Sunday, January 25, 2009

Sam Adams Should Not Resign

What news could possibly pull TV stations away from the wall-to-wall coverage of President Obama's inauguration last Tuesday? Another flare up in Gaza? Another incursion by Russian forces into Georgia or the Ukraine? Iran or North Korea testing a nuclear missile?

No, no, and no. But at around 3pm, the ABC coverage here in Portland switched from the President's parade to the local affiliate KATU with the "Breaking News" that Portland's new mayor Sam Adams had admitted lying about a relationship with a young man that occurred back in 2005.Adams, a city commissioner since 2004, was overwhelmingly elected Mayor in the Oregon primary elections in May 2008 beating his closest rival by 24%. Adams is openly gay, and his election made Portland the largest city in the US to elect an openly gay mayor.

The scandal surrounds a relationship with a young man, Beau Breedlove, whom Adams met in 2005, when Breedlove was 17. In September 2007, a potential mayoral opponent alleged the pair had a sexual relationship, with the implication that it had taken place when Breedlove was underage. Adams denied the allegation, stating that the relationship was purely platonic.

On Tuesday, Adams admitted this was a lie, and that the relationship had been sexual, though not until Breedlove had turned 18. Adams has apologized for the dishonesty, saying that he lied in order to avoid the accusation of illegality during the mayoral campaign.

As a result of the admission, the matter is being investigated by Oregon's Attorney General John Kroger, though not by the police. Reaction has been strong on both sides of the argument. Many want Adams to stay, citing that this is a private matter, and his experience and ability to be mayor. Nevertheless, the editorial boards of The Oregonian, the Portland Tribune, and Portland's gay publication, Just Out, have all called for his resignation.

Adams is currently considering his position and is expected to make an announcement in the next few days. It is right that he do this, but I hope that he decides to stay on.

The public's perception of "sex scandals" has matured in the last 10 years. I can think of no major politician in either the UK or the US that has been forced to resign purely on the basis of their private life. And there have been some pretty high profile affairs, including a British Foreign Secretary, Deputy Prime Minister, two mayors of London and of course the 42nd President of the United States.

Scandals involving gay relationships that have recently come to the fore include US Representative Mark Foley, Pastor Ted Haggard, and British politicians Ron Davies and Mark Oten. All these people resigned. But in these cases, the resignation was not because of the relationships themselves, but for the individual's conduct in the public domain. Three were for hypocrisy. Foley, who campaigned for tougher measures against paedophiles, was caught soliciting minors working as interns in Washington. Haggard was openly condemning homosexuality as his religious platform while engaging in his fantasies, and Oten made a bid for his party's leadership portraying himself as an upstanding family man. The true circumstances behind Davies' resignation from Tony Blair's cabinet are not known, largely because he resigned instantly to limit damage to his government's reputation.

Adams is not a hypocrite, and has not misused public office. His relationship was private, consensual, and legal. His mistake was to issue a denial that turned out to be untrue. But that denial was to a highly impertinent question and rumor initiated by a political rival. Yes it was a mistake; Adams should have considered his response more carefully. He should perhaps have followed the example of British Opposition Leader David Cameron, who skillfully faced down loaded questions about past drug use ("a politician should be entitled to a private life"), though in Cameron's case the allegations referred to long before he sought political office. Instead, Adams response was similar to that of Bill Clinton, who also lied in the face of an impertinent question.

In fact, Clinton's denial was more serious than Adams; Clinton lied under oath, and was subsequently impeached. But the line of questioning was so far left field of the matter in question as to be regarded by many as entrapment that Clinton was cleared by the Senate, and the Lewinsky affair ultimately made Clinton more popular.

Indeed, it's the Clinton example that more than any other has set the precedent by which we regard high profile affairs. It is that no matter who someone is, politician, mayor, royalty or world leader, they are a human being, and suffer the same human frailties as millions of us ordinary people. This is healthy and responsible, it started in America, and it should not be derailed here.

Finally, and very importantly, there is the reaction of the gay community here in Portland. Just Out's editorial called for Adams to resign citing that he "has previously stated his hope that gay and lesbian youth might one day look to him as a role model and example. His own actions have now rendered this implausible."

They are wrong. Being a role model is not the prime purpose of being mayor; running the City is. The overwhelming majority of the people who voted for Adams (including me) are straight. I didn't vote for a gay candidate, I voted for a good candidate (in fact a damn good candidate).
With the difficult times ahead, we need a mayor with experience and vision. We need Sam Adams to stay.