At the end of 2018, Tom Hughes will end a career that includes two decades in elected office, the last eight serving as Metro Council President. Hughes, a 73-year-old Hillsboro native, leaves with some obvious legacy achievements, such as the Oregon Convention Center headquarters hotel.
But Hughes’ legacy will also include more subtle, long-term changes, particularly the tailpipe emissions reduction plan established in his tenure, and the establishment of Metro’s work to improve racial equity in the greater Portland region.
On Dec. 7, Hughes spoke with Emerald Bogue at the City Club of Portland’s Friday Forum about his time as Metro Council President.
He later spoke with Metro News about his time in the regional government. The answers below have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Let’s go back in time first. It’s 2010, you just wrapped up a successful 8 years as Hillsboro mayor, you’re retired as a consultant… and you decide to run for Metro Council President. Why?
Well, I certainly had a lot of people suggesting that I do it. And it was a hard choice, because I was enjoying my retirement both from being Hillsboro mayor and from my 30 years teaching high school government and history. And both of the candidates already in the race, Bob Stacey and Rex Burkholder, were people I respected greatly.
But I think one thing that convinced me to run back in 2010 was this notion that existed that Metro didn’t listen to the suburbs. And I don’t think it was an accurate notion, but I started to realize that if a suburban leader were to come in, that person could be in a better position to help mediate some of those discussions from a place of shared trust in a way that someone from Portland might not.
I narrowly won that race, and Bob (Stacey) and I have been on the Metro Council together now for 6 years, and I think we’ve both worked hard to help make this region a better place.
What has happened in the last 8 years that you never would have dreamed of in 2010?
A couple of things stand out, first of which is the scale of economic growth we’ve had here. People forget just how scared we were about our economic future here in the Portland region. We had an all-hands-on-deck effort to attract new jobs to the area.
That wasn’t just to glorify some egos. Portland has historically really struggled to come out of recessions, and never recovered to the degree that other West Coast cities had. Portland historically had more in common with Rust Belt cities than West Coast cities. So the idea that by 2018, we’d have such a dynamic economy, one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country, so much so that we’d be in the midst of an affordability crisis by 2018, you might have gotten laughed out of the room if you had said that eight years ago.
Let’s talk about the convention center hotel. Why was that project important to you, and what did it take to get it done?
Well, it was important because it was such an obvious, and seemingly simple, win for our region. And a lot of the opposition to it was based not on the merits but on the Oregonian tradition of being tied to the “way things are” at the expense of envisioning the way they could be.
But really, I only get a small part of the credit on this. (Former Portland Mayor) Sam Adams really deserves a hefty chunk of the credit for keeping the idea alive and trying to be creative about it. Some of my former staffers, Andy Shaw, Colin Deverell and Stephanie Soden put in hours upon hours to help carry this thing. And Mortenson and Hyatt came to us with a creative finance plan that offers very little risk to the taxpayer in exchange for hundreds of millions of dollars of private investment.
As Travel Portland, another important partner, can tell you, tourism is vital to our economy. We have such a great region, in such a beautiful state, but we’re kind of out of the way if you haven’t dipped your toe in first. So having a convention center, where people can visit, stay a day or two before or after, check out our wineries and breweries and restaurants and skiing and the coast and desert, that’s what makes that connection and brings people – and their economic output – back again and again.
What are some of the other things you’re proud of?
I think our climate plan, the Climate Smart Communities program, is going to pay dividends for decades to come. Here we came together as a region and said “This is how we are going to do our part to address climate change.” It would have been easy to say, you know, let’s just be Climate Dumb Communities. I think some places wanted to be Climate Dumb Communities. But I think we all recognized that we need to cut tailpipe emissions if not for the planet, then for ourselves. Nobody wants to breathe in any more freeway exhaust than they need to, and this is our effort to address that.
I think the reforms to our land use program are also going to make a difference for decades to come. Back when I was mayor of Hillsboro, I think there were two attitudes about our land use program: One, from the disciples of Tom McCall, that the land use program was sent from above and was a rigid, unbendable tool, and the other, from pro-development interests, that wanted to take the stone tablets and throw them down the mountain and pretend they didn’t exist.
And what really needed to happen was a long-term effort to get both sides to agree that the land use system needed to bend before it broke. So we made some common-sense reforms that will make it easier to choose the right land to expand our urban footprint when needed, and lower the cost of new housing on those expansion areas.
And last, I think Metro’s work on addressing racial equity is going to set the Portland region on a path for economic and social success for a long time. We are coming from way behind. When I was growing up in Hillsboro, there were about 50 Blacks in all of Washington County, and only a handful of Latinos and Asians, at a time when Washington County had a population of 90,000. So I was unintentionally raised colorblind, and had to unlearn many of the things I thought I knew.
I think the hotel project was crucial in that, because what we quickly learned was that if we wanted to have a diverse workforce, particularly on construction of the hotel, that workforce simply didn’t exist in the Portland region. So our work on creating a pipeline to trade jobs for women and people of color is one way we’re able to help make a difference for folks in our region.
But it’s really goes beyond that. There have been studies upon studies that show that the cities that have greater economic parity among the various races have stronger overall economies. Everyone is better off when truly everyone is better off. So I think Metro is well-positioned to lead that work and help the Portland region do what it needs to do to address the racial inequities that currently exist.
I’ll spend some time with my wife Gayle, but I didn’t take to retirement before and I don’t know that I will now. I’m really interested to see what Council President-elect (Lynn) Peterson does with our transportation system. We know we need to make some big changes to our transportation system, we need to catch up to other cities that have addressed traffic and transit, and we face serious choices on that and I hope to support Lynn as this work moves forward. And at some point, another recession will hit. I’m curious how our economy changes during that recession and I’m sure I’ll be interested in helping efforts to keep Oregon’s economy moving.