A 21st-Century Sex Scandal
Would the mayor of Portland be out of office if he weren't gay?
Here in the great evergreen-and-gray metropolis of Portland, Ore., we like to think of our city as a thriving wonderland of forward thinking. We prefer our urban planning carefully considered, our light-rail and bicycle routes plentiful, our indie musicians erudite and inscrutable, and our movie theaters stocked with beer—progressive policies, all. So when we kicked off 2009 by swearing in Sam Adams, as the first openly gay mayor of a major American city, the occasion left a lot of us pretty pleased with our nonchalant open-mindedness: "Oh, did we just make civil rights history? Funny, we weren't even paying attention." But the back-patting didn't last long. Within weeks of taking office, Portland's new mayor found himself embroiled in a scandal so lurid and combustible that it resembles a plotline from The Young and the Restless. Which now leaves Portland as an innovator of something quite different. The Adams imbroglio may be the first true 21st-century political sex scandal: one that only a gay politician could survive.
Our saga begins in September 2007, when the young and wonkishly handsome Adams—a popular, ruthlessly effective city councilor who seemed all-but-destined to win the following year's mayoral race—faced a sudden, shocking threat to his political career. Local real estate developer Bob Ball, also gay and a political rival, had planted a rumor to end all rumors within Portland's political set: Back in 2005, he alleged, the then-42-year-old Adams had entered into a clandestine sexual relationship with a 17-year-old legislative intern from Salem. The teen's name? (Cue Y&R opening theme ...) Beau Breedlove.
When the charges hit, Adams handled the situation with Clinton-esque political deftness, flipping the story line from that of a shady relationship with a teenager to one of a role model seeking only to counsel a young gay man. Of course they were friends, Adams announced in a press conference, but it was a friendship of mentor and protégé—in fact, he'd even gone to Breedlove's 18th birthday party to show his parents that one could be gay, happy, and successful. Breedlove confirmed the story, and in one swoop Adams vanquished a political adversary and bolstered his own image. With an air of wounded nobility, he told one local paper that such slander merely "plays in to the worst deep-seated fears society has about gay men: You can't trust them with your young." He won the mayor's race in a landslide.
All was blissful in the Adams camp until last month, when Nigel Jaquiss, a reporter for the alternative paper Willamette Week (disclosure: and my former colleague), came calling. Jaquiss, who famously uncovered another Portland mayor's underage sex abuse, confronted Adams with evidence that he had lied about his relationship with Breedlove—which may have included sex while he was still a minor. The rattled Adams maintained his innocence, but when it became clear that WW intended to publish the story, he had no choice but to come clean. The day after WW's revelation, Jan. 20, Adams hosted another press conference, this time to admit that he'd never really mentored Breedlove and that he had persuaded the teen to lie about their romance—even asked political consultant Mark Wiener to teach Breedlove how to speak to the media. (For the record: Yes, this gay sex scandal features a Breedlove, a Ball, and a Wiener.) Yet Adams also avowed that there had been no sexual contact before Breedlove turned 18.
It actually took a day or two for all hell to break loose. Other than the obligatory "Holy shit," many Portlanders seemed confused about how to react. Everyone was disappointed, sure—but was Adams' transgression actually criminal? (An investigation into this question is pending.) Should they condemn the lying, or do all politicians lie? I had friends call me, infuriated, asking why this scurrilous gossip about a legal private relationship merited a newspaper story at all, while others told me Adams should resign immediately in disgrace. Though seldom spoken aloud, a larger question hung over it all: Is it different because he's gay?
Taylor Clark is a writer based in Portland, Oregon. His most recent book is Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool.
Photograph of Portland, Ore., Mayor Sam Adams by Bryan Grimes, Travisthurston.