The Rise and Fall of Sam Adams
March 29 2009 8:00 PM EST
May 26 2023 2:14 PM EST
It was an early mid-January evening, and Sam Adams was about to step into an intersection in Portlands Old Town when the flashing red hand went solid. Despite an empty street, he stepped back onto the sidewalk. I cant 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 evenings 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. Dont lie. Thats 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 Obamas 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 Adamss 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 mans bad judgment threatened to rupture the entire city, and in the process, tear the gay community apart. During the fall of 2007, as thencity 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 Balls 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 cant trust them with your young. Many prominent Portlanders rallied to Adamss 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 papers 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 storys trail. Public outrage was immediate. Adams called a press conference just hours after Obamas 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, Portlands major daily, and The Portland Tribune, which claimed the distinction between 17 and 18 was irrelevant given that Adams was 42. Its sexual opportunism, pure and simple, wrote the free weeklys 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 Seattles 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. Ive 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 didnt 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 weve 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. Its 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. Theres a premium on being tough and strong, and being queer and a faggot wasnt 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 its 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 mayors office with 58% of the vote. Yet Adamss 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 Communitys 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, theres 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. The Oregonians well-funded newsroom was criticized for failing to pursue both stories and for publishing Goldschmidts confession with his word affair to describe what Oregon law defined as rape. There was a fair amount of tweaking on the nose going back and forth between Willamette Week and The Oregonian about who reported what first, what went unreported, and who knew what when, said David Zagel, a transportation consultant who has known Adams since they were children. I can imagine no news outlet wanted to be left out of something like this again. Adams was running for city commissioner when the same reporter who would expose his relationship with Breedlove ignited the inferno around Goldschmidt. The swift public condemnation weighed heavily in Adamss decision to lie in 2007, he told Out. On the heels of that, it was like, no ones going to believe me [that Breedlove was 18]. Critics claimed he could have survived the fallout in 2007 if hed just said: It was legal, and its none of your business. But with Breedlove barely 18, his fears seemed all too prescient. We had to lie to survive -- especially people who are older -- and thats why gays and straights are different, said Byron Beck, former writer of Willamette Weeks queer column and a friend of Adamss. He lied because he felt all gay hell would break loose if he told the truth. And it did. The fervor of public condemnation struck Portlands gay and lesbian community hard. An antigay fringe quickly began hurling homophobic slurs amid calls for resignation, and the media seemed intent on amplifying and sensationalizing the conflict. Over the weeks, reporters continued to inaccurately report that Breedlove was Adamss intern, favor words like grooming and preying, and use titillating MySpace photos of Breedlove in a Speedo or reclining shirtless -- all of which many gays and lesbians perceived as biased (although one has to imagine the media would act no differently with pictures of a scantily clad woman). Even in the more dignified calls for resignation, many saw a double standard regarding a gay politician. Unlike Eliot Spitzer, Mark Foley, or Bill Clinton, Adams had not cheated on a spouse, nor lied under oath; he had not exploited an employee, nor apparently broken any laws. There was a greater age disparity and disparity of stature between Clinton and Monica Lewinsky than between Sam Adams and Beau Breedlove, said U.S. congressman Barney Frank, who survived his own gay sex scandal in 1989. People who defended Clinton and then demand Sam Adams resign are inconsistent. In 1998, The Oregonian editorial board recommended Clinton stay in office through the investigation unless it became clear he could not lead, despite the cold, calculating, cynical lie he risked everything to preserve, and most Portlanders agreed. What we lefties and liberals said during Clinton was people have the right to lie about sex because its the only way to protect yourself, said Savage. All people lie to cover up embarrassment, said Frank. Its wrong, but its not a permanent disqualification from public office. Others have argued that the double standard actually worked in reverse: liberals defended Adams because he was gay, while theyd denounce a straight politician without pause. Its the hypocrisy and vindictiveness that hes displayed in the cover-up that are particularly alarming to some people, said reporter Nigel Jaquiss, who broke the story. Barney Frank took his lumps, but Sam didnt fess up when first confronted and then dug himself in. Adamss revelation devastated gay supporters, who had invested time, money, and commitment in his success. Hes not just a person who got elected, said Kathleen Saadat, a longtime local equal rights activist. He is a symbolic representation of the hopes of gays and lesbians in the city and even the nation to some degree, which is why people are so angry at him. The day after the press conference, the citys oldest gay and lesbian paper, Just Out, demanded Adams resign not only for lying, but for making the gays who came to his defense in 2007 unwitting accomplices. Adamss supporters quickly accused Just Out of rashly hanging Adams to protect itself. Initially it was like the whole world was coming after us, said publisher Marty Davis. But in the end, I would say our community seems to be divided right down the middle. Although Adamss lies are the primary wedge dividing gay sentiment, it is difficult to separate out the fears and conflicts that persevere around sex in gay culture, and the ways gay men, in particular, can feel implicated by association. There are many sectors of the gay community that want nothing more than to be seen as normal, said sociologist Stein. A lot of antisexual attitudes persist and a kind of embarrassment about people like Adams. The gay community has a hard time defending itself against [accusations of pedophilia]. Yes, people are upset about the lying; but to be so upset so quickly, theres something deeper going on, said columnist Beck. One, its about the lying; two, its about the stereotype; and three, its about the fact weve been working so hard to say, Look were just like straight people, but the reality is were not. One week into the