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Hall Monitor

The Return of Saltzman



THE WHISPERS, back in June, when Mayor Charlie Hales divvied up the city's bureaus and offices among his colleagues, were loud and persistent.

After four terms, Commissioner Dan Saltzman—handed the fire and housing bureaus, outfits with strong, popular directors—would take his plum new assignments as a pleasant victory lap and calmly coast his way out of city hall next year.

He won't do that, though, after declaring for re-election last Thursday, August 29. But it's not hard to see why a lot of people thought he might.

Critics and observers looked at Saltzman's reputation for vacations, excused absences, missed votes, and cultivated disinterest in back-room gossip and dealmaking. They remembered how late he declared for re-election the last time his job was up for a vote.

They also looked at some of the big and recent notches in Saltzman's political belt: fire and police pension reforms, a peacemaking foray into Commissioner Amanda Fritz's push for paid sick-leave, and another five-year renewal for his cherished Portland Children's Levy.

And they wondered, given all that, whether the dean of the Portland City Council might be losing his zest for a post he's held since the late 1990s, that his laser-like focus for helping poor kids and domestic violence victims might no longer be enough to sustain him.

Saltzman certainly didn't help himself much by staying silent for much of the summer, answering occasional questions with a sphinx-like smile—especially after the other city commissioner up for re-election next year, Nick Fish, declared himself in.

Of course, not everyone was so convinced.

While the gossip mill churned, with gums flapping pointlessly over the excitement of what might have been a race for an open council seat, others quietly pointed out a far more intuitive line of thinking.

A fifth term, after all, would make Saltzman one of the longest-tenured city commissioners in history—certainly the longest in several decades.

And, more to the point, Saltzman hasn't faced a serious race in years. Mark Wiener still takes his checks. His campaign finance records, dormant since 2011, read like a who's who of Portland's elite political donors: engineering firms doing business with the city, like CH2M Hill, and the Schnitzers, Dan Wieden, Nike, the Naitos, and on and on.

So you can see how Saltzman did the math like any other smart person might.

Why give any of that up? Especially if you can still take seven weeks of vacation and have regular drinks, listed on your official calendar, with pals and protégés like Multnomah County Chair Jeff Cogen?

But Saltzman, in talking with the Oregonian about his decision, insists it was more than simple political calculus. There's still work to be done, he says. His new bureaus, instead of tipping him out of city hall, actually tipped him back in.

It could be that he's got something to prove. His handling of housing, so far, has earned dismal reviews—not the way a senior city commissioner would have wanted to go out.

And for a guy who's spent the past decade-plus getting his job down pat, maybe it's nice to break a sweat.


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