Portlanders have been forced to consider whether or not their newly elected mayor is morally fit to serve in office after Sam Adams admitted to a sexual relationship with a 18 year old he'd first met when the young man was 17 and an intern at the State Capitol. Adams had previously vehemently denied a relationship existed and called whatever type of connection he had with the young man a "mentoring" association.
There are several questions worth considering:
First, did Adams do anything illegal? Determining legality depends entirely on when the sexual relationship began. Was the young man 17 or 18? 18 is the legal age of consent and Willamette Week, which broke the story, told KGW last night that they had no evidence the affair began before the man was 18. A relationship between two consenting adults shouldn't be a news story. The young man was not an employee of the city.
There is more to the story, however. When these allegations first came to light – at the start of the mayoral race when Adams was a city commissioner – he attacked the person spreading the story (a potential political opponent) and said all elements of the story were false. He lied to the people of Portland to further his political career.
But even here there is moral ambiguity to wrestle with. Adams now claims that had he first come clean and admitted that he had had an affair with an 18 year old that as a gay man he wouldn't have been believed because of old and false stereotypes about gay men preying on young boys. His fear was legitimate. But in the end he should have had more faith in the ability of Portlanders to understand the details (assuming he is telling the truth now about when the sexual relationship began).
Trust is now where the story will end. Can voters trust Sam Adams again? In truth, his winning campaign only succeeded in the fashion it did (with a weak opponent and broad public support) because he lied and never let Portlanders grapple for themselves with these questions. When a politician doesn't trust the people how can the people trust the politician?
For what it is worth, I endorsed Adams in his race for mayor. I wouldn't make that same decision today. I'm proud of Sam's courage in being one of the nation's highest ranking openly gay people and I've been impressed with his leadership qualities. It would seem – with the evidence we know – that the cover-up was the real mistake here. How deep that cover-up went is an open question. Willamette Week has suggested that it went far enough that Adams hired a reporter to join the mayor's staff who was totally unqualified for a high paying job. The reporter in question had been digging around this story. Was she hired to shut her up?
Whether or not Adams should remain in office rests entirely on whether he can convince Portlanders he still has the integrity to govern. At this moment, for me, it is still an open question.