scandal, Breedlove, now 21, gave his first interview to The Oregonian, which was accompanied by a photo shoot of the darkly handsome young man playing with his dog, Lolita. Contrary to Adamss admission, Breedlove said the relationship became romantic before he turned 18. He said they kissed twice: the first time, a quick kiss after their first lunch; the second, a more prolonged kiss in a mens bathroom at City Hall. The following week, Breedlove gave tell-all television interviews, sharing everything, right down to the number of times he and Adams had sex during a weekend together. Breedloves revelation raised the legal stakes. In 2001, the Oregon court of appeals ruled that lips are an intimate part of the body, which meant that Adams could potentially be charged with third-degree sexual abuse, reported Willamette Week. For many in this progressive city, whether gay or straight, liberal or conservative, Adamss transgression came down to the age disparity. Summing up the argument, the editor of a suburban paper wrote a column titled Sam Adams Math Problem: 42 + 17 = Y(uck)2. Consulting fellow fathers, he wrote that if itd been a straight commissioner and one of his daughters, We would hunt the bastard down and beat him like a cheap piata. Weve had a bit of a sex panic going for the last 20 years, said Savage. Our culture doesnt know how to deal with its own attraction to the teenage body. We wallow in teenage beauty and then we react with hysteria and persecute anyone who lays a finger on a teen so that we dont feel like we have responsibility for creating this teenage ideal. The idea that teenagers are immature individuals unable to make legal decisions is relatively new, said David Greenberg, a professor of sociology and criminology at New York University and author of The Construction of Homosexuality. Over the last century, in the process of trying to move teenagers from the factory into the classroom and to protect girls from sexual abuse, weve created juveniles as a distinct category, and part of that Freudian idea of childhood is that children are innocent and need to be protected from sex. If Adams had kissed Breedlove in a bathroom in almost any other state in the nation, even if theyd had sex, the legality wouldnt be in question. The majority of U.S. states give teenagers the right to consent at 16. Nevertheless, even liberal gay critics and Adams himself have described the age disparity as inappropriate, regardless of its legal standing. Breedlove has contended that he knew what he was doing, that he consensually embraced the relationship, and that he has no regrets. Breedloves following two-year relationship, which has been mostly ignored by the media, was with a man twice his age. Asked by a reporter on Portlands KGW TV on February 9 whether he liked older men, Breedlove nodded and smiled. A growing body of research has found that adolescent boys who consensually engage in relationships with older partners are as well adjusted as those who do not -- findings that run contrary both to public opinion and research on adolescent girls. One explanation is that gay teens who face rejection and violence from their peers can more safely explore their sexuality with an older, affirming partner, says Greenberg. Certainly Adamss decision not to say nice to meet you and ask for the check when he learned Breedloves age was political folly, but theres little evidence it was exploitative or harmful. We want to make this into a morality play about the old fag and little twink with a butt cherry, said Savage, who coined the campsite and Tea and Sympathy rules to guide intergenerational relationships -- respectively, that The older partners of younger people should always leave em in better shape than they found em, and If no harm was done to you, then you should strive to do no harm in return. The times where [such relationships] arent exploitative are rare, but it seems to me that the person doing the exploiting here is Beau, says Savage. Beaus being a hypocrite -- he cant run around saying, I love Sam and Hes great, and then dribble out details. Although Breedlove told a local television station he didnt stand to profit from his notoriety and spoke out only to relieve stress on his family, he agreed to pose for the gay adult magazine Unzipped, for which he was paid an undisclosed amount of money. Eighteen-year-olds can go to war and they can go to jail as adults, but the idea that they can make adult decisions in the bedroom appears to have incensed many of Adamss critics. Its outrageous to me that the serious efforts of feminists to protect young girls from unwanted, coercive, or violent adult sexual predation should have morphed into an effort to discipline politicians for fully consensual relationships with actively desiring young people, said Lisa Duggan, an NYU professor of social and cultural analysis and coeditor of Our Monica, Ourselves: The Clinton Affair and National Interest. A progressive social justice movement becomes a reactionary sexual purity posse in the middle of a sex panic. On January 31, hundreds of revelers filled the Nines, a swank new hotel, dressed in Portlands quirky take on black tie. Looking like a tattooed Marilyn Monroe, singer Storm Large and an orchestra serenaded the crowd in a ballroom of opalescent turquoise curtains and frosted white chandeliers. Originally called the Mayors Winter Gala, the benefit for the gay and lesbian Q Center was to have been a giddy, celebrity-studded celebration of the citys first gay mayor. Instead, the name had been shortened and the focus broadened, and the ballroom was empty around the edges. Welcome to the Winter Gala, author Marc Acito said with a flourish to an incoming friend. Weve decided what the mood is for the night: world-weary laissez-faire. Adams arrived in a black suit to a brief barrage of media. After shaking hands, he entered the crowd, just as he always had. So euphoric just a few weeks before, many in the gay community saw the swift and vitriolic condemnation of Adamss actions as evidence that, although his election was no doubt a step toward equality, any celebration was premature. Should Adams survive and go on to be a successful leader, perhaps they would be another step closer. Equality means we can have our errors too, said Savage. We can have gay mayors who are fallible. Of the tangled knot of questions surrounding Adams, the one hanging most heavily is: Will he survive? In the end, I can offer at least six to nine months of relative stability by staying, and I can make amends better by staying, Adams told Out, as uncertain of his fate as anyone else. Portlands charter protects newly elected mayors from recall for at least six months. Given the state of the economy and the importance of the stimulus package, those months could be critical for Portlands recovery, and, arguably, Adams knows the city like no one else. What remains to be seen is whether the city will follow his lead. Halfway through the Winter Gala, Adams was introduced and stepped up to the microphone. Applause thundered through the ballroom. Although brief, his speech buoyed the crowd. No doubt it was one of the most sympathetic audiences he would yet face, but it was a start. For the full interview with Sam Adams, click here. Send a letter to the editor about this article.
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