The Sam Adams Scandal: What Is a Fireable Offense?

Mayor Sam Adams of Portland, Oregon, is having perhaps the worst first month in office of any American politician since William Henry Harrison. His sex ...
by | January 23, 2009

Sam_Adams_Portland Mayor Sam Adams of Portland, Oregon, is having perhaps the worst first month in office of any American politician since William Henry Harrison. His sex scandal is raising tough questions as to just how bad an elected official's behavior has to be for him to resign from office.

Here's Adams' story in a nutshell. In 2007, news spread that Adams, a Portland City Commissioner, had, two years earlier, met a series of times with Beau Breedlove. Adams, who is openly gay, was in his early forties at the time. Breedlove turned 18 in June 2005, about the time of the meetings.

Bob Ball, a Portland developer who was viewed as a potential mayoral candidate, was one of the people spreading news of these meetings. Ball suggested that Adams might have had a sexual relationship with a minor.

At the time, most observers saw this as a smear campaign. Adams said he was merely a mentor to Breedlove. Ball's political prospects vanished. Adams was elected mayor last year. He took office January 1.

But, last week, Willamette Week, a news weekly in Portland, prepared a story that reexamined the episode. Their reporting found that people who knew Breedlove said he had told them that he did have a sexual relationship with Adams.

Willamette Week asked Adams for comment and he once again stated that he merely had been a mentor to Breedlove. Four days later, however, before the story went to press, Adams called Willamette Week back and admitted to having sex with Breedlove and to coaching him to lie about it. Adams says the relationship didn't become sexual until after Breedlove turned 18.

Unsurprisingly, the last week has seen a heated debate as to whether Adams, three weeks into his term, should resign. There are good arguments on both sides.

Adams clearly lied to the public. You can make a pretty good case that the lie is only the reason he was able to get elected -- admitting you had a relationship with a barely legal teenager generally isn't good politics.

Plus, there are doubts about whether Adams can be effective after the scandal. The Oregon Attorney General's office is investigating whether he committed any crimes. If he's discredited as a public face for Portland, does he owe it to the public to step aside? And, if he lied about the relationship in the first place, can Portlanders trust that he's telling the truth when he says the relationship didn't begin until Breedlove was 18?

Then again, Adams' defenders compare him to Bill Clinton. The Beau Breedlove scandal isn't as serious as the Monica Lewinsky scandal in some key ways. No one is accusing Adams of lying under oath. Breedlove wasn't an employee of Adams. The mayor has admitted to lying about consensual sex with a man who, though more than twenty years his junior, was an adult. Is that really a big enough deal to kill the political career of a promising mayor?

I get the sense that Adams didn't realize how big of a deal it would be. To me, one of the major unanswered questions in all of this is why Adams fessed up. Willamette Week has posted the article they were going to run prior to Adams' admission. The new revelations were little more than innuendo and second-hand accusations.

Perhaps Adams' conscience got the better of him. But perhaps he simply misjudged the impact of admitting to the lie. The Oregonian and the Portland Tribune have both called for his resignation.

Steve Duin, a columnist with the Oregonian, suggests a different idea. He thinks Adams should encourage the circulation of a recall petition against himself. Similarly, Adams could resign, but then run in the special election for a replacement. Either option would allow Portland voters, knowing what they know now, to decide whether they still want Adams as mayor.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com  | 

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