Portland, Ore.'s, eccentric uncle of a mayor

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

MAYOR Bud Clark likes to whip a camera out of his breast pocket to record the passing parade: the crowd at his swearing-in, reporters interviewing him, his reflection in the mirror just before taking the stage as the b"urgermeister in a local production of the Nutcracker. It just may be the appropriate satiric response to the sudden focusing of attention on Clark as spectacle rather than Clark as city mayor.

Clearly it is a spotlight not entirely undeserved, because there is something different about Bud Clark's style.

The national spotlight on him after his upset election had hardly faded when it again suddenly illuminated him. He had been in office less than a month, when in January he appointed the nation's first woman big-city police chief.

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It was a popular decision here, though also considered a very bold political risk for a man who had never before held public office. Still, Chief of Police Penny Harrington is convinced it was a ``brave'' decision because she was one of four finalists for the job.

With the gift of conversational charm he's as comfortable joking with a blue-collar constituent as he is at the symphony where his wife, Sigrid, plays first violin. But he's prone to reeling off philosophical zingers, like the time during his campaign when he casually referred to himself as a ``born again pagan'' and promptly raised the ire of fundamentalists. ``It all got ironed out,'' he reports now, noting that the comment came during a whimsical discussion about Nordic mythology. He had said he'd like to be reincarnated as one of the crows on the shoulder of Odin, the god of intelligence. (The crows, representing memory and thought, flew around gathering knowledge for Odin.)

The ex-marine, ship chandler, mortuary worker, and father of four had never held public office, but he took a crash course in public administration after his landslide election.

Visible daily as he pedals to city hall on his ``stump-jumper'' bicycle, the mayor is owner of a popular Portland tavern. He also has a reputation for antic -- and, to some, tasteless -- behavior, as in a recent controversial poster promoting arts in Portland. Good will though perhaps not good taste prevailed here: The fund-raising poster was enormously popular and raised thousands of dollars for the local arts.

His is the image of a favorite eccentric uncle -- not that of a man pollsters ever imagined could steal away city hall from the political establishment.

The Clark campaign wasn't viewed seriously by incumbent Frank Ivancie until it was too late, and Clark was able to wrap up a 52 percent victory in the primary, effectively eliminating all but a write-in campaign against him in the fall general election.

Observers here are convinced he represents less a shift in political objectives than he does a shift in style.

His tavern, frequented by young professionals, has been an enormous financial success, and the mayor reflects the conservative fiscal tone of a businessman and the strong progressive social streak that is typically Oregonian.

Clark has been involved since the late 1960s in neighborhood projects -- starting a weekly newspaper, delivering ``meals-on-wheels'' to the elderly, working on a venereal disease prevention project, and raising money for the arts. He campaigned on the idea of bringing neighborhood involvement back to City Hall, waging a campaign whose style didn't differ that much from life before the election or after. He's a ``regular guy,'' who likes to get out and talk to people -- and they like talking to him.

It's not unusual for a citizen with a beef to see the mayor pedaling up outside to discuss a problem firsthand. He has a weekly brown-bag lunch date with citizens who sign up to join him at City Hall. One recent week, over lunch, he held court on such diverse interests as a young single parent trying to start a small business, an older couple promoting square dancing, a juvenile service worker and the city's opera director.

Clark's election has something to do with the political and economic climate as well as his personality.

As the commercial center of a lumber-producing state, Portland has been slow to recover from the economic recession and all sides seem to agree the city's economic course must be aimed at diversification and development.

In the recession atmosphere, say observers, the electorate here shifted power to ``administrators,'' like current Gov. Victor Atiyeh and former Portland mayor Frank Ivancie -- steady managers but rather colorless figures.

As the economy soured and unemployment stayed high while the rest of the nation recovered, Bud Clark fit the bill for the emotional lift needed here, explains Walter Ellis, director of the department of Public Administration at Portland State University.

``There were more layoffs and more mills closing and then they see Bud Clark come along . . . he's good looking, energetic and he really captures the imagination. He's just a breath of fresh air,'' says Dr. Ellis.

He stresses that Clark's popularity is because of his ability ``to connect'' with individuals. His image as a nonconformist isn't that much different ``from those who went on to political prominence in the populist value system'' in Oregon, says Dr. Ellis.

Party loyalty is a low priority -- Republican US Sens. Mark Hatfield and Bob Packwood, at odds with their party leader, President Reagan, on such issues as defense and abortion, are cases in point.

Similarly, Clark was a registered Republican until he switched to Democrat before last May's primary -- though his philosophy bridges the beliefs of both parties.

Building a strong neighborhood voice -- grass-roots participation in everything from city budgeting to police affairs -- has been the mayor's primary focus.

And expounding precariously near the kind of quote he knows is prone to being mangled or used out of context, the mayor uses the old and corrupt Chicago ward system as an example of the kind of strong neighborhood structure he likes.

``Once you took away that system, city government didn't have communication [with the neighborhoods]. Before maybe you had to pay the ward boss off but at least you could tell him [about a problem] and he'd take care of it,'' Clark says, using hyperbole to make a point.

``In the neighborhoods I discovered people had the solutions to their problems and they want to actively carry out programs,'' says Clark.

``But decisions here were being made at the top without consultation below. It's important for neighborhoods to be strong, to get an idea of who you are and what your role is and I see the mayor's office as focusing those ideals of the people.''

Though no different from his predecessors in his aim to pump economic life into the city, the mayor says one of the first things he has done is focus on the long-planned convention center here by turning it back to the community.

``It's been studied to death so I started a citizens committee and got a regional planning group together because it's time to build it.''

His style as mayor is almost mischievous in the way he suggests that he isn't really different. ``Everybody says I'm flamboyant or eccentric and that isn't true. Basically we're all eccentric, aren't we?'' says the mayor. ``My image and what I am are two different things.''

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