Former Portland, Oregon, Mayor Sam Adams has managed to find the Ozone Room himself, much to the amazement of communications chief Michael Oko. "I was waiting upstairs," Oko says, when he finds us almost 15 minutes into our interview. "I'm impressed." Adams joined the World Resources Institute just a few weeks ago, but already he's navigating the group's mazelike offices like a pro. (To assist with that, hallways at the global nonprofit, which is dedicated to promoting equity and prosperity through sustainable natural-resource management, are named for rivers—the Nile, the Euphrates—and conference rooms include Amazonas, Himalaya, and Stratosphere.)
Sam Adams is the former mayor of Portland Ore. and director of the U.S. Climate Initiative for the World Resource Institute. (Chet Susslin)The ease with which Adams, 51, has adapted to his new role as WRI's director of the U.S. Climate Initiative belies just how hard it was for him to depart the City of Roses. "Leaving Portland was not an easy decision to make," Adams tells me. "But leaving Portland to work for an organization like WRI"¦" Well, that was another story. "I am really excited to be here," he concludes. "I'm a bit of a nerd, no question."
The job, as he sees it, is an opportunity to pursue on a national scale some of the environmental initiatives he advocated in Portland. "I get to take lessons learned on the ground and help to facilitate more climate accomplishment" across the United States, he says. His responsibilities at WRI include developing and analyzing policy proposals, and building political coalitions to help encourage the country's transition to a low-carbon economy. Chief among Adams's concerns is promoting his recently unveiled 10-point plan to exceed the ambitious climate targets set by President Obama for 2025.
Adams was raised in Newport, Oregon, and when he was young, his father was a fisherman and his mother an avid recycler—something, he says, that was "imprinted" on him at an early age. He attended the University of Oregon, but left before graduating to work on Peter DeFazio's successful bid for Congress. Adams served as an aide to DeFazio for several years before working on other campaigns, including Vera Katz's bid for mayor of Portland. When she won, Adams became her chief of staff. (Years later, he made a cameo appearance on the sketch-comedy show Portlandia as the assistant to the mayor of Portland—a tip of the hat to his days with Katz.)
During the 11 years he served under Katz, he returned to school to complete his bachelor's degree, graduating from the University of Oregon in 2001. In 2004, he ran for Portland commissioner and won. He then served on the Portland City Council for four years, burnishing his credentials as an advocate for sustainability, before becoming the first openly gay mayor of a major U.S. city in 2009. His most significant environmental accomplishments in city government, Adams says, were helping to expand Portland's bike, streetcar, and light-rail systems; reducing greenhouse-gas emissions; and introducing curbside composting. "People were not happy with me for a good couple of months," Adams recalls of the composting initiative, but eventually, he says, they came around.
While he was mayor, Adams faced questions about a personal relationship he'd had with a teenager; the state attorney general eventually cleared him of wrongdoing. Adams decided not to seek a second term as mayor, but he wasn't done with the work he had begun in office. So he became executive director of the City Club of Portland, a nonprofit dedicated to exploring local public policy initiatives through quantitative research. "The most effective government policy is based on really robust research," Adams tells me. After several years at the City Club, now he has moved on to another data-driven public policy place: WRI.
As excited as he is about his new gig, Adams expects he'll eventually return to Portland. It was, he notes proudly, the first city to pass a carbon-reduction strategy in the 1990s. But when I suggest Portland might be becoming mainstream, he draws the line. "Geez!" he says, looking offended. "I hope not completely mainstream."