The history of Portland mayors in the 20th century largely comes down to the story of the struggle of progressive reformers against various forms of corruption and vice.
Put that way, it sounds like a clean morality play: good vs. evil. But it’s a bit more complicated than that.
As the century dawned, the entire country was starting to get sick and tired of the Gilded Age’s excesses. Populism was having a moment, and the Progressive movement was getting under way, complete with trust-busting journalism and the unexpected advent of government officials who actually enforced laws.
Portland greeted the movement with Mayor Harry Lane.
Lane came into office in 1905 with a mandate and an attitude, in the wake of Mayor George “Wide-Open” Williams’ administration. Portland was gearing up for the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition later that year, and pretty much the whole town was in agreement that visitors to the town should not be treated to the then-usual scene, on their way out of the Union Station, of prostitutes waving from crib windows and drunken sailors vomiting in the gutter outside saloons.
Vice was therefore duly cracked down upon, and the old North End neighborhood – in which Williams and earlier mayors had labored mightily to quarantine all of Portland’s vice – was cleaned up. But, as Williams had predicted it would, Lane’s policies didn’t get rid of vice … instead, they sent it scurrying out into the rest of the city to hide from the heat as best it could. And, after that, it never really moved back.
Nor did it go away. The thing was, so many people benefitted from vice in Portland – from landlords cashing rent checks from bordellos, to brewery owners supplying saloons, to cops taking payoffs from opium dens – that the reform efforts never really lasted very long. Once the public enthusiasm was spent, the reformers were invariably left hanging, and that’s just what happened to Lane. He was still widely popular, but politically isolated and easily outmaneuvered; and when he handed the Mayorship over to Joseph Simon in 1909, things went pretty much right back to the status quo ante bellum.
The next burst of reform to hit the Portland scene came in 1948, after a spate of bad press that followed a sort of underworld crime wave, topped off with the grisly murder of a ship captain in a waterfront den of iniquity. This wave of reform-mindedness carried Portland’s first woman mayor into office: a poised, striking attorney named Dorothy McCullough Lee.
Dorothy Lee was almost the archetype of the upper-class progressive “club woman.” She had the patrician air of the finishing-school graduate in middle age, the commanding eyes of a born leader, and the firm jawline of one who does not compromise — and her time in office bore these impressions out in spades.
She ran against incumbent Mayor Earl Riley, who was trying for a third term; but he was badly damaged by the scandal, especially when it grew to include reports of widespread corruption and bribery in the police department – which he’d been in charge of before being elected mayor. The upshot was that he lost badly. Lee won 70 percent of the vote – the biggest landslide in Portland history. She naturally interpreted that as a mandate for herself and her campaign slogan, which was “I will enforce the law” – and got right to work.
But she got things off on a really bad foot by cracking down hard on slot machines in private social clubs, as well as penny-ante gambling like punchboards and Chinese fan tan clubs. The big, well-connected mobsters and racketeers barely felt the heat.
This was a version of the “broken windows” policy that Rudy Giuliani implemented in New York – the idea that swift action against minor crime like turnstile jumping would change the culture, leveraging down the social acceptability of criminal activity at all levels. It seemed to work for Giuliani in 1990s New York. It did not work for Lee in 1950s Portland.
This likely had something to do with a certain high-handedness in Lee’s manner. Lee’s governing style was autocratic, very much reminiscent of Woodrow Wilson’s. She seemed to feel that her mandate was large enough that she didn’t have to bother with relationship-building activities like consulting city councilors before assigning them to committee positions, or cultivating allies in the business community. Consequently, her legislative honeymoon period was unusually short.
She started off with a series of raids on Chinese gambling places, and the Portland Journal soon regularly featured pictures of bands of bluecoats hacking down doors in Chinatown with fireman’s axes. People took to calling her “No Sin Lee,” as a sort of clumsy parody of a Chinese name.
But then she started sending the cops out to raid the high-end social clubs.
Pouncing on the slots in the Elks Lodge, American Legion, Eagles Lodge, and Multnomah Athletic Club alienated just about everyone who could have helped her get things done. Maria Jackson, the owner of the Portland Journal, sought a meeting with her to make the case that the city ought to stop embarrassing social-club dilettantes and focus on serious vice operations and organized crime. Lee declined the meeting and stated, pointedly, that many social clubs were simply fronts for gambling operations. Mrs. Jackson started referring to her as “Mrs. Airwick,” after a popular brand of air deodorizer. That was pretty much the end of that potentially promising relationship with one of the most powerful women in the city.
By the end of her time in office, Lee was pretty much reduced to holding up saloons’ liquor licenses to try to force them to toe her moral line. Several institutions were forced to close, including the Music Hall nightclub – which, she was horrified to learn, featured drag shows.
