This past July, only six months into his second term, an effort began organizing to force a recall vote against Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler. However, with only a month left to collect the required amount of valid signatures to do so, it is looking increasingly unlikely. The campaign is led by a local progressive volunteer organization known as Total Recall PDX, which formed earlier this year with a focus “on one goal: removing Ted Wheeler from office,” according to their website. Audrey Caines is their Campaign Manager, Danny Cage their Youth Coordinator, and Alan Kessler their PAC Director, along with “more than 350 volunteers” throughout the Portland area.
Mayor Wheeler, a former Oregon State Treasurer, was first elected in 2016 and won his second term with a 46.2% plurality in November 2020 after being forced into a runoff election due to failing to exceed the 50% first round voting threshold earlier last year. His principal challenger, community activist and urban policy consultant Sarah Iannarone, came relatively close to unseating Wheeler with 40.7% of the vote after coming in a distant second place in the first round. Write-in candidates, including non-profit leader and founder of Don’t Shoot Portland, Theresa Raiford, accounted for approximately 13% of the vote, and most likely contributed to Mayor Wheeler’s somewhat weak victory. Despite this, Wheeler was the first Portland Mayor in 20 years to be reelected. The aforementioned Alan Kessler served as Ms. Iannarone’s campaign attorney, and was among the first to begin planning for a recall effort against the mayor, even just weeks after his reelection.
Per city law, any public official eligible for recall must serve at least six months of their term before the process can begin. So, lo and behold, once July came, city activists pounced, hoping to capitalize on what they viewed as Mayor Wheeler’s deep unpopularity in the city. The campaign’s website lists numerous reasons for why they believe Mayor Wheeler must be removed, but their primary argument rests on the fact that, technically speaking, a majority of Portlanders did not vote to reelect him.
Total Recall PDX cites numerous grievances with the mayor’s leadership, much of which has been circulating throughout the local media for some time, and much of which acted as Ms. Iannarone’s primary points of attack against him during the fall campaign. Mayor Wheeler’s handling of the Portland Police Bureau, failures on the homelessness crisis, lack of aggressive action on climate change, inability to create affordable housing, keeping Portland streets free of trash and needles, and lack of leadership during this summer’s heatwaves, among other things, are seen by the campaign as evidence of Wheeler’s need to go. The website also specifically cites Wheeler’s use of $150,000 of his own money during last year’s race, a complaint that was officially dismissed by the city auditor’s office after claims that the mayor exceeded the city’s campaign finance limits, which he did not.
Kessler originally created the Total Recall PAC in order to attempt recalls on both Mayor Wheeler and Commissioner Dan Ryan. Kessler’s disapproval was spurred by Wheeler and Ryan’s voting against any further cuts to the police budget, even after advocating for them during the reelection campaign. Kessler eventually dropped Ryan from the effort due to what he felt was a lack of public scrutiny, most of which has been directed solely on Wheeler.
Despite all of this, the recall effort itself appears to be all but dead in the water. City law states that in order to qualify for the ballot, the campaign must collect an amount of valid signatures equal to “15 percent of the total number of registered Portland voters who cast ballots in the last gubernatorial election,” according to the City of Portland’s recall election website. They specify that “based on the most recent governor’s election on November 6, 2018, this number is currently 47,788.” As of August 6, 2021, the campaign has reported a total of 5,926 signatures. Even a month after that announcement, as of this writing there has yet to be any more data released either on the campaign’s website or in local Portland media outlets as to the number of valid signatures collected. The campaign must report an adequate amount of valid signatures by October 6 in order for a recall election to be triggered. This usually means acquiring far beyond 47,000 signatures, as many are bound to be unverifiable. The campaign was aiming for 90,000 signatures to be safe, and should have collected at least 25,000 signatures by this point in order to stay on track, according to Oregon Public Broadcasting.
Campaign Manager Audrey Caines has made her frustrations and disappointment clear, and has pointed to several obstacles that have gotten in the way of signature collection: rising COVID-19 rates in the city, county, and state, as well as the summer heatwaves which have made public gatherings difficult to impossible. The campaign has also cited a difficulty in acquiring funds to pay signature-gatherers, stretching their operation thin and leaving potentially viable constituencies untapped.
If Mayor Wheeler were to be successfully recalled, it would be unheard of in Portland history. It has been around 70 years since a recall election took place in the city, and no mayor has ever been removed from office in such a manner. This is in some ways surprising, with Portland being a city that seems to chew up and spit out its public officials on a fairly regular basis. (Another gripe of the recall campaign has been high staff turnover in Wheeler’s office.) The Mayor’s Office would remain vacant until a special election, as any hypothetical “yes” vote would force Wheeler out of office immediately.
Ultimately, Ted Wheeler will probably remain mayor for the rest of his term, unless he wishes to seek higher office in the meantime. The Mayor’s Office has yet to release any official statement recognizing the recall effort in any way, and requests to comment from local media outlets have gone unanswered. Maybe those 5,926 people will just have to put up with him for a little while longer.
If you are a registered Portland voter and wish to add your name to the recall petition, visit www.totalrecallpdx.com.