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Can You Hear Me Now?

It's Not that Amanda Fritz Wasn't Speaking Up. It's Just that We're Finally Listening.

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CITY COMMISSIONER Amanda Fritz had cast what she figured was her final "no" vote on Portland's current budget the afternoon of Thursday, June 20. Content with her noble defense of sex-trafficking programs cut by Mayor Charlie Hales—blessed 4-1 by her colleagues—she'd left city hall and was settling in at Portland State University for an event meant to encourage more women to seek office.

When her phone rang, a call from her chief of staff, she didn't pick it up. She'd made it known she didn't want to be bothered. When it rang again, she knew something was wrong. Two urgent voicemails from her normally laconic chief, Tom Bizeau, had told her what.

"You've got to come back," she said Bizeau told her. "It appears we've shut down the city."

By 4:15 that afternoon, Fritz and her colleagues were back at the dais. She'd really created a mess. She'd also created an opportunity.

Portland's budgets have always been passed on an "emergency" basis—meaning they need unanimous approval. It's so they can take effect immediately, and not after the 30 days most laws have to wait. Waiting 30 days for the budget would mean going into the next fiscal year, which started Monday, July 1, without a spending plan.

That tiny detail slipped everyone's mind—including Fritz's, normally famous for catching details others miss. Part of the problem was that no one could remember the last time a commissioner had the temerity to vote against a budget. The clerk's office sounded the alarm soon after council had adjourned.

Hales called everyone back a little before 4 pm. Fritz weighed her options. She could change her vote. She could sanction a revote, but then politely leave the room so the budget would pass unanimously. Or she could get something for her trouble. And so she did. Fritz said yes. Hales promised an ordinance later in the year allowing new funding for sex-trafficking victims.

"They can say no. But they'll have to vote," Fritz said days later. "And I can have another presentation on the evils of human trafficking in Portland. So I'll get it. I will. I'll get my money for human trafficking."

Fritz has raised eyebrows in recent weeks after bucking her colleagues—and unflinchingly sparring with a popular mayor—on a host of issues from the budget to sidewalk laws to covering Portland's reservoirs. Weeks before, she'd deeply bruised her colleagues' egos with a scathing 15-minute speech about the same budget cuts she's now on a path to restoring.

But this was another pointed victory for a commissioner clearly feeling her oats after a hard-fought reelection last fall. Fritz never fails to remind people she devised the new city budget office that made this year's budget a relative marvel of transparency. She pushed her colleagues into defying the business lobby with a unanimous vote for paid sick leave.

And for all the heartburn Hales might be enduring, he still handed her two plum bureau assignments: development services and parks.

Fritz had long been seen as the city council's scold. "She votes no, but can't get to yes," says Commissioner Nick Fish. "I think we've put that to bed."

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FRITZ HAS ALWAYS been a little out of sorts in city hall. She's obviously grown more comfortable, six months into what she promises will be her second and final term. But certain truths are immutable.

For one, Fritz still hates fundraising. She won her first term as a public financing candidate (and hopes to leave office as a compelling reason for public financing's restoration). Then, rather than supplicate herself to donors, she spent more than $300,000 of her family's savings last year (raising more than $100,000 in outside cash) to hold off State Representative Mary Nolan.

And Fritz will never be a professional politician. She still attacks city politics with the persistent zeal of a neighborhood activist who was such a pain in the ass, the story goes, that then-Building Commissioner Hales stuck her on the planning commission "to make sure I was too busy to stop projects."

"I don't do horse trading," Fritz says.

Instead, she often looks for emergency ordinances, where her "no" vote, even if it's the only one, carries outsized weight. The appearance of unanimity matters much in city hall.

"Those give me power," she notes.

That's not to say Fritz doesn't work stealthily behind closed doors. She gave former Mayor Sam Adams a big assist on his equity and environmental agendas—and takes credit for persuading Adams to slow down plans to weigh the annexation of West Hayden Island. But she's also more than willing to puncture city hall's forced civility with a barrage of public questions that make staffers and commissioners squirm.

It's a blunt—and populist—approach to political sausage-making, and some observers see her one-speed-only bedside manner as a continuing sign Fritz lacks political sophistication.

But not all observers agree, looking at her record.

"She's gotten a lot more politically savvy," says Commissioner Dan Saltzman. "That's not a bad thing. I say that as a compliment."

There's also this fact, understated but also undeniable: Fritz is the only woman on what's historically been a male-dominated council. In fact, only six others have sat there before her.

Fritz embraces that distinction. Her passions are not with leaving behind monuments but in nurturing others and championing underdogs—hence her advocacy for neighborhoods.

She's mastered the soft exercise of power and talks about the political skills she "learned as a nurse, mother, and volunteer." She listens. She negotiates. She's detailed. She relentlessly attends community events. She makes a point to answer emails. All of them.

"I read a fair sampling," says Commissioner Steve Novick. "But I couldn't read all of them. I'd never sleep."

But for all her willingness to speak her mind, she rarely highlights her unique vantage point on the council. Until, that is, the day she gave her epic budget speech—a move that wove together not just her status as the council's lone woman, but also her approach to politics.

