Michael Dougan

If early indications prove accurate, next year's race for city council could be less about the candidates, and more about their allegiance—or lack thereof—to the Portland Business Alliance (PBA) and its policy goals.

Just before press time, Amanda Fritz became the first candidate to qualify for at least $150,000 in public campaign funds by securing 1,000 $5 donations from supporters. The $150,000 will come from the Voter-Owned Elections ordinance passed earlier this year by the council as a way of limiting the influence of big business on local elections.

Fearing such a loss of influence, the PBA began trying to undo the ordinance: first through a petition drive (as the "First Things First Committee") to place a repeal of Voter-Owned Elections on the primary ballot this May. Under the current ordinance, the system won't be put to voters until 2010—giving it enough time to work all the bugs out.

Now, PBA has a friend in State Senator Ginny Burdick, who plans to run against incumbent Commissioner Erik Sten—based largely on the conflict over public campaign funding. On the surface, Burdick's credentials are at least as progressive as Sten's—while at the state house, she's fought for typically lefty ideas like gun control. So why would the PBA put its influence behind her? Because she's willing to campaign against the idea of Voter-Owned Elections. And beyond that, she's previously been very clear that she believes big business needs more, not less, of a place at city hall. She also runs public affairs at Gard & Gerber, the PR firm that fought to kill the City of Portland's purchase of PGE—which was spearheaded by Sten. (Burdick didn't return the Mercury's phone call by press time.)

Sten won't be making an official announcement about his intentions to run for reelection for at least a few weeks. Sources close to his office say he will run and that he will, in fact, be participating in the public campaign funding. That means all of his campaign funds will come from the city—assuming he can first secure $5 donations from 1,000 Portlanders. He did say that the election for his seat will be about public campaign funds and, in a broader sense, how much influence corporations should have in local government.

"I don't think there's any debate about whether Portland is going to be progressive on social issues," Sten said in a recent interview with the Mercury, "but are we going to be progressive on economic issues... or do we allow the old power structure to remain and just give it a progressive window dressing?"

In the race for Commissioner Dan Saltzman's seat, all of the current candidates are making use of the public funds—except Saltzman. Instead, he is voluntarily limiting contributions to $500, reportedly setting a cap on his campaign at $150,000, the same amount given to the publicly financed candidates.

Still, his early contributions and expenditures (C&E) report, filed with the city in September, contains some familiar names—like Jim Jeddeloh, the embattled head of the Citizens Crime Commission, which is closely associated with the PBA, and ubiquitous design firm Gerding/Edlen, which planned to drop a Home Depot in the Burnside Bridgehead project. And then there's Mark Dodson, NW Natural's CEO, who gave $2,000 to Bush's reelection campaign last year. Other notable names: Powell's Books head Michael Powell, City Liquidator's Walt Pelett, and Wieden + Kennedy's Dan Wieden. Much of the rest of the list is made up of real estate developers, construction companies, steel manufacturers, and investment firms—and a lot of "homemakers" who not so coincidentally share last names with prominent business leaders.

While Saltzman has been busy collecting limited contributions from businesses, candidate Amanda Fritz has, out of necessity, been building a grassroots network of supporters. Whether that network—combined with public funds—will translate into a viable run for city council should become evident over the next few months.