INTERVIEW: Q&A With The Mayor Of Portlandia


BY JONATHAN VALANIA No, not Kyle MacLachlan on a Pilates ball working on his ‘core’ — the REAL mayor of Portland Sam Adams (who actually plays MacLachlan’s assistant on Portlandia). He followed us on Twitter, we followed him back. Told him we were gonna be out in Portland working on a cover story about The Shins for a for a  national indie-rock magazine and could we get an interview? Sure, he says, he actually has all the Shins albums on his iPhone! How cool is that? At least as cool as our mayor doing “Rapper’s Delight” with the Roots. Anyway, Mayor Adams is a smart, young progressive who has made major inroads in making Portland a greener, more sustainable city — and in the process made many enemies in the coal industry. Openly gay, for a time Portland held the distinction of being the largest city in America to elect a gay mayor, but then Houston, not to be outdone, sent a lesbian in City Hall and knocked Portland into second place in the enlightenment sweepstakes. Sadly, he has decided not to run for a second term, a decision no doubt informed in part by the gay sex scandal witch hunt, resulting in a five month long investigation by the Oregon attorney general that eventually cleared him of any criminal wrongdoing and a failed recall campaign launched by embittered political rivals. Be that as it may, we discussed Portlandia, indie rock, OccupyPortland, how cities can become greener and more sustainable, why he welcomes the hatred of the coal lobby, what comes next for Sam Adams and what Fred Armisen is really like in person.

PHAWKER: My first question for you – and I’m sure you get asked this all the time – what’s Fred Armisen really like?

MAYOR ADAMS: Fred Armisen is surprisingly down to Earth and really endearing. He has a really great personality.

PHAWKER: He seems like a sweet person.

MAYOR ADAMS: He is, I mean he has to project so many different characters and he does it so completely. You never know what might lie underneath that, but having hung out with him he’s just a down-to-earth guy, very endearing, and very approachable.

PHAWKER: That was a facetious question but I appreciate you actually engaging it nonetheless. I have a couple of Portlandia questions I want to ask you, and then I have a question about the Shins – which may or may not be on your radar – and then I have a couple questions I wanted to ask you about Portland and being mayor and your political career and where you go from here. So let’s start with Portlandia – when did the show first get on your radar, and can you speak to the process of it coming to fruition, actually bringing it to town to shoot, and from there we can talk about your involvement and your cameos as well, but the first question first if you will.

MAYOR ADAMS: Yeah, they asked me – I heard that Carrie [Brownstein] and Fred and some of their colleagues and friends wanted to pitch the idea of a show, a comedy show about Portland, and I of course thought it would be a great idea. They asked me if I would be part of the pilot – I think they did two pilots for IFC. They asked me if I would be in one of the pilot episodes that they would use to pitch IFC for picking up the show. Of course I said yes, and we kinda talked about it and they asked if I would play the Mayor’s assistant. They asked about it kind of sheepishly, like I guess maybe that I might find that offensive, but I asked, ‘Well, who will play the Mayor?’ They told me Kyle McLaughlin and I said ‘I’m there. Absolutely.’

PHAWKER: I think that’s a brilliant stroke. Well, I think the whole show is brilliant in a meta kind of way, but having you play your assistant and not yourself is witty on so many levels.

MAYOR ADAMS: Well, it was their idea and I thought it was great.

PHAWKER: Are you making any other cameos?

MAYOR ADAMS: Yes. In fact, I understand that I’m in tonight’s episode. I shot some other cameos. Just working on the set is a sheer joy. They actually filmed in the Mayor’s office area and, you know, it’s a clothing optional set so I feel really at home, so yeah, it’s just lovely. No, I’m just kidding. It’s not really clothing optional, it’s just you know. You’d kind of expect that for a show that spins off Portland.

PHAWKER: I understand. I understand. So how accurate is it? I mean, do you really sit around all day on a Pilates ball carrying on official business while working on your core?

MAYOR ADAMS: No, I do not sit on a Pilates ball, but the person who works in that room  [that they shot those scenes] sits on a Pilates ball. I think it’s a great idea. If I was more coordinated then I’d sit on it, but I’m sure I’d fall over too much and it might be embarrassing.

PHAWKER: Did the idea for having Kyle McLaughlin sit on the Pilates ball come from the fact that one of your staffers actually does that?

MAYOR ADAMS: I think so. I don’t know the answer to that for certain, but I think that the fact that it was in the room, yeah.

