car already.’ That’s a compassionate sixteen-year-old for you. She did what it took to feed us.”

Sam later said his experience growing up poor was “fuel his passion for making government work better for people.”

Act II: The Road (and Rails and Trams) to Politics

In 1986, Adams dropped out of the University of Oregon to work as a staffer on Peter DeFazio’s U.S. House campaign. DeFazio is a transportation and infrastructure nut (he was on Obama’s shortlist for Secretary of Transportation) and his enthusiasm clearly rubbed off on Adams. After joining the City Council, Adams became Portland’s Commissioner of Public Utilities, which in practice means he runs the Portland Office of Transportation (PDOT) and the Portland Bureau of Environmental Services.

It was via PDOT that most Portlanders came to know Adams. He inherited The Portland Aerial Tram , links the South Waterfront district to the upper campus of Oregon Health & Science University. When Adams came on, the project was widely viewed as an expensive boondoggle. The project’s costs had already doubled when Adams took over in 2006, and while most politicians would see the tram as a literal third rail, Adams made it his mission to fix the problem. He fired the head of the project and initiated an audit, the results of which he made immediately public. Using the new realistic assessment, Adams budgeted the costs needed to finish the project and completed it without any overruns.

Act III: The People’s Mayor

The tram put Adams on the map, but his openness and accessibility is what turned the Commissioner into a beloved public figure. He blogs about what he does as commissioner, be it a trip to China to look at green design or alerting citizens that Wal-Mart has designs on their city.

When it came time for the primary for Mayor, Adams handily won it with 58 percent of the vote, removing any need for a runoff election. The victory was proof of Harvey Milk’s axiom that if people “know us they will support us,” but also proof of Adam’s commitment to honest, open and transparent government.

While some gay politicians may feel the urge to minimize their orientation, Adams lives his life openly and uses his prominence to speak out on LGBT issues, as he did this November at Portland’s National Day of Impact rally:

Sam Adam’s partner is Peter Zuckerman, an investigative journalist for The Oregonian (and your editor’s roommate at the National Gay & Lesbian Journalist’s Association Conference a couple years back) who’s a big deal in his own right. His multi-part story on child molestation within the Boy Scouts won awards. Zuckerman’s continued coverage of the issue has revealed that two-thirds of Boy Scout troops in the West are chartered by Mormon churches and that the Church has turned a blind eye to molestation reports, leading to a lawsuit made by six men abused by Mormon Scout leaders. It’s good that he’s busy, since the new mayor is a bit of a workaholic:

“A quick trip to pick up a carton of milk can take an hour, as Portlanders inevitably stop him to tell their stories. The demands on his time are so heavy, he often has to schedule dates even with his partner of nearly a year, Peter Zuckerman. “I know I have to share Sam,” sighs Zuckerman, a twenty-nine-year-old reporter who covers Clackamas County for the Oregonian.”

And while Mayor Adams faces plenty of challenges in the next chapter of his political life — criticisms that he’s too politically green, a historically weak mayoral office and a self-admitted “reputation for being impatient” — his election to a city as large as Portland is not just a new chapter for him, but for the gay community as well.

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  • Hint

    I hope he does well! He could be our first gay governor if he does his job right.

    Then who knows, a long long shot presidential candidate? Would be nice to see him up on the stage even if he has zero chance.

  • seitan-on-a-stick

    My Gay Family live in Portland, Oregon and this is awesome as I may retire in the most progressive state in the union, and Uber gay-friendly (it may not be Utopia, but it’s better than San Francisco!)

    I can see plane loads of Rainbow tourists bound for Portland, Oregon in 2009!

  • Norm!

    The real interesting gay angle was how Portland’s mayoral campaign started off with a nasty gay-vs.-gay smear campaign. In 2007, the Sam Adams’ most prominent opponent was a developer who also happened to be gay. The opponent tried to smear Adams by implying Adams had inappropriate meetings with an underage gay teen (WWeek). To the city’s credit, the media questioned the rumors, the opposing gay candidate’s campaign fell apart when the allegations were unfounded and the alleged victim denied anything had inappropriate had happened.

  • Bill in PDX

    While we are and have been one of the most hip and progressive, gay and enviro friendly cities out there we are far from done and Sam, although he is progressive and I believe caring, has had anger issues in the past with other local pols and policy makers. I am proud to have a gay mayor but I sincerely hope he is or has worked on his temper.

  • kevin

    It helps that people are generally friendlier in Oregon than they are in other parts of the Western United States. That’s why they want to keep us Californians out!!! (and who can blame them?)

  • Margo

    Ya know what made PDX great? Low population density. Enough of everything to go around, no need for greed and competition and despoiling everything in site.

    That was then, this is now.

    The recent migration of yuppies and hipsters and,yup, Californians has brought “developers” and chainstores and people who don’t really give a crap about anything but money here. People who don’t care about gay rights or the environment or localism or anti-consumerism. And so has begun the inevitable and speedy demise of the only decent place left in America. It was great while it lasted.

  • Forrest

    Just don’t move here to Asheville, NC. We have enough new people too. Damn it, I let the secret out! Where next?

  • jiminportlandoregon

    Thanks for the nice post! Portland is a GREAT place to live. It rains a lot but that is also what keeps it so GREEN year round. One minor correction, though, we do not have a subway – water table is too high. We have a good deal of light rail, an aerial tram, streetcars and a shitload of buses. What we really have the most of though are bicycles – it’s like the Amsterdam of America.

  • cambridge

    You all can’t forget about Cambridge, MA having 2 gay & lesbian african american mayors the last two terms. We’re the only city in the country to have an LGBT commission as part of city government too.

  • Grant H

    I feel lucky to live in Portland and have attended Sam’s election night party and now I look forward to see where Sam takes us next.

    He is one of my personal heroes on many levels. He started as a student of Urban Planning as I am now.

    He broke through a few glass ceilings for us.

  • Ken

    Well, when Portland starts issuing gay marriage license, let me know about progressive on gay rights.

  • apetickler

    Portland (or, more accurately, Multnomah County), did issue gay marriage licenses in 2004. I know at least two couples who got them. It was a really big deal.

    Then the state declared them invalid.

  • Seth

    So it makes for a nice story, now ask yourselves, could it have happened if the two of them weren’t two terribly handsome men? Would you still be writing about them? What if they had been moderates, without a string of trendy causes attached to their resumes, or zut alors, fiscal conservatives, instead of progressives? Would there still be a story on this site, especially if there wasn’t the “oh they are so handsome” aspect to it? You make a nice argument that Portland is progressive, that goes without saying, but are Progressive merely becoming as superficial as the stereotypical queen of the 1970s? Is there no room left in America for the plain old salt of the earth American, with common concerns, gay or straight?

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