Mayoral candidate Charlie Hales was first to come forward this summer with limits on the size of the checks he'd accept ahead of the general election: No more than $600 from any one donor. He made the announcement after taking a few last-second major gifts under the wire—in part, he said, to pay off lingering bills from the primary.
Now comes word from the campaign of his beleaguered rival, Jefferson Smith—who later followed suit with a $1,000 limit—that Hales is hoping to change the rules by arguing a technicality.
Hales wrote Smith a letter (pdf) suggesting both campaigns drop the limits on supportive unions by letting them write checks "at a rate of no more than $50 per member." The unions could use that money, reported as an "in-kind contribution" on Hales' finance forms, to directly purchase things like airtime and mailers and door-knockers on behalf of the campaign. A union with, say, 100 members would be able to give Hales a contribution that amounts to $5,000.
One might also call it an independent-expenditure-lite: Letting unions do the heavy lifting and spend their own money as they see fit will free the campaign to spend its own money and put Hales somewhat off the hook for the messaging those groups provide.
Hales' letter explains by noting his initial goal was to "limit the role of large individual or corporate contributions." He argues that this will allow unions to empower working people to get more involved and have a voice. Of course, nothing's already stopping those members from donating the $50 on their own—they'd even get a state tax credit for it, so it wouldn't cost a thing. But the campaign has been hearing from union members who complain that they already pay dues that are supposed to be used to support candidates, and that they can't afford the extra check.
"The big change here is that these folks have gotten more involved in our campaign," Hales explains to me.
Asked, then, why not encourage members to give on their own and provide the tax form necessary to make it zero-cost for members who feel "shut out": "We're not going to ask them to go outside their union. That wouldn't be very nice."
Hales also suggests the change won't help or hurt either campaign, since both candidates have received labor endorsements—even though three unions, including the well-funded and very large fire and police unions, have bolted Smith's tent in recent days. Smith still has the Portland Association of Teachers and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees on his side. Hales has, among others, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Service Employees International Union.
"He still has some large unions, and they're free to do this as well," Hales said of Smith's recent defections. "This wasn't about that. This was about the plea we're getting."
Smith's campaign manager, Henry Kraemer, says nothing on Smith's side will change and that Hales, of course, is free to change his own terms as he sees fit.
This isn't the first time Hales' campaign has done some seemingly hinky things to end-run their own rules. The O reported that he accepted maximum gifts from a "developer, his company, his wife, and his family's horse barn." Asked if voters might wonder, if Hales becomes mayor, whether this means he'll be expected to change rules whenever he sees fit or they become inconvenient, he said that's not what anyone should think.
"This is a set of restrictions we put on ourselves," he said, "for reasons of good public policy and democracy. This is an innovation. With any innovation, you'll have some adjustments."