Image for Bud Clark: A Role Model for How to Restore Public Trust

After an upset win in 1984, Bud Clark became Portland mayor, serving two terms until 1992. The owner of Goose Hollow Inn became known as the “citizen mayor” for how he acted and how he governed. Long-time Portland City Commissioner Mike Lindberg, who served during Clark’s tenure as mayor, was among those who paid tribute to him at a Pioneer Courthouse Square ceremony earlier this month. Clark died February 1 at age 90.

Public trust in leadership is waning. Candidates seeking office this year must find ways to demonstrate their leadership skills to a skeptical electorate. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to reflect on the leadership style of the late Mayor Bud Clark.

The day after his election, Clark was seen poling his canoe on the Willamette River as cameras flashed and the image appeared on front pages, in Portland and New York, Mike Lindberg recalled. “The City went in one day from a mayor chauffeured to work to a mayor who biked to work in whatever clothes felt comfortable that day, and he stopped to chat with folks along the way to City Hall.”

Former Portland City Commissioner Mike Lindberg was among those who delivered a tribute to former Mayor Bud Clark earlier this month and contributed to this blog.

Clark earned his upstart victory with what Lindberg calls a “stealth” campaign that was “carried out in neighborhood parades, taverns and homes, conveying the message that he was a serious ex-Marine who believed in personal duty and civic commitment.”

Clark was born in Nampa, Idaho in 1931, though he claimed he was conceived in LaGrande, Oregon. His parents divorced when he was two, which ultimately led his mother and him to Portland. To help the family budget, Clark hawked lemonade and set type for a multigraph at his mother’s secretarial service. He attended Lincoln High School and was a male cheerleader known as the Yell King who somersaulted over teammates.

Clark enlisted in the Marine Corps after brief stints as a student at Vanport College and Oregon State University. Despite volunteering three times to fight in Korea, Clark remained at Camp Pendleton. His VA counselor noticed Clark’s engaging personality and encouraged him to study psychology, which he did at Reed College, with tuition paid by the G.I. bill. To make ends meet, Clark drove a hearse and worked as a ship chandler.

Clark lost interest in psychology and dropped out. But the experience left an impression. “Reed made me realize that if you don’t have [an] exchange of information and different points of view, you can’t have progress,” he wrote. “When I started the tavern, I was told ‘You shouldn’t talk about religion. You shouldn’t talk about politics.’ And I said, ‘Listen. That’s what this is all about. To talk about religion and to talk about politics.’”

As a college drop-out, he honed his relationship skills by hitchhiking, walking railroad tracks and sleeping outdoors. In Big Sur, he worked as a laborer, waiter and cook. After returning to Portland, Clark became a tavern proprietor and married Joanne Walker. She died two years later in an auto accident caused by a drunk driver.

Clark purchased Ann’s Bar and turned it into Goose Hollow Inn, which a friend described as an “ambient blend of bohemian gothic”. He married Sigrid Fehrenbacher in 1964 and adopted her son. They had three more children. Sigrid ran an antique business next to the Goose Hollow Inn and died in 2000 of meningitis when she was just 59. Clark gave her the credit for the affection, support and confidence so he could be mayor and have fun. 

Along the way, Clark sprouted an outsized personality. He famously posed as a flasher for the iconic “Expose Yourself to Art” poster in 1978, raising money for the “Zap the Clap” campaign to combat venereal disease. He donned silver whiskers, suspenders for corduroy pants and a signature red boutonniere rose. “I am Santa Claus,” Clark said when announcing his mayoral candidacy. Behind the public persona, Clark became a tireless community activist, starting a community newspaper, delivering Meals on Wheels and serving on the Planned Parenthood board, the Waterway Advisory Committee and United Way’s Policy Development Committee. He was a man clearly in love with Portland.

“He showed up at the dedication of Pioneer Square in a white suit with a tray of roses, giving each potential voter a rose,” Lindberg recalled. “Bud’s roots were here. His ancestors came to this valley in 1852 and he liked to say that he had the mud of the Columbia and Willamette Rivers between his toes.”

