In 2004, Adams was elected to the Portland City Council, serving four years on the council earning a reputation as a "policy-driven advocate for sustainability, the arts, and gay rights". He was elected to a four-year term as mayor of Portland in the May 2008 primary, with 58% of the vote and a dozen other candidates on the ballot. He was the first openly gay mayor of a top-30 U.S. city. In July 2011, Adams announced that he would not seek a second term as mayor. He had an approval rating of 56% eight months before he left office.
Son of Larry Adams—a special education teacher and high school basketball coach—and his wife, Karalie (née Gibbons), Adams was born in 1963, when his family lived on a ranch eight miles outside Whitehall, Montana. When he was two years old, his family moved to Richland, Washington, for a year, and then on to Newport, and Eugene, Oregon, where his parents were divorced. Adams lived with his mother and survived for a time on food stamps and housing assistance. In discussing not disclosing his sexuality, Adams noted he came from a "family of tough Montanans" where "there's a premium on being tough and strong, and being queer and a faggot wasn't strong". His mother could not find work in Eugene and moved to Portland. Adams stayed in Eugene and supported himself throughout most of his high school years. He graduated from South Eugene High School and attended the University of Oregon, dropping out to enter politics.
Adams began his career in politics as a staffer on Peter DeFazio's 1986 campaign for the U.S. House of Representatives in Oregon's 4th district. DeFazio won the race and still serves to this day. In 1987, Adams went to work for the Oregon House Democratic Campaign Committee and for then Democratic Majority Leader Carl Hosticka. He next worked on Vera Katz's mayoral campaign in Portland and served eleven years as her Chief of Staff. He remained closeted at work until he became her Chief of Staff in 1993.
In a 2004 election for a seat on the Portland City Council, Adams won significantly fewer votes than rival Nick Fish in the primary election, but defeated Fish in the general election. Following the primary, Adams shifted campaign managers and tactics from a focus on traditional fundraising to grassroots outreach.
Adams was Portland's Commissioner of Public Utilities; he ran the Portland Office of Transportation (commonly abbreviated as "PDOT") and the Portland Bureau of Environmental Services (BES). He also served as Portland City Council's liaison to the Arts and Culture and Small Business communities. As part of managing PDOT, he inherited the responsibility to oversee development of the Portland Aerial Tram, one of the world's few urban aerial trams. It links the South Waterfront district to the upper campus of Oregon Health & Science University. During its development, the project was plagued with cost overruns and opposition from some residents impacted by the project. When Adams assumed responsibility, he replaced the external consultants responsible for the poor cost estimates with in-house expertise. The project was completed on time and within the revised budget with the tram opened to the public in January 2007.
Adams and his staff maintained a blog highlighting their activities in the community, especially pertaining to Adams' priorities such as arts and culture, livability and environment, and transportation.
In October 2007 Adams announced his intentions to run for Mayor of Portland and kicked off his campaign at the Wonder Ballroom in Northeast Portland in February 2008. His main opponent was Sho Dozono, a civic leader and businessman, although 13 candidates filed for mayor. In the primary election, held May 20, 2008, Adams captured 58 percent of the vote and was elected without the need for a run-off. Dozono, his nearest opponent, received 34 percent of the vote. Adams took office on January 1, 2009. Portland became the largest U.S. city to have ever elected an openly gay mayor. (In December 2009 Houston, Texas, the nation's fourth largest city, elected Annise Parker, who is an out lesbian, surpassing Portland as the largest American city ever to have an openly gay mayor.)
In 2009, Adams in his inauguration speech said his top three priorities were creating more family-wage jobs, reducing the high school dropout rate, and making Portland more sustainable.
In his first State of the City address on February 27, 2009, Adams outlined his goal of making Portland "the most sustainable city in the world". Adams emphasized reduction of carbon dioxide emissions and investment in efficient green energy as essential to the city's energy-environmental goals and called on the Oregon State Legislature to provide incentives for the expansion of green energy companies, notably Vestas Wind Systems, into the Portland metropolitan area.
Later that year, Adams was cleared of any criminal wrongdoing related to a consensual sexual relationship with a young adult he met in 2005. Adams said the deception about the relationship was warranted because a political opponent had falsely accused him of having sex with a minor, but later apologized.
That year he also established a local economic stimulus plan by fast-tracking capital improvement projects, secured a Major League Soccer franchise, began work on the Oregon Sustainability Center established a free-bus-ride program designed to help low-income students more easily get to school, helped secure $2.5 million in new grants designed to help the city reduce diesel emissions, began construction of 15 miles of bike boulevards, and consolidated the city's permitting process.
Adams announced his support of new regulations for horse-drawn carriages in September 2009 after a horse died in downtown Portland a month earlier. Adams recommended that planners at the Revenue Bureau write new city codes that would cover working conditions for equine businesses and their animals.
In September 2009, he opposed the $4 billion, twelve-lane replacement for the I-5 bridge over the Columbia River, a plan he had once supported. Adams stated, "I'd rather settle for a bad bridge for another 25 years than a terrible bridge that punishes Portland for another 100 years." The twelve-lane idea was a compromise deal Adams helped write with then-Mayor Royce Pollard of Vancouver, Washington, in February, 2009. That deal helped get Portland City Council to agree for a bridge of up to twelve lanes, something Vancouver wanted in exchange for its support of Portland's MAX Light Rail extension across the I-5 bridge. Adams focused on improving the local economy by attracting large, sustainable employers to Portland, including a $200-million investment by the company Vestas.