PHAWKER: That’s hilarious.

MAYOR ADAMS: I do want to say, it is my actual bicycle that Mayor McLaughlin uses. Yep.

PHAWKER:  Nice. Are there any other direct connections, do they use any of your other items, or…?

MAYOR ADAMS: Yeah, now for two seasons they’ve cleaned out the entire office and put things up that they think look striking. Some of those, you know like the city seal is from my office, and a couple other knickknacks that they have up on the wall in the back are from my office.

PHAWKER: Okay, one more Portlandia question. Do you have a favorite sketch?

MAYOR ADAMS: Actually, based on the production – I’m assuming this will come out later – but based on the script and what I saw, the parts that I was not in, I think my favorite sketch is going to be tonight’s episode.

PHAWKER: Well, we’ll tune in. Well, the reason I’m asking the Portlandia questions – I don’t know if this has been made clear to you, but the live show is coming to Philadelphia on the 19th and this interview will run in advance of that performance. The reason that I’m in Portland is that I’m actually a music journalist and I’m working on a cover story of the indie rock band The Shins that live here in Portland. I’m wondering: are they on your radar or do you know who The Shins are? Are you a fan?

MAYOR ADAMS: Of course. Hasn’t everyone seen Garden State?

PHAWKER: I don’t think Rick Santorum has seen Garden State.

MAYOR ADAMS: (laughs) Oh, you got me there. He has less of a personality for it.

PHAWKER: Agreed, agreed. He’s actually from my home state.

MAYOR ADAMS: Thank you very much Pennsylvania!

PHAWKER: Yeah, sorry about that. So is indie rock kind of considered as one of Portland’s exports?

MAYOR ADAMS:   Well I think that what distinguishes Portland’s music scene from other scenes is that we don’t have a particular style. Portland is an independent minded, do-it-yourself kind of culture, so I think our strength lies in the fact that our arts and culture scene is about we support you in doing your own thing. The Shins definitely fit into that, I mean they – I’m not a music critic or a music writer like you – but the reason I like The Shins is that they took some of the pop sounds from when I was a kid and infused their own sort of take on those things and came out with something that was incredibly unique. I think that sort of typifies the strengths of Portland’s music scene. You know, Seattle had the grunge scene, Tennessee has the country music. Our strength is that we have everything from Pink Martini or The Decemberists, whether it’s Storm Large or The Shins. I mean, we’ve got a whole variety and to succeed in Portland you don’t have to adhere to a particular style of music or type of music. I like that Portland embraces and encourages and actually supports a real variety of music. I think in time that that really speaks to a particular type of musician.

PHAWKER: Not to put you on the spot here, but by chance do you have a favorite Shins song?

MAYOR ADAMS:  Well, my favorite Shins song is probably…oh, you’re going to get me in trouble here.

PHAWKER: The one from Garden State?

MAYOR ADAMS:  I kind of like the folky…slang? “New Slang”? Is that it? I’ve got in my iPhone and my iTunes, I’ve got Phantom Limb, I’ve got “New Slang”, and I’ve got the Garden State song. But those, I would say I’ve been into “New Slang” for months now. It’s more folky, I like that.

PHAWKER: It’s pretty hip that the Mayor has like three Shins albums on his iPhone, I have to say.

MAYOR ADAMS: Well, when you’re the Mayor of Portland, you damn well better have some local tunes on your iPhone.

PHAWKER:  I wanted to ask you a couple questions that are not music- or Portlandia-related. The first thing I wanted to ask you about was your whole take on the Occupy Wall Street experience. We had an Occupy encampment in Philadelphia and our Mayor, Mayor Nutter – much like yourself – initially embraced the protesters. He afforded them the space to continue the protest, but eventually decided that it was unsustainable and hazardous and that it had to be wrapped up. I wanted to get your take on what happened here in Portland.

MAYOR ADAMS: Yeah, you know I’m a big supporter of the Occupy Wall Street movement. I was then, I still am. The original march and the original campers in the encampment worked hard to make it work and they put real effort in, but despite their efforts – and our efforts as well – it was just overwhelmed by problems of drug use and crime. Well, overwhelmed might be a little strong, but it was verging on being overwhelmed by that. I mean, we had an arsonist that was based in the Occupy Wall Street camp, clearly not an Occupy Wall Street activist. We had too much drug use and too many problems.

