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It´s Less than 100 Days Until the Next Election--Do You Know Where Your Candidates Are?

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In less than 100 days, we will elect a new mayor and new city council member. It's the best chance in more than a decade to fundamentally change politics in Portland--but what have the candidates done to prove they're the men for the job?

After the primary election in mid-May, the field for mayor was narrowed from 22 to two candidates--former police chief Tom Potter and current city council member Jim Francesconi. Two candidates also remain for city council: local attorney Nick Fish and the mayor's former chief of staff, Sam Adams.

But the momentary buzz surrounding the campaigns stirred up by the primaries has quickly subsided as the candidates took vacations, shuffled their campaign staffs, and down-shifted campaigns to a more leisurely pace.

Starting next Thursday, the Mercury hopes to help jumpstart a newfound interest in the campaigns by hosting a series of town hall forums (see sidebar, page 11). But with three months left, perhaps the biggest question that has emerged is, can any of these candidates actually win our hearts? Sure, all four candidates are amiable, and to varying degrees they hold our attention with their ideas and "visions" for a better Portland. But are any of them truly inspired? Or even inspiring? Who do we want to lead our city for the next four years?

Punch & Judy Run For City Council

To listen to Nick Fish and Sam Adams talk about their bids for a seat on city council, you'd think they weren't even in the same race. During the primary elections, Adams got a thumping courtesy of Fish. Gathering up 47 percent of the votes, Fish almost avoided a runoff altogether. (A candidate amassing more than half the vote skips past the general election and heads straight into office.)

"We're not going to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory," Fish coyly says about his plan for winning in November. Sitting in his campaign office on Sandy Blvd, Nick Fish looks tanned and rested. Since the primary he says he's become a "soccer dad," spending a lot of time following his daughter's games. In the background, there's the soft click of computer keys coming from two campaign workers. The mood is languid and Fish is confident.

"It's less about elbows and more about ideas," says Fish, trying to assure me his campaign is taking the high road away from the negative campaigning of the past. In May, Fish and Adams began running TV ads specifically geared to undercut the other--even though they probably have more in common than not. Despite this pledge for civility, at a recent candidate forum--the first public appearance together in months--Fish and Adams re-enacted the Punch & Judy show, leaping on every opportunity to roll their eyes and insult their opponent. Like a bickering old couple, the twosome seemed to be disagreeing mostly for the sake of disagreement.

To curb Fish's badmouthing of Adams, Fish's campaign manager recently gave him a fishbowl with a placard reading, "If I say anything about my opponent or the mayor's race, I cough up a dollar." Every time he shit-talks his opponent to a potential voter (or loses focus from his own race and talks about the mayoral candidates), Fish must drop a dollar in the bowl. It makes sense; curbing Fish's propensity to engage in a tit-for-tat with Adams is currently his best campaign strategy. At this point, magnanimity (but not aloofness) would be Fish's greatest tactic.

Fish's other major drawback is his overconfidence; acting like the election is all but a done deal. Though he tries to schedule several meetings or appearances daily, he admits that the primary elections may have squeezed all the political pulp from this race.

"There's not a whole lot more to say," Fish insists with a shrug. He also wonders whether the Portland race will be overshadowed by the presidential election.

"It's time to get off this tread mill," he says, referring to the campaign that he has been running nonstop for the past year. "I didn't enter this race to become a professional candidate."

NEVER FEAR-- UNDERDOG IS HERE

While Fish may hold a commanding lead and exude the confidence of a prizefighter, Adams has what amounts to a sentimental advantage in Portland: He's the underdog. A few days after talking with Fish, I meet with the mayor's former chief of staff at a low-key coffee shop in an industrial corner of northeast Portland.

Dressed smartly in a robin egg blue button down, Adams sits across a small table from me. He's wound up tight. "I'm comfortable being the underdog," he asserts. "I'm running to promote a certain type of change."

He then hops onto Fish's assertion that the campaign has run its course and that it's time to vote--of course, taking a contrary opinion.

"There are plenty of issues on which there's been no real conversation: Keeping families with children in the city, police issues, education. And there's more people to bring to the table," he says. "I'm going to work my ass off."

For the next hour, Adams and I talk of his defeat during the primary, his battle plan for November's election--and even some personal information.

Adams points out that ballot measure 36 (which would ban same-sex marriages) could actually bolster his chances. Organizations like Basic Rights Oregon have stepped up voter registration efforts. If civil rights advocates hope to defeat the anti-gay measure, they will need to rally support and votes. A strong voter turnout for gay rights will most likely benefit Adams, and in fact, may be his silver bullet.

But while the larger political context is shaping up well for Adams, upheavals closer to home have disrupted his campaign. Over the past several months, the context of Adams' personal life has been rocked. After the primaries, his campaign manager left to take care of her Alberta pottery business.

At the same time, Adams and his longtime boyfriend, Greg Eddie, split up. Adams tells me he and Eddie are still great friends, but that the romantic energy in their relationship had ebbed and they were growing in different directions.

"There have been stresses on Greg for being Mr. Sam Adams," Adams says calmly. "There's gossip and you have to watch what you do. We weren't going to become more compatible--and the campaign brought that to the surface."

The two had been together for 11 years, providing perhaps the greatest stability in Adams' life. Even after their breakup, the two remained together in the same house. Eddie is a bank examiner and has pledged to support Adams throughout the election.

"I don't really have time right now to move on," Adams says of the breakup, his voice lowering slightly.

Almost simultaneously, Adams' personal life was torpedoed by even more bad news: Mayor Vera Katz, his former boss and one of his best friends, was diagnosed with cancer and would need to undergo chemotherapy. Those treatments and pending illness have left the normally fireball 70-year-old somewhat deflated.