In 2010, Adams in his State of the City address was praised by environmental organizations and criticized by coal advocates for his successful efforts to shrink Portland's carbon footprint through programs such as Clean Energy Works, the nation's first on-bill financing for home retrofitting. Adams also became known for leading the creation of Portland's "Citizen Reports" iPhone application. He also appeared in Portlandia's second episode as Sam, assistant to the Mayor of Portland.
In November of that year, Adams fired the police chief and then fired a police officer who had shot and killed an unarmed citizen. He recruited a wind company to spend $66 million on development and hire 400 employees, established the city's first economic development plan, developed programs designed to reduce Portland's high school dropout rate and make the city more sustainable, and, along with the rest of the city council, adopted gun control regulations that are designed to reduce shootings.
In 2011, Adams established curbside composting, banned single-use plastic bags, adopted a transgender-inclusive health plan for city employees, recruited a photovoltaic company to move to and invest $340 million in infrastructure in Portland, recruited several TV and movie companies to do business and spend about $100 million on production in Portland, established the $2.1 million seed fund to help start-up businesses in Portland, supported Occupy Portland at first, but later dispersed the camps, and cracked down on gangs with a 14-month police undercover operation that resulted in the arrests of 31 gang members.
On July 29, 2011, Adams announced on his official city blog that he would not seek a second term as Portland's mayor.
Just 16 days after expiration of his term as Mayor of Portland, Sam Adams was named as Executive Director of the City Club of Portland, a non-profit organization best known as the host of public civic policy meetings. After applying for the job in December 2012 and undergoing several interviews, Adams was selected from a pool of 80 applicants for the position, a job which is to pay him $80,000 in 2013.
Adams characterized his new position as a "fantastic opportunity to do community building, work on improving the civic health of the city, and to support the members' work in researching tough public policy issues.
Established in 1916, the City Club of Portland had about 1500 members and four paid employees in 2013. During his two-year tenure, City Club membership grew by 47 percent and corporate sponsorships doubled.
On Jan. 14, 2014, Adams announced that he was leaving the City Club to become director of U.S. Climate Initiatives at the World Resources Institute, a global nonprofit dedicated to environmental sustainability.
From 1992 until 2004, Adams was in a long-term relationship with Greg Eddie. During that time, in 1993, he was outed as gay by the alternative newspaper Willamette Week. In 2007, the former couple, in a challenge to the state constitution, filed suit against the State of Oregon to dissolve their domestic partnership and divide Adams' future pension. After his break-up with Eddie, Adams was, for the first time, both openly gay and single. Adams lamented his lack of "gaydar". He said this made him decide to date only men who asked him out first.
In 2005, Adams met Beau Breedlove, a 17-year-old interning for Oregon State Representative Kim Thatcher. In September 2007, Adams denied rumors of a sexual relationship between the two, calling the allegations scurrilous, and adding that they played into stereotypes of predatory gays. In January 2009, after being confronted with a story in Willamette Week, Adams acknowledged lying about the nature of their sexual relationship. Breedlove confirmed Adams' accounts. Adams apologized, saying he had lied to avoid accusations of grooming a minor and the likely disruption such allegations would cause in his mayoral campaign. Adams cited the "swift public condemnation" of former mayor and governor Neil Goldschmidt in 2004 by the news media as weighing heavily in his decision to lie. "[N]o one's going to believe me [that he was eighteen]". Oregon had already seen several prominent political sex scandals; prior to Goldschmidt's, there was one involving Senator Bob Packwood in 1992. The "well-funded newsroom" of The Oregonian had been criticized for failing to pursue both stories. In the Goldschmidt case, the Oregonian publicly debated with Willamette Week over which publication reported more accurately and aggressively. Adams also announced his intention to remain in office.
News of the deception led Oregon Attorney General John Kroger to initiate a criminal investigation in January 2009. By June, his office announced that no charges would be filed and that there was "no credible evidence" of inappropriate sexual contact before the age of consent. Before Kroger's findings were made public, several newspapers called for Adams' resignation. The Portland Mercury and the board of the Portland Area Business Association, the LGBTQ chamber of commerce, spoke out against resignation. Out magazine columnist Dan Savage noted what they saw as hypocrisy, homophobia, and sex panic about age disparity in sexual relationships. In July 2009 a recall campaign asserted that Adams had lost the trust of the public and other elected officials to ill effect on the city's economy. It fell short of gathering the necessary number of signatures. A second effort began in late 2009, with financial backing from over a dozen regional businesses. The backers posited that a "lack of trust and political capital" was affecting their businesses' bottom lines. However, it too failed due to lack of sufficient signatures.
Adams also dated Christopher Stowell, artistic director of Oregon Ballet Theatre. As of early 2008, Adams is the partner of journalist Peter Zuckerman.
Adams has a recurring role on the IFC show Portlandia as assistant to Portland's fictional mayor played by Kyle MacLachlan. He also appeared as himself in "The Hour of Death", a 2012 episode of the Portland-based NBC show Grimm.