PORTLAND, Ore. — With Gordon Sondland continuing to dominate the Trump-impeachment fueled news cycle, we listened back through a wide-ranging Business Journal Power Breakfast interview with the Portland hotelier that took place in March 2016.
Sondland, who Trump appointed to be the U.S. Ambassador to the European Union in 2018, is embroiled in the investigation around the Trump administration’s effort to get the Ukrainian government to investigate Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden, and whether Trump withheld military aid.
Given the central role Sondland is playing in the impeachment inquiry, the interview was enlightening. For one, Sondland talked about quid pro quo , a word choice at the heart of the investigation. He also discussed the "anger and frustration" of the 2016 election.
During the hour-long interview, Sondland shared the story of his parents harrowing escape from Nazi Germany, his thoughts on bi-partisan politics and on being a Republican in Oregon.
Here are excerpts.
On his parents: “…They were separated not by, by choice, but by necessity because of the war. They were madly in love. My mother met my father in Berlin. They were both born in Berlin in the ‘20s. My mother married my father when she was 15, had my sister when she was 16, and they had to escape Nazi Germany. My mother was able to get out of Germany because her father was Russian and those with a Russian passport could leave. My father was not so fortunate and he had to be smuggled out of Germany by being tied to the bow of a vegetable freighter that was leaving in the North Sea. He almost lost one leg because it was so cold.
I have a huge amount of respect for the International Red Cross because they were the agency actually that facilitated communication between refugees. They passed letters back and forth and my mother still to this day has several shoe boxes full of handwritten letters between she and my father.
On his love of art: Even as a teenager, I began to buy works from unknown artists, some of which were only a few hundred dollars. And then, of course, as my income and my tastes began to change, I began to ramp up, and now Katie (Durant, Sondland’s spouse) and I, as we travel around the world, we gravitate to things we like. We don't buy to decorate a room. We buy great pieces and if there's no place to put them, they go into storage until there is a place to put them. The Portland Art Museum is a real treasure in this community. I was fortunate enough to serve on the board for about 15 years and as its chairman for two years.
Because the state government and the city government really don't have the resources or the will to fund the Portland Art Museum, various board members, including ourselves, decided to endow these admissions programs. Bank of America stepped up and did something very generous. And Katie and I decided, particularly for kids, to endow perpetual admission for kids under 18, which we did.
On supporting Democratic candidates: I'm a Republican, which everyone knows, but I really enjoy working across the aisle with the other side when we have a common purpose. I was introduced to (former Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski) during his campaign. I was going to support the other candidate on the other side of the aisle. And as I got to know Ted well, even though we had profound political disagreements, I thought he was a person of character. He was wicked smart and he liked to get things done. And so I decided to cross the aisle and support him.
On his connection to George Bush and quid pro quo in politics: The governor knew I had a relationship with the Bush White House and asked me to work on myriad projects quietly to enable the state to receive certain federal money for very specific projects. And the way we were able to do it was by first building a relationship between Gov. Kulongoski and President Bush, and they had an opportunity to meet, they had an opportunity to get to know one another. President Bush admired Gov. Kulongoski’s background, the fact that he grew up in an orphanage, was in the Marine Corps, pulled himself up by the bootstraps, and Gov. Kulongoski appreciated President Bush’s direct approach, which is no nonsense, get things done. And again, even though they were completely an opposite sides of the political spectrum, they developed a good personal friendship and a working relationship, which I and others tried to help encourage.
As things came up ... we would make these requests and they were done quietly. They were done with rifle precision and there was always a quid pro quo. The governor would help the president with something and the president would help the governor with something. And it was very transactional. That seems to have been gone now because a Republican says, I can't do anything to help a Democrat and a Democrat says I can't do anything to (help) a Republican. And a lot of the transactional nature of it has gone.
On how bipartisanship dissipated during the 2016 campaign: I've never seen a world like this. This is all uncharted territory. I have no idea where this is going to shake out. At the end of the day, there's clearly a lot of anger and frustration on both sides of the aisle in the electorate, which is bearing out in the polling and in who appears to be the likely nominee on both sides. ... There's less ability to understand what someone else needs to figure out what you need and make a deal. And, it's unfortunate because I think everyone loses in the process.
On whether the rhetoric at the time should frighten the country: The one hope that I have, and this is my own personal view, is the United States is incredibly resilient, given the type of people that really built this country, not unlike my own parents. And so I think things swing from one extreme to another, but, generally the pendulum finds the center at some point and rationality prevails. But the days of a liberal Democratic governor having a good working relationship with a conservative Republican president, they're not here right now.
How he ended up in the hotel business: I started in Seattle as a commercial real estate broker … I used to sell apartment buildings in Seattle, a lot of the little brick buildings on Capitol Hill, Queen Anne Hill. And I began to run a division for a regional brokerage company. And one of the brokers who worked for me brought me a hotel that was in bankruptcy and said, "Do we want to sell this hotel. How do we sell a hotel in bankruptcy?" I knew a little about bankruptcy because I had done a lot of bankrupt apartment deals. So I gave this broker some help and as I got into the numbers more, I said, you know, this is an interesting opportunity. Maybe I'll put a group of people together and raise the money and buy it myself, which I did.