Sam Adams, 45, was sworn into office as Portland's mayor at 12:01 a.m. Thursday at City Hall. It made Portland, population estimated at 575,000, the largest city in the nation to elect an openly gay mayor.

Share story

PORTLAND — Two months ago, Sam Adams, a Portland city commissioner and the mayor-elect, rallied a crowd of gay-rights activists as part of a national series of protests against California’s new ban on same-sex marriage.

Speaking into a bullhorn, he urged the protesters to continue pushing for legal same-sex marriage in all 50 states, but he urged them not to embark that day on an unauthorized march.

“This community is watching us, the nation is watching us,” he said. “They are going to judge us for what we do today, and today we do not have a permit to march — not because the city won’t let us but because this happened so quickly we couldn’t get the paperwork in.”

The crowd laughed at the not-so-frequent moment when Adams’ political activism and his municipal role crossed paths. Adams smiled.

Adams, 45, was sworn into office at 12:01 a.m. Thursday at City Hall. It made Portland, population estimated at 575,000, the largest city in the nation to elect an openly gay mayor.

Seven months ago, he won with 58 percent of the vote in a primary race against a travel-agency owner and other, less well known, candidates. That meant he didn’t have to run in a November runoff election.

He didn’t campaign on gay rights or social issues. “I’m running not to be a gay mayor, but a great mayor,” he said.

None of Adams’ opponents raised his sexuality in the race. Neither did he.

“This is a testament to how fair-minded Portlanders are that it wasn’t an issue,” Adams said. “I spend my time on the basic issues of life. A part of that includes equal rights, but that’s not even close to a majority of the time.”

Gay, lesbian candidates

Adams was one of more than 100 gay, lesbian and bisexual candidates running for federal, state and local offices endorsed earlier this year by the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, a Washington, D.C., group whose aim is to increase the number of openly gay elected officials.

Denis Dison, the organization’s spokesman, said 80 of the candidates won, including 33-year-old entrepreneur Jared Polis, of Boulder, Colo., who in November became the first openly gay man to win a seat in Congress as a nonincumbent candidate.

Another candidate the group endorsed was Oregon state Sen. Kate Brown, who describes herself as bisexual. She will become Oregon’s second-ranking state official when she is sworn in as secretary of state.

Large population

She was also, Dison noted, the only winning candidate among the handful the group endorsed for statewide offices. Most winning candidates endorsed by the organization run in local contests — but none of the local candidates represents a population so large as Portland’s.

“Obviously this was one of our marquee accomplishments this year,” Dison said. “To have an entire community elect a gay man and have people say, ‘You’re going to represent me,’ is a pretty huge thing.”

Adams is a longtime City Hall insider, from his years as chief of staff to Mayor Vera Katz on through his election to the city commission.

He was born in Butte, Mont., and before he started school, his family moved to coastal Newport where his father, a high-school basketball coach, tried his hand at being a commercial fisherman.

As a University of Oregon student, Adams got his first government job as an intern for the Lane County commissioners.

Not much later in 1986, he became the spokesman for the first congressional campaign of Rep. Peter DeFazio, who still represents southwest Oregon’s 4th District.

Adams remembers that he was passionate about DeFazio’s candidacy, but the campaign couldn’t pay him enough to make ends meet. So he made the campaign office his home for six months, storing his futon in a closet.

DeFazio remembers Adams during that campaign as an eager spokesman whose first attempt at a news conference was a bust. One reporter attended, DeFazio said, leaving Adams down but not defeated.

In two weeks, the city plans to announce a job-stimulus package, he said, though he declined to give details.

“What I’ve found is in each of those recessions is government falls prey to the national frailty,” he said. “What’s also frustrating is it’s happening at the very time when government is needed most.”

Adams grew up in a working-class household that he said was at times dependent on food stamps and subsidized housing. Just as being a gay man drives much of his political activism, he said, his working-class background influences his ambitions as mayor.

“My passions for public service includes promoting social-justice equality for all, but it obviously also includes finding good jobs for people, which is also part of my family’s background of not being able to always have economic security,” he said. “Being gay is part of me, so is being Irish American, so is being from a small Oregon town.”