Goodnight

May 19, 2006

By Jacob Quinn Sanders
Portland Tribune

Hardly anybody touched the marinated artichokes, sliced paesano bread, olives or the mystery raisin spread. Nobody talked. It felt like nobody breathed. The crush of the anticlimax was that strong.

Minutes earlier, campaign staff, supporters and reporters herded themselves into the hot little downstairs reception room at the Jupiter Hotel on East Burnside Street to start watching election results. Diane Linn, whose party it was, was sequestered upstairs in Room 248 with family and a few close supporters, waiting to see if voters would give her another term as chairwoman of Multnomah County.

The road that led Linn there Tuesday night was one that went almost straight south. Once a promising, fresh policy upstart and liberal ideologue noted for her keen political mind, Linn’s tenure had been marked for more than a year by griping, fighting, missteps and awkward, ill-received apologies.

“The circumstances changed,” Linn said. “Everything changed on me.”

Her star had burned brightly. And on Tuesday it burned out.

•••

The air conditioner already was broken in the reception room when everyone filed in just before elections officials started announcing returns at 8 p.m. More than one person said the failure of that crucial machine on the hottest day of the year was an appropriate metaphor for the final stages of Linn’s candidacy.

Even Linn expected to lose. One story told by her staffers — she calls it apocryphal — has her chief of staff, Rob Fussel, poking his head in her office several days ago.

“Hey, Diane,” Fussel said, according to the story line. “What if you win?”

And everyone in the room laughed. Or so the story goes.

At least Commissioner Lonnie Roberts had stopped by the party with his wife Tuesday night, leaving about an hour before the returns started coming in.

“That was very sweet of him to come,” Linn said. “He’s been a good friend.”

Excluding Roberts, the rest of the Board of Commissioners had not only turned against Linn but actively worked to undermine her authority to the point of public embarrassment.

The main county employees union dropped its support. The Wapato jail, despite myriad plans, ideas and discussions, never opened, and a man let out of jail early because of a lack of jail space was charged with killing another man in downtown Portland. A former Linn aide charged in a Willamette Week story days before mail-in ballots were sent to voters that Linn had ordered her to alter Linn’s calendar — a public record — in 2003, prompting an ongoing criminal investigation by the attorney general’s office.

And even that list ignores the paid snow days for county employees and allegations from the county’s chief financial officer that her staff pressured him to present data more flattering to Linn’s priorities.

“Some people can take lemons and turn them into lemonade,” Portland political consultant Mark Wiener said. “Diane was able to take lemons and turn them into really, really bad lemons.”

But nobody expected the end to come quite as fast as it did. After the celebrity-fluff show “Extra” ended, and KATU (2) went live from its newsroom, the small assembled crowd of 35 or so watched downstairs in casual silence on a large white projection screen. Another 15 people milled about outside.

The air almost immediately went out of the room.

Portland pollster Tim Hibbitts opened the newscast by saying that two races already were over: Ted Kulongoski had won the Democratic gubernatorial primary, and Ted Wheeler was chairman-elect of Multnomah County.

Nobody moved. Nobody spoke. Hands slowly covered gaping mouths.

“I have to go,” Alisa Simmons, Linn’s campaign chairwoman, whispered before she hustled out the door and up to Room 248.

It was 8:04 p.m.

The first numbers had Wheeler up 76 percent to 24 percent for Linn. A quick cut sent viewers live to Wheeler’s party of 250 people at McMenamins Kennedy School in Northeast Portland.

Still no sound in the hot little room at the Jupiter Hotel.

Jubilant screams filled the background of the sound and screen as KATU’s camera panned right, showing three giddy commissioners who had helped bring about the result: Maria Rojo de Steffey, Serena Cruz Walsh and Lisa Naito, standing close together and at times hugging one another. Naito later kissed Wheeler.

Andy Smith, Linn’s constituent services director, leaned in closely and said, “Take note — it’s a public meeting. If they’re discussing anything of substance, it’s a public meeting.”

Indeed, under Oregon’s public-meetings law, the three commissioners constituted a quorum of the five-member Board of Commissioners.