After he won the mayoral election, Clark oversaw a Mayor’s Ball that paid off his campaign debt while raising funds for community nonprofits. Lindberg remembered the ball featured the “largest number of bands at an inside venue in US history”.

Bud gave a speech in his first year as mayor where he said he wanted our city to be a place where people walked down the street, looked each other in the eye and said hello. Respect, dignity and equality were his guiding principles.

After Clark took office, he didn’t change. He declared “Dress as you please day” at Portland City Hall. He invited the mayor of Hermiston to bring watermelons to Pioneer Square and promoted the visit with a seed-spitting contest. “My seed went 22 feet,” Lindberg noted. Clark hosted City Hall lunches that anyone could attend.

“His secret sauce was governing by random encounters,” Lindberg said. Thousands of people felt comfortable enough to stop him on the street, and Clark joyfully agreed to chat. Wherever Clark went, whether in Portland or Japan, people recognized him from the “Expose Yourself to Art” poster. As people took pictures of him, he took pictures of them, according to Lindberg.

In his tribute, Lindberg recounted two special stories about Clark. “Bud was driving his car one weekend and came upon police cars blocking the street. He asked the officers what was going on. They told him that more cars were on the way because hundreds of motorcycles were gathering a few blocks away and that meant trouble. Bud said, ‘Hell, that’s Schmitty’s wake and that’s where I am going. Call off the troops.”

“On another occasion, Bud left his Northwest Portland home on his bike and saw an 8-year-old boy with a lemonade stand who was selling nothing. Bud said to the boy, ‘I will show you how it is done.’ He took over the stand and yelled at passersby. Before long, the boy’s business was launched.”

There was method to what some considered Clark’s maddening behavior. The new mayor enlisted Portland in the U.S. Conference of Mayors, startling his fellow mayors by showing up in lederhosen and greeting his colleagues with his distinctive “Whoop, Whoop”. “By the time he retired, the mayors had given him and our city leadership awards for Livability and threw him the best going away party in the history of the group,” Lindberg said. “His intellect, work ethic and creativity had won them over.”

Lindberg especially hailed Clark’s leadership style. “Bud’s core beliefs were reflected in his governing style. He issued a proclamation that said he wanted Portland to be a place where all citizens believed they were part of one big family. Bud gave a speech in his first year as mayor where he said he wanted our city to be a place where people walked down the street, looked each other in the eye and said hello. Respect, dignity and equality were his guiding principles.”

A smart businessman, Clark led the City to balanced budgets with surpluses, pursued international trade, addressed homelessness, championed the Oregon Convention Center, completed the Pioneer Place shopping center and purchased historic Union Station and 32 surrounding acres. He also pivoted to community policing. “In the words of former Police Chief and Mayor Tom Potter, Bud’s commitment to community policing was reflected in his belief that police officers were ‘peace’ officers working with diverse communities.”

After two popular terms, Clark chose not to seek re-election. He pointed to Cincinnatus who led Rome in defeating an invasion, then returned to his farm. “I don’t think people ought to make a career out of being a politician,” Clark said. “We ought to have citizen politicians. Why people don’t have different phases in their lives has never made sense to me.” Characteristically, when his term ended, he rode home on his bicycle – in a snowstorm.

“Bud led without ego. He said the city was like one large organism and the mayor is just one cell. When asked how he wanted his time as Mayor to be remembered, he said, ‘We lived in harmony as a City Council and as a community.’” Lindberg concluded his tribute with, “Portland is a much better place because of Bud Clark, the people’s mayor.”

Clark was elected mayor almost 40 years ago. A lot has changed since then. But a lot remains the same. Clark’s legacy of personal commitment, community engagement and ‘Whoop Whoop’ greetings offer a lesson in how to be a people’s politician and to make anywhere a friendlier place.