"It is really hard for me," says Adams. "I'm not going to lie. It's rattled me. She's been a rock."

Adams says these upheavals have both distracted and focused his energy, in the way that only tragedies can.

As we leave the coffee shop, Adams holds his index finger about an inch away from his thumb. "You came this close to making me cry," he tells me, flashing a quick, sheepish smile.

EXTREME MAKEOVER: THE MAYOR´S RACE

If the city council race is a toss-up choice between two very similar men--both smart and likeable--the mayor's race has begun taking on a different character. Jim Francesconi is fighting hard to change his image as "the millionaire candidate." Meanwhile, it seems the mysterious frontrunner Tom Potter is either laying low--or perhaps taking a nap. For both, it's a now or never scenario. If Francesconi loses, he's out of a job, and potentially, a career. If Potter loses, he's said he will retreat back into retirement.

For two-time city council member Jim Francesconi, it's unclear how much of his highly publicized soul searching is genuine and how much is a publicity stunt designed to salvage the scraps of a wrecked primary. Prior to the May election, Francesconi spent a million dollars--or, $22.50 per vote, compared to frontrunner Tom Potter, who only gave up $1.50 per voter.

While Francesconi is trying to reinvent himself--or, at least, his public image--rival Tom Potter's strategy seems to fade into the background. Barnstorming through the primaries, Potter managed to largely duck any searing criticisms. As the only other candidate with a public service background (his two-year stint as police chief), he simply caught a ride on the Anyone-But-Francesconi bandwagon--a ride that seems to have ended at the primaries.

"We don't know what he stands for," said one political insider who endorsed him during the primaries, but is still waiting for Potter to release a platform. This sentiment has been echoed by dozens of voters. "Why can't he just release a few one-page position papers?" asked an attorney in town. "Just bullet point a few projects he would do as mayor?"

During the primaries, Potter was the dark horse--seemingly the only chance to prevent Francesconi from waltzing into office. But now, as frontrunner, Potter has flipped positions with Francesconi--the favored candidate to be Portland's next mayor is now directly in the line of fire for receiving the most scrutiny. As such, rumors have begun to buzz. Nothing devastating yet; but little clues dropped here and there. A couple of supporters claim they're concerned because Potter apparently doesn't know how to operate email. And no fewer than five sources remarked that Potter takes lengthy naps each afternoon, and worrying that he remains too much in retirement mode. Potter's campaign categorically denied the charges that he doesn't know how to operate email and that he takes time from his campaigning to nap.

Regardless of the petty rumors, Potter remains the favored candidate. He has a grandfatherly charm. But really, the only thing standing in the way of Potter being elected seems to be Potter himself.

Meanwhile, interestingly, Francesconi has begun to shed his image as the downtown insider and is emerging as the underdog--mixing together a potentially potent mix of scrappiness and desperate behavior. He's even called in his family to help circle the wagons: His son, a second year law student, transferred from the University of Oregon to Lewis & Clark to be closer to his dad and to help out on the campaign. At a recent forum, Francesconi's family sat in the bleachers watching. He pointed them out several times, referencing them in his answers and stump speeches.

During the primary season, local media outlets and political insiders alike lambasted Francesconi as aloof and arrogant. Those concerns were underscored when Oregon's attorney general instigated an investigation into a questionable contribution to Francesconi's campaign from Tom Moyer, a major downtown developer and one of Neil Goldschmidt's business partners. That investigation is still underway.

Francesconi quickly became a lightning rod for criticism. When he raised--and spent--a million dollars on his campaign, he was accused (yes, especially by the Mercury) of trying to buy the election and for being out of touch with ordinary voters. When he voted against rezoning an asphalt parking lot to accommodate the homeless encampment Dignity Village, he was slammed for being insensitive.

But oddly, his humiliating defeat in May might prove to have been his best career move. The day following the primaries, the Portland Tribune ran an above-the-fold front-page photo showing a defeated Francesconi slinking out a back door from his election night party and into the shadows. The picture caught a stark, sad, and humbling moment. For days afterward, the two-term council member was visibly shaken. He professed to friends and strangers alike that he needed to do some soul searching and that the campaign had run away from him.

"That's not who I am," he told people.

On that note, Francesconi disappeared for two weeks to Paris with his wife. Upon his return, he immediately cleaned house. He shit-canned his public relations manager, the bullheaded and bumbling Ed Grossweiler. In his place, he recruited a young, blustery campaign manager from Iowa, Holly Armstrong. Before moving to the Midwest to work on John Kerry's presidential run, Armstrong had orchestrated David Wu's congressional campaign. She's known for her soft touch and approachability.

"I don't care whether he's raised a million dollars or two dollars," says Armstrong. "We're not deciding our next mayor on who raised less money."

Francesconi's campaign has quickly overhauled its tone and approach. He's spent more time knocking door-to-door, and visiting small businesses. At city council, Francesconi recently spoke up and requested that the police provide reports on how they plan to better train their officers. He was quickly smacked down by the mayor, who oversees the police bureau. But the exchange brought him at least some moderate attention for being a council member who was ready to lead and make demands.

Still, criticisms abound. For every action he takes, there's a suspicion he's doing it to attract positive media play. Even so, the tide may be turning. While out canvassing a neighborhood this summer, Francesconi spent several minutes chatting to a young man. As the mayoral hopeful turned to leave, the man looked at him and said: "You're not the demon I thought you'd be."

No longer the automatic demon, another voter perhaps best summed up the emerging sentiment about this November's elections: "I'm confused about Francesconi."

It may be time for Potter to wake up from his nap.

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