The NEW YORK TIMES
JANUARY 28, 2009, 10:00 PM
The Great Gay Hope
PORTLAND, Ore. — The politician was in his 40s, a rising star, a man with the pilot light of ambition burning bright. The intern was just 17, sorting through emotions about his sexuality, a boy who said he needed someone to mentor him in the political world.
They had an affair, just kisses at first, the teenager said. And then, after his 18th birthday, sex, and a relationship that was hidden from the public eye.
Came the mayor’s race and allegations of the affair. The politician, with the sturdy patriotic name of Sam Adams, denounced the rumors as scurrilous — they played to the worst stereotypes about homosexual predators, he said. How dare you.
The storm passed. The new year opened with Portland as the largest city in the United States with an openly gay mayor. At the same time, people flocked to theaters to watch a film by Portland’s own Gus Van Sant, the story of Harvey Milk, the pioneer gay politician, treated as a second-class citizen for most of his life.
It all came crashing down over the last two weeks, a bonfire of pride, lies and hypocrisy. The mayor admitted that he had lied about the affair, had smeared his accuser, and had urged the boy — a kid with the improbable name of Beau Breedlove — to lie as well. He did it all to get elected, he said.
Sam Adams, mayor of Portland, Ore. (Ross William Hamilton/The Oregonian, via Associated Press)
“I want to apologize to the gay community for embarrassing them,” the 45-year-old mayor, now contrite, told his city last week. Three newspapers — including a popular gay paper — called on him to resign.
Sam Adams was the Great Gay hope. Mayor today. Senator tomorrow. And beyond?
“I personally gave Sam Adams my vote, my support, my friendship and my money,” wrote Marty Davis, publisher of Just Out, the city’s gay newspaper. “In return, he took my trust.”
So now, instead of breaking barriers, Sam Adams has stirred old hatreds. Daily, people have gathered outside City Hall to shout at one another and wave placards.
This week, after seven days of soul-searching, the mayor said he would stay on the job, though he faces a criminal investigation by the Oregon Attorney General.
“I know I have let you down,” the mayor said in a videotape message to the city. “And I ask your forgiveness.”
Portland is The City That Works, a slogan not just emblazoned on official vehicles, but taken to heart by its citizens. It is perhaps the most European of American cities, literate and small-scale urban, a pleasant surprise around every corner. And it is often a city of firsts, doing things well and sensibly before any other.
But with the betrayal by Sam Adams, the city now offers an old lesson in timeless and tawdry human weakness. The story of Sam Adams is not about gay predators or gay anything, because Portland has seen this civic morality tale once before, with a heterosexual mayor.
It’s about why voters should never give their hearts over completely to politicians. As a class, they are inherently insecure — a character flaw at the base of all politicians, from Bill Clinton to Bob Packwood. And they lie, with rare exceptions — a hard thing to say at a time when the doors of possibility are open to leaders yet untarnished.
Some years ago I watched Neil Goldschmidt completely dominate a room of fellow politicians. He was the Great Jewish Hope — Portland mayor at age 32, transportation secretary for President Jimmy Carter at age 39, and then governor of Oregon.
People who saw Goldschmidt in his prime wondered when this guy would make history and become the first Jewish president. He could talk a dog off a meat wagon. He was smarter than anyone in the room. The great mystery around him was why he stepped off the political ladder.
The answer came years later, when the Willamette Week revealed that Goldschmidt had sexually abused his babysitter, starting when she was 14 and he was the married mayor of Portland. Mystery solved. The newspaper, which won a deserved Pulitzer for the story, also broke the lies of Sam Adams.
When Goldschmidt finally came clean under the newspaper’s pressure, he characterized it all as a distant mistake. But it was not anything like that. It was serial sex abuse, and if it happened now Goldschmidt would likely be in prison and a registered sex offender.
Sam Adams is no Neil Goldschmidt, his supporters say. He’s closer to Bill Clinton, a gifted politician lying about sex, these sympathizers say.
“I may have been 17,” Breedlove told The Oregonian, by way of asking people to forgive Adams. “But I was an adult and I knew what I was doing.”
Nobody at age 17 knows what they are doing, which is why they should never be having sex with middle-aged men, especially those in powerful positions.
Now Adams, with the support of some in this immensely tolerant city, will try to carry on — the first openly gay mayor of a major American city, with an asterisk.
That footnote holds a lesson, the words a wise Portlander told me long ago: Heroes are hard to come by, he said, especially when the lot you have to choose from is the human race.