PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — Ted Wheeler was the first Portland mayor elected to a second term in 20 years, winning reelection last November. But he could be forced back on the ballot in a recall election later this year.
If that happens, he will face his toughest opponent — himself. The only question will be whether he should stay in office, not whether he is better than another candidate.
Wheeler won with 46% of the vote at the 2020 general election, defeating progressive urban planning advocate Sarah Iannarone, who received 41%. The remaining 13% went to write-in candidates, including activist Teressa Raiford. That plurality was enough for Wheeler to win the election. But it shows voters were deeply split over him, and the city has faced months of additional turmoil since then.
“There’s a path for recalling Wheeler if voters believe it is a referendum on the city’s leadership,” said John Horvick, the political director for DHM Research. The firm recently conducted a poll for The Oregonian that found voters overwhelmingly disapprove of how Wheeler and the City Council have managed homelessness and protests, two of the biggest issues facing Portland.
On the other hand, Horvick said, if most voters believe the recall is only being organized by a small group of like-minded political activists, they might not support it.
“Voters are disappointed with Wheeler and the council for different reasons. There are different sides to the issues,” Horvick said.
Wheeler did not respond to a request for comment.
A prospective petition calling for the election is expected be filed as soon as Thursday, July 1. A campaign to support it is being organized by the Total Recall PDX political action committee. Campaign manager Audrey Caines said the chief petitioner did not want to be identified before the prospective petition is filed.
The committee director is Iannarone campaign lawyer Alan Kessler. It was filed with the Oregon Secretary of State’s Office less than three weeks after Wheeler was reelected by its treasurer, Seth Woolley, a campaign finance reform activist who finished fifth with just 4% of the vote in May 2020 primary race to replace former Commissioner Chloe Eudaly. The committee has reported raising a little more than $41,000 in cash and in-kind contributions, launched a website and hired Caines, whose previous political experience was with Rising Tide PDX, an environmental justice group. She said the committee also has a field organizer, around 200 volunteers, and a steering committee whose members do not want their names to be released.
The prospective petition will include a statement of up to 200 words explaining why Wheeler should be recalled. The statement was not available by press time, but the committee cites several reasons on its website, beginning with the fact that most voters wanted someone else. The website also accuses Wheeler of violating campaign regulations during the last election and opposing a litany of progressive causes, including police and racial justice reform.
“There’s no one reason why people want Wheeler recalled,” Caines said.
The committee has announced it will begin circulating petitions on Friday, July 9. It must collect at least 47,788 valid signatures of registered Portland voters within 90 days of the petition being filed. The number is 15% of the votes cast by Portlanders in the most recent election of Oregon governor. After they are submitted, city election officials have 10 days to certify them. If enough valid signatures are submitted, Wheeler will have five days to resign or submit a statement of justification explaining why he should remain in office.
If Wheeler fights the recall, the election must be held within 35 days. The only question on the ballot will be whether he should be recalled. Both the reasons for the recall and the justification statement also will be printed on the ballot. Unlike California, where Gov. Gavin Newsom is being recalled, there will be no separate ballot of replacement candidates.
Caines said the committee will not campaign against Wheeler if the recall election goes forth. She said it is only working to make the election happen.
“We’re confident there are people who will do that,” Caines said.
Relatively few Portlanders might vote in the election. It would not take place during a presidential or even statewide election. Only 24% of Multnomah County voters returned their ballot at the May 18, 2021 special election. The most motivated voters are likely to have a disproportionate impact.
Multnomah County elections officials will have 20 days after the election to submit the official results to the city. If Wheeler is recalled, the mayor’s office immediately becomes vacant — the City Charter does not allow for an interim mayor — and will stay vacant until it is filled by a special election. It must be held within 90 days unless the City Council finds a valid reason to delay it. The filing deadline for that election is the first time Portland voters will know for sure who is running to replace Wheeler.
According to city elections officials, the dates of the elections depends on when the petition signatures are submitted and validated.
The last time a council member was recalled was in 1952 when Commissioner J.E. Bennett was thrown out of office by a vote of 88,558 to 63,846. Reasons for the recall printed on the ballot include “he has been discourteous, abusive, uncouth, insulting, with personal, scandalous attacks, insults, ridicule and abuse toward respectable citizens of the City of Portland attempting to conduct city affairs.”
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More recently, Oregon City Mayor Dan Holladay was recalled in a Nov. 10, 2020, special election triggered by his defiance of Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s pandemic business restrictions and for downplaying of police brutality against Black people during ongoing social justice protests.
More information about the recall process is available at www.portland.gov/elections/recall-elected-official.