On January 4th, Sam Adams became the first openly gay mayor of a major U.S. city. He symbolized a new generation of post-gay politicians -- a leader whose sexuality was just another word in the long list of adjectives used to describe him: wonky, grassroots, charming. Two weeks later, who he chose to have sex with became national news when he admitted both to having a sexual relationship with a teenage legislative intern named Beau Breedlove in 2005 while city commissioner and then to denying it in 2007. Both say Breedlove was 18 when they slept together, but an investigation is pending.
Out had been following Adams before the scandal broke to write a profile. Recently, our reporter sat down with him in his Portland City Hall office for a follow up interview. Unpacked boxes still dotted the normally bustling hallways, and Adams, an environmentally attuned workaholic who was wearing a wool coat because he turns the heat off on weekends, discussed his decision to stay in office despite calls for his resignation, disappointing his supporters, and how he plans to weather the scandal in order to continue to serve the people of Portland.
Out: Why did you decide to stay in office?
Sam Adams: I wrestled with resigning or staying. My first priority was whats best for the city. And my second priority was what am I up for, what do I have the energy for. In the end, I can offer at least six to nine months of relative stability by staying [Portlands charter protects newly-elected mayors from recall for at least six months], and I can make amends better by staying. So thats what I decided to do.
Do you feel like your personal life is something the public has a right to know about?
I think at the time [that the rumor came out in 2007], I had the option to say its none of your business. I should have said exactly that. But I certainly didnt give myself that option. I made the mistake of thinking no one would believe me. It was like, how do I prove a negative? How do I prove something didnt happen? So I just panicked, and I made a mistake.
You were in Portland when Willamette Week broke the Goldschmidt story [revealing that a former Oregon governor had sex with his 14-year-old babysitter]. Did you see that as an example of what could happen?
Absolutely, even though it was very different. Very, very different. I think at the time, because it was on the heels of that, it was like, no ones going to believe me.
Youve said the relationship with Breedlove was inappropriate. What do you mean?
I was forty-[two], however many years older than he was. And an elected official. I think the difference in age and the fact that I was an elected official made it inappropriate.
Yet therere certainly similar such relationships among unelected officials.
But elected officials are held to higher standards, and I know that. I can say, at the time, I was very flattered by the attention. Id recently ended my 11-year relationship. I was dating again. I didnt think it through.
Therere a lot of gay people who are really angry with you. What do you say to them?
I totally understand why theyre angry. Ive let them down. Im very, very sorry for that. I made a bad decision. And the best thing I can do right now is to work at trying to make amends by serving the people of Portland the best I can.
Did the call for your resignation by the Portland gay and lesbian paper, Just Out, take you by surprise?
No. I know this city pretty well. I knew coming clean with this issue would likely spark calls for my resignation from everybody. Understandably, Ive embarrassed a lot of people in the LGBT community, and the newspaper calling for me to resign is a reflection of the frustration and anger and disappointment that lots of people have. My job is to try to regain their trust. And part of doing that is accepting and embracing peoples own reactions, and going to them, and being with them. And as difficult and as painful as it might be, thats part of what I feel I need to do to make amends. Ive been out in the community and will continue to be. Im not going anywhere.
Do you see this as having any lasting impact on the gay rights movement?
When a straight person screws up, and there have been a number of straight political figures who have, I dont think that paints a brush on all straight politicians. I think that Americans are smart enough to know that were all unique. Were all individuals. We might belong to different clubs or organizations or demographic groups, but were all individuals.
And at the same time we have ideals about some individuals. For a lot of people, Obama is almost more of a symbol than an individual. And I wonder if in a way you are the same. A charismatic new breed of politician.
Well, if there is a new breed of politician, lets hope that theyre morewell, were all human. I dont know how else to say it. We all make mistakes. We all need to own up to them. We all need to make amends. Thats the path Im on.
Do you think it will impact your ability to work for gay rights and gay marriage?
Im going to continue to, as I have my entire career, play the role that is the most productive for any cause. Whether its lead, follow, or get out of the way.
Do you feel like youre being held to a different standard because youre gay?
I think thats for others to decide. I work hard to meet and exceed high expectations. In this particular instance, in my personal life, I didnt, and Ive been very up front about that. But I think the expectations people have for their elected officials are good, even if we dont or cant always meet them.
Do you think youve dealt well with this whole situation?
My primary goal was to deal with it in a very upfront way. So Ive been less focused on dealing with it well or bad, but just to try to be upfront.
And yet people can accuse you of the fact that you said it didnt get romantic until after he turned 18, yet he said you kissed when he was 17.
And Im not allowed to say anything. Its under investigation.
Was it under investigation during the press conference [in which you made that claim]?
Yet you didnt say anything.
Im not allowed to comment on that. Its under investigation. So I had my press conference, hes had his interview with The Oregonian. In the meantime, its under investigation.
Is there a sense of relief that you no longer have to live with this secret?
Absolutely. Seventeen months of living this lie has been torturous. To get out from under that is a tremendous amount of relief, combined with a lot of shame, and Im going to turn that into making amends. And getting Beau out from under that lie, and the guilt I have for asking him to do that, is also a huge relief.
Youve been a strong advocate for the arts, and at the recent rally in your support, it was mostly artists and cultural leaders who spoke out to support you, down to Storm Large leading the crowd in the song Stand by Your Sam. How did that make you feel?
When youre going through something like this, youre surprised by all. At home I was reading the blogs and the news coverage for a couple of days, so that was my view of the world. And I heard there was going to be this press conference and rally, and it was shockingly touching, because the blogs and the news coverage for the first 48 hours was really very negative, and appropriately so. But I thought that was the full extent of it, so when folks stepped forward and tried to offer some balance, that was really touching. I cant tell you how grateful I am for their willingness to do that. To put it on the line like that.
Do you think you can weather it?
I intend to work hard at that. Its an each and every day kind of thing. And its not going to be easy, because during this time of investigation I cant defend myself, I cant talk about it. It was a poor judgment I made in the context of a campaign, but Ive also got 23 years of public service, and I can put that to use for the best interest of the city. And Im going to work hard to regain peoples trust. And I want to stay.