A little after 8 pm, with the sun setting through the windows of SE bar Acme, Chris Smith sat hunched over his laptop with a Hefeweizen. As the co-chair of the anti-strong mayor campaign, he had ample reason to celebrate—Measure 26-91, which would have ditched Portland's longstanding form of government in place of a centralized strong mayor system, was poised to go down in flames.
With around 69,000 votes (out of a total of 85,750 or so) accounted for, Mayor Tom Potter's attempt to centralize authority under his office was failing, 75 to 25 percent, despite the mayor's individual popularity ratings, which hovered near 70 percent at last check.
"With the mayor out stumping for this change, I really thought it was going to be a closer race," says Smith. "I'm glad to see the people of Portland, once again, recognizing the strength of the commissioner form of government."
It was only the most recent of numerous failed attempts to radically alter Portland's form of government—the last one, in 2002, failed by a similar percentage. But despite the lengthy history of failed attempts, Potter had waged much of his tenure as mayor on changing the form of government. That goal now has been vanquished, and it remains unclear whether Potter will run for reelection in 2008, when his term expires.
The mayor made himself available for press interviews during the evening, but shortly after the first results were released, he was forced to leave the party held by the pro-change campaign, Citizens to Reform City Hall, due to an illness. His spokesperson, however, did say that Potter had fulfilled his campaign pledge to put these issues on the ballot, and that voters had their say. Plus, the other three Potter-backed measures on the ballot (26-89, 26-90, and 26-92) were all passing.
Ultimately, Potter's efforts to "reform city hall" couldn't escape its awkward timing. As he and the rest of city council were warned in February, forcing his package of ballot measures onto the ballot in May—during an off-year election—all but guaranteed a low turnout and widespread lack of interest.
And that's exactly what he got. The latest numbers available from the Multnomah County Elections office—before we went to press late Tuesday night—placed turnout at 23 percent. By comparison, the May 2004 election turnout was 45 percent, May 2006 was 36 percent, and November 2006 was nearly 70 percent.
Part of the problem was timing, but part of it was also a lack of campaign experience on the part of the pro-change camp. The idea of the Charter Review Commission was to have non-politicians develop the charter change recommendations as a way of de-politicizing the process. But when it came to running a campaign that could actually reach voters, that lack of experience backfired.
But even if voters weren't clued into the election or to the issues, a small handful of people knew exactly what was at stake: business leaders and unions. The pro-change Citizens to Reform City Hall brought in $157,600 at last count, although that number could rise when the final contributions are posted later this week. Of the 83 contributions that made up that number, 52 were directly from businesses (representing $94,800 of the total) like Comcast ($5,000), Williams and Dame Development ($10,000), PGE ($2,500), and Harsch Investment Group, which gave $10,000 the week before the election. The individual contributions were largely from real estate developers.
On the anti-change side, Portlanders for Accountability brought in $223,000—but from only 22 contributors, all but $2,500 of it coming from labor unions or union-connected committees.
In the end, the election appears to have been waged by moneyed interests on both sides, with voters deciding to just sit this one out.