The problems with the Occupy Wall Street encampment were not with the Occupy Wall Street activists. It was everyone else who added themselves into the camp, and after time the activists had to go on to other things in their life. So, I don’t fault the activists, you know, and we tried really hard. I just think the event overwhelmed the efforts. We’ve had so many cuts in federal, state, and local programs in the social safety net, and that just sort of gravitated to the encampment as the original activists had to move on with their lives.

PHAWKER: Yeah, I think a very similar scenario played out in Philadelphia where eventually all these hangers-ons – a lot of homeless people and the mentally ill – kind of wound up overwhelming the encampment and actually driving off a lot of the protesters. A lot of women complained that they didn’t feel safe sleeping there anymore.

MAYOR ADAMS: I said to everyone from the very beginning, because I’ve been around the local government for a long time, I’m going to balance free speech with keeping the city moving, and safety. I’m going to allow one of the largest encampments in the United States to occur, but the details matter, behavior matters, the status of things matters, and that’s where I’m going to strike the balance. We also during the course of this when activists blocked the street, we opened it up. When they sought to expand the camp into another part of town, we stopped it. When the Federal government asked us to evict them from a further expansion in a Federal park, we evicted them. But I said, you know, ‘we’ve worked with you, you’ve done great, and you’ve tried hard. I’m not insulting Occupy, but it’s time to clear out,’ and I gave them three days notice. The Los Angeles Times described ours as the largest, most peaceful decampment eviction in the United States. You know, nothing is perfect but I’m proud of everyone involved: the police, the activists, everyone involved who really worked to do it as peacefully as we possibly could.

PHAWKER: Okay, moving on: I know that sustainability and ”green” living were one of your three major agendas when you took office. Do you think you could speak to a little bit about how viable it is for cities to actually become “green” and “sustainable”, and also maybe speak to a little bit of the pushback you got from the coal industry?

MAYOR ADAMS:  Well I’m proud to have gotten an award from the Sierra Club for my efforts to shut down Oregon’s only coal/electric production plant. Yeah, we see in Portland, we’re one of the few cities in North America that have – in real terms – reduced our greenhouse gas emissions in the last three years. We do that because it’s just common sense. Even if you don’t buy into climate change, the idea that cheap energy, the idea of banking on — for your city, or your business, or your family — this cheap energy for the next ten, or twenty years – well, good luck with that. It’s just not going to come to pass. But what’s been holding back the sustainability and green revolution has been financing for it. So we’ve also worked to pilot and invent new financing for clean technology retrofits. So we’re making an industry out of our efforts to protect ourselves against foreign energy, fossil fuel, petroleum energy, coal energy, and it’s part of our values and it’s part of our ethos. But even if you’re not an environmentalist, even if you don’t believe in peak oil, even if you don’t believe in climate change, we’re going to help finance and you’d want to help finance your reduction in energy consumption because it’s going to get more expensive. You know, even in the best-case scenario with all the fracking that’s going on in Pennsylvania and New England and everything else, they just came out with the latest estimates I think a week before last, and they think it all adds up to a six year supply of energy. So, that’s all helpful to sort of bridge things, but part of the mix of our more independent energy base, part of it has to be clean energy. Renewable energy.  We brought the modern streetcar back to the United States, and now we’re manufacturing them here. So we’ve really tried to not only do what we think is sustainable, but how we can create a competitive advantage for ourselves in this cutthroat global economy.

PHAWKER: Just a couple more questions here and I’ll let you go. I wanted to ask you about the Beau Breedlove incident, from the reading I’ve done it really does strike me as a politically-motivated gay witch-hunt and a very specious use of the Attorney General’s resources. I’m curious; do you think this would have happened if you were not an openly gay mayor?

MAYOR ADAMS:  You know, I’ll leave others to speculate on that.

PHAWKER: Did that experience play at all into your decision not to run for a second term?

MAYOR ADAMS:  You know, my decision not to run for second term is, having been in city government for a long time, I decided that it was just more important to…the city is at a point of inflection and we really did, by not running I really could accomplish what I set out to do in four years. With running, you sort of paper it over – everyone who’s in office who’s running for re-election sort of has to paper it over, but you’re really not anywhere close to a full-time Mayor when you’re running for re-election. And I’ve got to run now, I’m getting into a part where I know the cell phone will be cut off. Any last questions?

PHAWKER: I think my last question is what comes next?

MAYOR ADAMS: I haven’t figured that out. I don’t know yet…I haven’t figured it out, but I intend to this summer.

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