Fritz, many observers say, had a long list of budget demands and won most. But she felt shut out of the final steps of Hales' budget and was stung when he refused to fully fund sex-trafficking programs even as he boosted the city's contingency fund. Colleagues told her to declare victory.

Fritz took the stage and implied her colleagues might be less sensitive to trafficking victims because they were men.

"I can see how it would, at times, be challenging to be the only woman on the council," says Multnomah County Commissioner Deborah Kafoury, one of four women on the county's five-person governing board. City commissioners "are sensitive to that. But even if they are, it still needs to be brought to their attention at times."

Fritz's speech rocked city hall and jarred Hales. Those raw feelings have since begun to heal.

Fish still thinks it was "out of proportion." But he also acknowledged another truth.

"There might be a different standard," he says. "No one ever faulted [former Mayor] Sam [Adams] or [former Commissioner] Randy [Leonard] for throwing a sharp elbow."

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FRITZ IS FORTUNATE she can still throw any elbows at all. Coming out of the May 2012 primary election, she had half-emptied her bank account and still edged Nolan only by fewer than 2,000 votes. Worse, Nolan had lined up support from major city unions and was poised to paint Fritz's principles as something else: ineffectiveness.

It was a wakeup call for Fritz, who had public support from Saltzman and Fish, and private support from Adams—people who knew her work and wanted her to stay in city hall. She'd been focused on that year's budget, Adams' last, rather than putting Nolan away. Now she was looking at a costly general election in November.

"I didn't have time to campaign," she says. "It was clear I needed to take time. But I don't think of myself as a natural campaigner."

She hired a campaign manager. She warmed up to the press. She dove into Twitter.

"I finally convinced her," Adams says. "She's taken to it like a fish in water."

That fall, Fritz managed to trounce Nolan—who, obervers say, proved too unlikeable and unknown to pull off the difficult chore of vanquishing an incumbent. During the campaign, Fritz also came to grips with something else:

"I'm much more aware I have a limited time in this job," she says. "I got that last year. We've revved up since then."

Before the campaign, she'd won one clear victory: She persuaded her colleagues to follow her lead in killing Leonard's plan for a $700 million water filtration plant. She'd suggested a $200 million UV filtration plant that the city, thanks to a federal reversal, soon wound up not needing.

Along with Fish, she'd also helped kill Adams' plan for a city-funded Oregon Sustainability Center. And she angered some and pleased others by voting against the Portland Timbers' stadium deal. She relished the chance to work on small outfits no one else cared as much about: the Portland Office of Neighborhood Involvement (ONI) and Office of Healthy Working Rivers.

Fritz might have had a few more victories to tout, if only she'd let herself.

Well before last spring's election, Fritz says she was quietly meeting with labor advocates about paid sick leave. While advocates built a grassroots campaign, she promised them her support as a champion in city hall.

That campaign could have been a powerful weapon in Fritz's fight with Nolan over labor credentials. But Fritz had other plans.

"I didn't want it to be conflated with the election," she says. "Even though it's a populist thing, it was too important to put on the table while I was running."

It was a gamble. A wounded, lame-duck champion could have killed the idea just as easily. Fritz also says she could have passed it last fall, instead of waiting until this winter. Adams and Leonard, longtime labor allies, would have backed her. She says Fish and Saltzman wanted more time to assuage business interests.

With hopes high for persuading Salem to move a statewide law, Fritz did a symbolic math equation: "5-0 is a lot better than 3-2," she says. And so she waited.

Pushing that issue has earned her plaudits from colleagues, who call her "fearless." She'll be working this summer to firm up the city's administrative rules for the new sick time ordinance, a bigger wasp's nest than the policy itself.

"We've always had a good working relationship with her, which is why we've been surprised by her approach to paid sick leave," Megan Doern of the Portland Business Alliance told the Oregonian this winter. "It's her first time out spearheading a real policy effort ... and she's really missed the mark in how to engage stakeholders."

Fritz is resolute.

"Some businesses think we'll go back and amend the ordinance," she says. "No, we won't."

Her plan for an independent city budget office also had to wait until after she was safely reelected. Though she floated it in October 2012 and probably could have muscled it through, she paused out of deference to the city's chief administrative officer, Jack Graham. Which then meant she had to consider the feelings of Portland's incoming mayor, Hales.

Hales, who declined through a spokesman to be interviewed for this article, was on board. He's since made budget transparency one of his calling cards.

"It was because of the budget office," Fritz says. "That was me. I'm glad he likes it."

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"THIS IS HOME TURF," Fritz tells me on a recent Monday night while taking in a tightly packed conference room in the city's sterile 1900 Building—home to one of her big-time new postings, the Portland Bureau of Development Services (BDS).

The Citywide Land Use Committee—where staffers, neighbors, and developers all meet to ease tensions over one of Portland's hairiest subjects—had invited her to speak. Fritz is a former co-chair, and it's clear she's at ease with the group. As the longtime head of ONI, she knows many people there by name and warmly clasps hands with a few.

But for a neighborhood activist who still looks fondly on her time squaring off with builders, Fritz—now a key arbiter on building permits and code enforcement matters—faces an interesting test.

