The Rise and Fall of Sam Adams

3.29.2009

By Aaron Scott

It was an early mid-January evening, and Sam Adams was about to step into an intersection in Portland's Old Town when the flashing red hand went solid. Despite an empty street, he stepped back onto the sidewalk.

'I can't jaywalk as mayor,' he said with an embarrassed grin. 'It takes a lot longer to get places. You get to know intersections well.'

The next stop on this evening's itinerary was the annual meeting of the Bicycle Transportation Alliance. The executive director greeted him by the door. 'What do you want me to say?' Adams asked.

'I want you to be, first and foremost, exactly who you are,' said the director with mock seriousness.

'Don't lie. That's good advice,' Adams quipped dryly, before entering a crowd eager to greet their new mayor. With boundless energy and big ideas, he seemed poised to transform Portland from a progressive haven with a struggling economy into a model city for the new century.

One week later, on the eve of Obama's inauguration, a revelation shattered the newfound euphoria. Pushed by a local paper, Adams confessed both to having a sexual relationship with an 18-year-old legislative intern in 2005 and to lying aggressively to cover it up in 2007, when a political opponent first leveled the accusation.

Whereas Adams's choice of sexual partners played little role in his election, now it propelled him into the national spotlight and resurrected the very fears and stereotypes his election had supposedly banished. The media pounced, public cries for resignation echoed off City Hall, and a heated defense rose up. Critics argued this was about integrity and not sexual orientation and demanded he step down. Supporters responded that one mistake did not overshadow two decades of passionate service; the spur behind the attacks, they said, was homophobia by another word. One man's bad judgment threatened to rupture the entire city, and in the process, tear the gay community apart.

During the fall of 2007, as then'city commissioner Adams was preparing to run for mayor, a gay businessman with mayoral aspirations named Bob Ball told another commissioner that Adams had been sexually involved with a minor in 2005. Adams struck back, dismissing Ball's allegations as a vicious smear campaign. Both he and the alleged minor, the precociously handsome Beau Breedlove, insisted that the relationship had been -- and remained -- a platonic mentorship. 'It plays into the worst deep-seated fears society has about gay men,' Adams told The Portland Mercury. 'You can't trust them with your young.' Many prominent Portlanders rallied to Adams's defense, and the ensuing melee sent Ball limping back to the private sector.

On January 19, 2009, four days after the alternative weekly paper Willamette Week presented Adams with new evidence for the relationship, Adams admitted he had lied and apologized to the city. Although the two had met when Breedlove was 17 and working for a state legislator, Adams said the relationship turned sexual only after Breedlove turned 18.

The paper's ensuing story also suggested Adams had hired Amy Ruiz, a reporter who had investigated the rumor and then applied for a job in his office, to keep her off the story's trail. Public outrage was immediate. Adams called a press conference just hours after Obama's inauguration speech.

For the next three days, Adams withdrew to his home to consult friends and colleagues about whether to stay or resign. The media pitched its circus tents outside his house and City Hall, and four local papers called for his resignation, including The Oregonian, Portland's major daily, and The Portland Tribune, which claimed the distinction between 17 and 18 was irrelevant given that Adams was 42. 'It's sexual opportunism, pure and simple,' wrote the free weekly's editorial board. Bloggers and commentators on the newspapers' websites minced no words either. 'Sam Adams is a lying, dishonorable pedophile,' wrote one, articulating a common sentiment. Others nicknamed him SAMBLA, a play on NAMBLA, acronym of the North American Man/Boy Love Association. The state attorney general duly launched an investigation.

'He just allowed himself to get the shit beaten out of him,' said Dan Savage, sex columnist and editorial director of Seattle's The Stranger, sister publication to The Portland Mercury. 'People got the sense that Sam was reeling and there was blood in the water because of the way he was reacting.'

'I've never seen that sort of hunger in Portland,' said Thomas Lauderdale, the bandleader of Pink Martini and a former staffer for two Portland mayors. 'Even a lot of gay people were calling for blood, and they had just been basking in his inauguration.'

Portland stood divided between two sides, in the midst of which a somber majority felt betrayed and confused. 'It didn't feel like Portland -- it felt mean and stupid,' said Lauderdale, who organized a press conference of community leaders to rally support for Adams as the best person to lead the city in dire times. 'When we headed into this year, there was a great deal of optimism all around,' he adds. 'Now we've made an awful mess of our playground.'

Nestled along the Columbia River, Portland has a green reputation and affordable rents that draw environmentalists, musicians, and liberal arts grads by the hybrid-load. Bumper stickers proclaim the unofficial slogan: KEEP PORTLAND WEIRD. The food is organic, coffee is an art, and the local Obama campaign rally was the biggest in the country. It's the most enlightened city in the nation. Or so the story goes.

Although it was only several hours away, Adams grew up in a different world: small-town Oregon, where his family lived on food stamps and housing assistance and he supported himself through much of high school. 'I come from a family of tough Montanans,' he said. 'There's a premium on being tough and strong, and being queer and a faggot wasn't strong.'

Adams dropped out of college to enter politics. He remained closeted at work until becoming chief of staff for Mayor Vera Katz in 1993. 'The attitude has changed now,' he said. 'You can be openly gay at the outset of your campaign and it's OK. But not then, in the '80s.' As a city commissioner from 2004 to 2008, Adams earned a reputation as a policy-driven advocate for sustainability, the arts, and gay rights. In 2008, he won the mayor's office with 58% of the vote.

Yet Adams's landslide victory conceals that Portland is an island in an often resentful state. 'Oregon is a curious mix of libertarianism and moralism,' said Arlene Stein, a sociologist at Rutgers who wrote The Stranger Next Door: The Story of a Small Community's Battle Over Sex, Faith, and Civil Rights while teaching at the University of Oregon. 'It has a long tradition of believing what I do in the privacy of my own home is my own business, but at the same time, there's a very active Christian presence, particularly in the suburbs around Portland, which was ground zero for the antigay campaigns of the 1980s and 1990s.'

With such tension as kindling, both city and state still have burn marks from prominent sex scandals. In 1992, The Washington Post revealed that U.S. senator Bob Packwood of Oregon had been accused of sexual abuse by 10 women. Then in 2004, Willamette Week exposed former mayor and governor Neil Goldschmidt for sexually abusing his babysitter for three years, from age 14 to 17, when he was first mayor in the 1970s.

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