Typically, there's no great mystery to whether a mayor or a governor will run for a second term. Barring scandal or the sudden opportunity to ascend to a higher office, it's a foregone conclusion that a one-term incumbent executive would want four more years to finish the job.
So, the fact that people have been actively wondering whether Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler would quit after just four years says something — something unpleasant — about the job he now occupies.
Wheeler ended the speculation May 7, when he announced to the Portland Tribune editorial board that he fully intends to run in 2020 for a second term, and he sounded genuinely motivated by the prospect.
He also put his decision into remarkable historical context: If he wins next year, Wheeler will be the first Portland mayor this century to start a second term. The late Vera Katz served her third term at the turn of this century, but former mayors Tom Potter, Sam Adams and Charlie Hales all bowed out after completing just one term.
In fairness, most people would fall short in a comparison with Katz, considering she was royalty when it came to the art of governing. She possessed a tireless dedication to public service and complete disinterest in running for office a fourth time.
However, following two decades of revolving mayors, Wheeler's decision — his mere choice to run again — should be viewed as positive news. That's not to say it's time to endorse his re-election. Voters and editorial boards will need to watch his actions in coming months and also wait to see who challenges him next year. But Wheeler's continued commitment to the position ought to be a relief.
For one, it means the job of Portland mayor is not so impossibly difficult that it ends the political career of everyone who attempts it. Wheeler still believes progress is possible on seemingly intractable issues.
Despite the ever-present homeless crisis, despite the challenges of overseeing a big-city police department, despite the limitations of Portland's dysfunctional form of government, and despite the constant stream of public critiques, Portland finally has a mayor who is willing to keep pushing ahead.
And, as Wheeler notes, resolving the most prominent problems — such as homeless camps and the extraordinary cost of housing — doesn't preclude concurrent work toward a grander vision. Portland has shimmering opportunities in front of it: the Innovation Quadrant east of the Willamette River, revitalization of the Rose Quarter, redevelopment of the post office block in Old Town, and continued efforts to develop vacant land in the South Waterfront.
Wheeler envisions Portland as an emerging global city that leads on environmental issues and livability. Portlanders need to hear more of this big-picture talk from Wheeler. But more immediately they will judge his performance — and his re-election bid — on the ubiquity of homeless camps and other street-level, quality-of-life concerns.
The mayor's first term has been more challenging than perhaps he imagined. He now has avoided a nonproductive lame-duck status that would have hobbled him if he hadn't chosen to run again.
His resolve to keep trying is beneficial for Portland: It could mean measurable progress toward well-defined outcomes in the short term, while also offering the prospect for continuity in an office that has lacked it for nearly 20 years.
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