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reed magazine logoSummer 2008

The Kingmaker

Mark Wiener ’78

“You don’t mess with Mark Wiener.”

These were the words an Oregonian reporter used to explain Mark Wiener’s role in the primary victory of Portland mayor-elect Sam Adams last spring. Wiener is one of Oregon’s top political consultants, with a reputation for delivering unlikely victories even beyond the confines of liberal Portland (like, for instance, getting a progressive Democrat elected mayor of Boise, Idaho).

But with Adams’ mayoral campaign, he was under the gun: the candidate was an openly gay city commissioner with a long history in city government (and all the baggage that comes with it), a reputation as a hothead, and a personal bankruptcy in his past. Wiener says he fretted for a month over how best to frame Adams’ campaign before finally sitting up in bed at 4 a.m. with the answer. “It was that Sam is the one we can trust,” he says. He can’t explain the process, but it worked: Adams won, beating Sho Dozono, a popular Democratic businessman, with 60 percent of the vote.

“There has to be a certain authenticity that’s rooted in who the candidate is and what he stands for. Because voters have become increasingly adept at smoking out a phony.”
Mark Wiener ’78

Wiener attributes his uncanny political instincts to an innate knack for understanding human motivation (he was a theatre major), combined with skills he imbibed on the streets of Brooklyn in the early ’80s, running campaigns for then-Congressman Chuck Schumer.

“Schumer is the best retail politician I have ever met,” Wiener says. “He would explain to me his scientifically derived method of campaigning at a Waldbaum’s—you gotta go in through the exit, you gotta do the aisles in a zigzag pattern.” While Wiener offers no scientifically validated formulas of his own, he does have a couple of touchstones. “First, you try to get to people where they’re at. You do polling, you do focus groups, you really do the research. Then you find the commonalities between [voters] and where the candidate is. There has to be a certain authenticity that’s rooted in who the candidate is and what he stands for. Because voters have become increasingly adept at smoking out a phony.”

To that end, Wiener won’t take on just any candidate or cause (he has also advised campaigns for school funding and the like): he asks all prospective clients why they want to be elected to the office they’re running for. “You’d be surprised how many candidates have nothing to say,” he says. “They look at me and say ‘That’s why I’m hiring you.’ Nine times out of ten, I will thank that person for their time and say somebody else would probably be a better fit.”

Wiener says that though he has worked in 30 states, he derives his greatest professional satisfaction locally. “I can travel around town and point to a library that is open because of something I did, to a school that has a new roof because of something I did,” he says. “You can go to the zoo and see 30 percent more animals than used to be there because of something I did. I don’t know if that’s ego, but it doesn’t get much better than that.”

Juliette Guilbert ’89 is a freelance writer in Seattle.

reed magazine logoSummer 2008