It's clear she sees the job as a way to focus her neighborhood advocacy and promote her cherished mantra of outreach. ("There's a new sheriff in town," she says at one point.) But can she do it while keeping the trust of the developers who must also look to the office?

"That'll definitely be a challenge," says Saltzman, who last ran the bureau. "That bureau in particular, there will be a time where she'll have to veer from where a neighborhood association is on a particular issue. I'll be watching, like we all will, to see how she handles that."

One builder at the meeting, Jeff Fish, hinted at how that might go—maybe better than expected.

"At times I'd clashed with Commissioner Fritz," he said. "But I've gotten to work with her, and I respect what she's done. She's changed my thoughts a couple of times, I've got to admit."

BDS, before Saltzman stabilized it, had an especially rough time. Under Leonard's watch until 2011, it was accused of politicizing code fights at his direction while suffering, at the same time, deep budget cuts after the recession sapped the building permits that fuel its work. Lately, it's been on the frontlines of the Right 2 Dream Too fight and besieged by a vocal minority's outrage over parking-light apartments.

Fritz has already signaled she'll work to help Right 2 Dream Too. She's also got her eyes on code and permitting reform, improving rental housing conditions, and instituting a citywide 311 information system.

Her other new assignment, parks and recreation, comes to her in much better shape. Under Fish's leadership, Portland's parks system enjoyed unparalleled popularity. It's even got more money than in past years, after Hales found it an extra $500,000 (a move, ironically, that Fritz criticized before being assigned the bureau).

Next for the bureau is figuring out a bond measure to help it tackle a growing maintenance backlog and also spread itself through the urban desert of East Portland. Fritz, unlike Fish, is a less-than-ideal campaigner. But she promises to serve as a powerful advocate for equity, calling for new parks in neighborhoods without them.

After years of having what she considered her dream job—running ONI and the Portland Office of Equity and Human Rights, which she helped start—Fritz mourned when Hales took both away and gave them to himself.

It was part of a major shakeup, sparing no commissioner. But the loss of ONI hit Fritz especially hard. She said it was a surprise. And it's not clear whether Hales, aggravated over her budget vote, snagged it just to make a point.

Then a light bulb went off.

"She came to my office one day and said there's more ONI in parks than there is in ONI," says Fish. "That is vintage Amanda."

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THE SUCCESS of Fritz's agenda could depend on how convincingly she and Hales can mend what's clearly become a tense relationship.

"It seemed visibly strained throughout the whole budget process," says Saltzman, who hopes Fritz's higher-profile bureau assignments "will offset some of the bitterness or whatever it is she felt toward the mayor."

Some of that impasse amounts to personality. Hales doesn't like being shown up in public—Fritz likes to make big statements. Fritz doesn't like that she, or any other commissioner, can no longer drop in the mayor's office as they please—a perk enjoyed under Adams.

And she wonders why Hales, during the budget, didn't come down to the second floor of city hall more often, where council offices are. Big changes like the rescue of the police bureau's mounted patrol, she says, were announced to the media at the same time as commissioners. She says Hales didn't meet enough with bureau directors and that, because the fire bureau lacked a strong advocate, Hales blasted it with cuts.

"We had all this transparency until the mayor's proposed budget," she says. "Then we needed a cheatsheet to explain what actually happened. Sam would've talked to me beforehand.

"It could be a strong council. I'm surprised the mayor hasn't used the strength and experience of the second floor as much as he could. I hope that's not his style."

But there are also policy differences, some that cut deeply. Fritz remains hurt over Hales' slaying of the city's rivers office to save money, despite her protests. All of that boiled over when she delivered her speech in May. Hales has one of the best poker faces on the council, but Fritz's move raised the specter, at least, of lasting damage.

"She was too hard on the mayor," says Novick. "I won't make any secret of that. But the mayor is pretty unflappable."

If there's a path to rapprochement, it could come through planning and zoning issues. Both Fritz and Hales are development wonks—a quality Fritz celebrates in the mayor. And with Hales running the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, the yin to BDS' yang, neither will be able to completely freeze out the other.

"With only five," says Fish, "we can't afford to hold grudges or be reactive."

But if tensions linger, Fritz could find herself on the outs. There also would be a certain ironic symmetry between Fritz's two terms. Before 2013, she had a close working relationship with Adams, who worked hard to help her, and an utterly dysfunctional one with the commissioner whose office used to abut hers, Randy Leonard.

Leonard supported Nolan. And while he never shied from a pissing match, "Somehow," Saltzman says, "it got to a deeper level between Amanda and Randy." The secret door between their offices (Fish and Saltzman also have one) stayed padlocked. Rumor has it Leonard wanted to wall it off permanently with a shower.

But now that Leonard, in retirement, has been replaced by Novick?

"We run back and forth through that connecting door on a regular basis," says Novick, who adds Fritz is "actually pretty funny."

"She's given me a lot of advice, but one I've given her is to savor your victories," he adds. "After we passed sick leave, I asked her if she'd made some time to savor. She said, 'No. I'm onto the next thing.' She wants to win everything. She's like the Vince Lombardi of commissioners."

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