Is Blumenauer Off to Rose City?

Posted August 29, 2003 at 4:20pm

Even before Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) reveals whether he’ll bicycle off into the West Coast sunset or seek to remain in Congress, at least three Democrats are preparing to run for his House seat, and others could follow.

Blumenauer is expected to announce in the next few days whether he’ll run for mayor of Portland or for re-election in 2004. As he prepared to return to Portland from a vacation in Maine in time for a politically important Labor Day picnic, Blumenauer was leaving political insiders — and even close advisers — clueless about his plans.

“No matter who you talk to out here, everybody’s got a different opinion on what he’s doing,” said a Portland-based Democratic operative who did not want to be named.

“There’s just pluses and minuses for both options,” said Neel Pender, executive director of the Oregon Democratic Party.

Blumenauer, the founder of the Congressional Bicycle Caucus, has spent the past few months stumping through the city, telling civic leaders and community groups that he is seriously thinking of running for mayor — a post he sought unsuccessfully in 1992.

“I might be changing jobs soon,” he says at the beginning of these meetings.

Blumenauer, who won the 3rd district seat in a special election to replace then-Rep. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) after he won a Senate seat in 1996, has used Congressional campaign funds to send a slick mailing to Portland voters — which could become an issue in the mayoral campaign. His House district takes in roughly 85 percent of the city, plus some eastern suburbs.

Meeky Blizzard, a spokeswoman for Blumenauer, said last week that the Congressman’s aides are “waiting” to hear which “day job” he’ll seek. Although no announcement had been scheduled as of Roll Call press time Friday, “it’ll probably be sooner rather than later,” she said.

With the knowledge that Blumenauer has always wanted to be mayor and that at age 55, his best opportunity may be in 2004 now that incumbent Vera Katz has announced that she will not run again, three candidates are betting that the Congressman will opt into the City Hall race and are already mobilizing. Assuming Blumenauer departs, a rare House opening in a heavily Democratic district could expand the field of ambitious Democrats.

Sam Adams, who just resigned as Katz’s chief of staff, has formed an exploratory committee for the House race. Steve Novick, a politically active attorney, has lined up the state’s leading Democratic consultants to work for him, including Wyden’s pollster. And Kate Brown, the Democratic leader in the state Senate and the best known of the trio, has been telling party activists that she plans to run if Blumenauer doesn’t.

Each has political strengths — and weaknesses — in a district where the majority of voters are bound to demand ideological purity. Brown, on the basis of her 11 years in the Legislature, could line up support from the political establishment and is already being touted by national women’s groups. But in her position as Democratic Senate leader in a chamber that is evenly divided, she has been forced to compromise with Republicans on occasion — to the dismay of liberal interest groups.

Adams is well-connected and well-

respected from his dozen years as Katz’s right-hand man, and he’s openly gay — meaning he can tap into a deep reservoir of financial and grassroots support. But he’s only known by political insiders — and Katz has made some enemies during her long tenure.

Novick, a political operative and former Justice Department attorney who was the lead counsel in the government’s Love Canal environmental enforcement lawsuit, has plenty of political contacts and is fiery and quick-witted. But he too is not well-known to the voters, and some Democratic insiders have questioned whether he can raise enough money to pay his high-priced talent.

For better or worse, Novick is also handicapped. He was born without a left arm and stands just 4 feet 9 inches. He makes light of his disabilities, talking about being the one politician who can truly stand up for “the little guy.”

“It’s amazing how little it matters,” he told the Willamette Week newspaper about having a hook instead of an arm. “Oh, it’s hard to buy an ice cream cone and get change — but it’s convenient for pulling out an oven rack.”

One leading Oregon Democrat said political insiders have taken to calling the field to replace Blumenauer “a cast from a Fellini movie.”

And if Blumenauer runs for mayor, the cast could grow. Other potential contenders include state Sen. Margaret Carter, a well-respected former president of the Oregon NAACP; state Sen. Rick Metzger, a polished former sportscaster; Portland Metropolitan Councilor Rod Park, an Asian-American farmer; attorney Jefferson Smith, who runs a nonprofit organization that seeks to get young people involved in politics; and many others.

Former Multnomah County Commission Chairwoman Bev Stein, who finished third in the 2002 Democratic gubernatorial primary, has also been mentioned, though she does not live in the 3rd district.

Although any of the three leading candidates would be acceptable to organized labor, knowledgeable sources said that the unions could field a candidate of their own. Labor remains powerful in the Portland area, which is why Blumenauer and scores of other politicians — including Reps. David Wu (D) and Darlene Hooley (D) — were scheduled to be at an annual Labor Day picnic along the Willamette River that draws more than 7,000 people. Individual unions set up their own tents, and politicians stop by to pay tribute.

If Blumenauer enters the mayor’s race, he will be the immediate frontrunner based on his high name recognition. But “it would not be a slam dunk,” according to Pender, the state party director.

Portland City Commissioner Jim Francesconi has been campaigning for the job since before Katz announced her plans to retire, and his surrogates have already tossed a few brickbats Blumenauer’s way. The Oregonian newspaper quoted Francesconi’s campaign manager saying that with Katz’s departure, “you expect the field is going to get crowded and attract people from as far away as Washington, D.C.”

Francesconi is also expected to use Blumenauer’s commingling of Congressional campaign funds for the mayor’s race as an issue.

Moshe Lenske, chairman of the 3rd District Democrats in Portland, said that while Blumenauer is anxious to become mayor, “it’s not an easy decision because he has been in Congress for some time and he has established certain credentials that are being recognized.”

But one Democratic leader in the Rose City said he cannot imagine Blumenauer not running for mayor, even if it means sacrificing a safe House seat.

“It would be detrimental to his political career if he didn’t run,” the Democrat said. “He’s made such a big deal of it.”