Nobody had spoken yet at Linn’s party — and Linn herself remained upstairs — but no one had left, either. Several people wandered slowly toward the wine. The mood wasn’t funereal, just shocked.

By 8:11 p.m., most people had moved into the courtyard outside the reception room and the pull-down shade in Room 248 abruptly dropped. Minutes later, after family and supporters came slumped-shouldered out of the room one by one, a group of aggressive reporters and photographers, along with a few of Linn’s staffers and friends, stood on the balcony waiting their turn.

•••

Wiener — a professional partner of political consultant Liz Kaufman, who advised Wheeler’s campaign — said Linn came to the county chairwoman’s role held up by the high expectations of others. She took the job in 2001 to fill out the term of Bev Stein, who resigned to run for governor, then won the position outright in a special election.

“It was as much her solid record and her potential as it was the very high opinions of others that gave her an air of promise,” Wiener said. “I don’t know that she fell from a high place as much as she failed to meet the expectations that other people had for her future.”

Linn was, he said, someone who could be forgiven her errors in the beginning because her history in both voting and policy were strong.

“But there were enough miscues that were directly attributable to her leadership — or that were traced back to her directly — that in the end they couldn’t be ignored,” he said.

Becky Stewart, president of the largest county-employees union, said Linn alienated the people the union represents by shutting them out of policy discussions and refusing to listen when offered advice.

But the union’s support of Wheeler was hopeful and yet a bit uncertain, she said, and the support for Linn reluctantly withdrawn.

“She has good ideas, a good heart,” Stewart said.

In the end, Stewart said, it wasn’t enough. Too much went wrong, her union felt too distant and the constant battles among commissioners were too distracting.

“The chair’s office is responsible to have things work,” she said. “They’re at the helm. And I think it’s pretty clear that things did not work. I have to say that I’m glad there’s going to be a different dynamic on the board as a whole for a while.”

•••

Linn was embarrassed to hear it brought up in an interview Wednesday, but she made herself vulnerable by continuing to reach out to the rebel commissioners even as her staff advised against it. Members of her staff said Linn would constantly ask in meetings about approaches to win them back, to soften their positions against her.

In private the staffers thought it bordered on pathetic and showed poor leadership, and they were disappointed Linn could not accept what was clearly a reality.

“I’m surprised anyone told you about that,” she said.

Not enough time had passed to reflect on her loss, she said, but she had some early thoughts.

She said the county and her own problems were not misunderstood, but “under-understood.” She said reforming the county’s mental-health system, helping fund Portland’s public schools and finding cost savings by sharing administrative functions were valuable efforts undermined by her toxic relationship with Cruz Walsh, Naito and Rojo de Steffey.

“I could have stayed above the fray,” she said. “I could have stayed out of it when it got political. But I just could not believe that people could stay that recalcitrant, that obstinate, in the face of our best efforts. I still can’t.”

She said that making public policy was what made all the attention and scrutiny worthwhile.

“I did not pursue an elected position to get into the blood sport part of politics,” she said. “I was too slow to accept that others would spend that much time and energy to work against me. Maybe that was my biggest mistake.”

Rojo de Steffey, Cruz Walsh and Naito did not return phone calls for comment.

•••

After the shock wore off at the Jupiter Hotel and after former Gov. Barbara Roberts stopped by to offer hugs to Linn everyone loosened up.

Family and friends mingled with supporters, working to kill off the rest of the wine and bottled water the campaign had supplied.

Finally, at 9:10 p.m., Linn came out of Room 248 looking relaxed in a white flower-print skirt and white blouse, leaning calmly against a concrete retaining wall and quietly holding court.

She made no large statements, no big wrap-up speech to those who had stayed after the sun went down. What had threatened to turn into a wake took on the feel of a dinner party. Political consultant and Portland public-relations guru Brian Gard arrived to offer words of support and to mingle a bit.

Just before 10 p.m., a KGW (8) news crew showed up — one last interview for the night.

“I’m very excited to move on,” Linn said toward the camera.

It almost looked as if she meant it.

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