“Men who act like unladylike ladies must go,” she sniffed. “These people were run out of San Francisco. They have got to get out of Portland, along with the undesirable persons they attract.”
Possibly the biggest problem for Lee was the City Council meetings, which were broadcast on KPOJ Radio. Everyone in the city could tune in and hear the councilors shouting at each other, and Lee berating applicants for liquor-license renewals, and the City Council’s nuttiest member, prohibitionist Jake Bennett, screaming at anyone who crossed him. The whole thing sounded like a circus, and not at all like effective government.
When Lee’s term of office ended, she stood for re-election, but this time she went down in flames, losing by a 6-percent margin to her longtime Council nemesis, Fred Peterson.
And things went back to normal in P-town … for a few years.
But, with Lee out of the way, the Teamsters Union – which had never been much threatened by Lee’s attempts at vice suppression, but had been made a little nervous – now felt it was time to expand their influence over Portland’s vice industry. Local resident vice kingpin Big Jim Elkins, outplayed by the nationally connected Teamsters, responded by secretly taping them and leaking the tapes to the Oregonian.
There followed a great deal of drama, all of it starkly partisan, as conservative Republican Mayor Peterson tried to defend himself against charges that he and the city (and especially his police chief, Jim Purcell) were in on it, and liberal Democrat Terry Schrunk – sheriff of Multnomah County, and Peterson’s opponent in that year’s elections for Mayor – tried to position himself as a force for anti-corruption.
Then Elkins suddenly fingered Schrunk, saying he’d slipped the sheriff a $500 bribe to call off a planned liquor raid. Schrunk vociferously denied it, and offered to take a lie detector test, then took one – and failed. Of course, lie detector tests are notoriously unreliable; but it was definitely not a good look.
Nonetheless, Schrunk won. And then, just as he was settling in as mayor, he was indicted for perjury on the basis of that failed lie detector test.
Among those testifying against him in court was U.S. Attorney Robert Kennedy, who for some reason had developed a great desire to nail Schrunk. The opinion in the sheriff’s department, where Schrunk was obviously well known, was almost unanimous that it was all a frame-up; Elkins was the Oregonian’s stool pigeon, the Oregonian was Republican, Schrunk was a Democrat, and he’d been well on track to win the election when the charge had been leveled.
That seems to have been what the jury thought, too. Schrunk was acquitted, and back in Washington D.C. a frustrated Senator Karl Mundt growled that if he lived in Portland, he’d suggest that they “pull the flags down to half-mast in public shame.” That, on top of the badgering they’d watched Schrunk take while testifying before Congress, solidified Portlanders behind him. They felt attacked, and they closed ranks, and for the 16 years after that Mayor Schrunk was unbeatable.
And these were very important years. Terry Schrunk was the mayor who presided over Portland during the urban-renewal projects, when entire ethnic neighborhoods were seized and leveled to make way for parks, gardens, and high-rise office and apartment buildings. New freeways were punched through other old neighborhoods. Meanwhile, the 1960s were coming and going, with hippies and protest marches and Vortex I and the Vietnam War.
Shrunk had started out as a liberal Democrat, but he was a pretty conservative one by the time the Congressional committee got done grilling him in Congress and in court, and he seemed to be a pretty good fit that way with mid-century Portland as such. He was re-elected four times, and his 16 years in office tied the record set by George Baker. He finally suffered a heart attack in 1972; he survived, but in poor health, and decided not to seek re-election.
Schrunk’s time in office represented the high point of the city’s mid-century modernist age. Under his watch, great works of architecture flowered forth around the city, replacing colorful neighborhoods that were deprecated as “blight.” Form followed function, rising dozens of floors into the sky and gleaming with polished aluminum and aggregate-faced concrete. It was a great age, but it was a myopic and merciless one too.
The age continued through the two-term mayorship of Neil Goldschmidt (later exposed as a long-term pedophile), the brief mayorship of Connie McCready, and the one-term-and-38-days mayorship of Frank Ivancie. It ended with the defeat of Ivancie (who had been Schrunk’s executive assistant, and made something of a fetish out of bashing “hippies”) at the hands of the very hippie-ish Bud Clark – whose election in 1988 transitioned Portland into the post-modern age.
(Sources: “Dorothy McCullough Lee: The Successes and Failures of ‘Dottie Do-Good,” an article by Paul C. Pitzer published in the Spring 1990 issue of the Oregon Historical Quarterly; Portland: People, Politics and Power, a book by Jewel Lansing published in 2003 by Oregon State University Press)
Finn J.D. John teaches at Oregon State University and writes about odd tidbits of Oregon history. His book, Heroes and Rascals of Old Oregon, was recently published by Ouragan House Publishers. To contact him or suggest a topic: email@example.com or 541-357-2222.