On the Monday after Thanksgiving, Portland quietly marked a pivotal moment in its political history—the first of the city commissioner candidates seeking public campaign funds, Amanda Fritz, submitted her signatures to the city for verification.
If that seems like a small event, consider this: In nearly 90 percent of local races, the election has been won by the candidates raising the most money—a traditional system which has effectively replaced leadership skills with fundraising ability. The city's new Voter-Owned Elections (VOE) ordinance seeks to reverse that trend by giving campaign funds ($150,000 for the primary) to candidates who can first drum up $5 donations from 1,000 supporters. Not coincidentally, the system is designed to attract people who aren't traditional politicians—like Fritz, whose work over the past 15 years with neighborhood associations, unions, and Portland Public Schools gave her an established support base.
"I'm not a career politician," she told the Mercury in her first interview as a candidate. "I've got three teenagers and I'm a psychiatric nurse. I hear plenty of abuse in my current jobs."
Despite her neighborhood involvement, she's still unfamiliar to the majority of the city—unlike her opponent, incumbent Dan Saltzman, who at the very least has more name recognition.
Fritz, a Yorkshire-bred, Cambridge-educated nurse, moved to Portland in 1986 after putting herself and her husband through school on the East Coast. A few years later, she became involved with the West Portland Park Neighborhood Association when a proposed subdivision development threatened to level a forest near her house—that resulted in a successful bid to purchase the land and turn it into a refuge. Over the ensuing 15 years, she served as the land-use chair for the neighborhood association, worked to get grants for the public school system, and was on the Portland Planning Commission for two terms, from 1996 to 2003.
At the Planning Commission, she developed a knack for dissecting issues and putting together novel solutions—with the help of ample public involvement. Through the process stage, she says, she often changed her position on issues based on public testimony. But she rejected a suggestion that leaders can get so bogged down by process and public input that it becomes difficult for them to act—saying that it is more costly and time-consuming when leaders don't consider community input and then have to revisit unpopular actions later.
Fritz decided to run for City Commissioner Saltzman's seat well before the VOE ordinance was passed last summer, but she started holding house parties in August.
Her pre-existing connections helped her gather early support—she had 100 solicitors, many of whom she met through neighborhoods—but gathering the 1,000 donations proved to be more difficult than she had planned. That was largely because her most obvious sources for support were cut off: Neighborhood associations and other nonprofits are forbidden from making candidate endorsements, and labor unions don't make their endorsements until later in the election cycle.
"I couldn't just show up at a meeting and ask (for donations)," she told the Mercury. "I had to wait until the meeting was over.... Certainly a lot of the solicitors were people I knew through the neighborhood association network, but they weren't doing it at their meetings."
Ultimately, the donations came from—according to Fritz—90 of the 95 neighborhoods in the city, through specifically targeted donors. The process took nearly three months.
"It's not like you can just stand in Pioneer Courthouse Square and get people to give you five bucks," she says. "Even some of my best friends wouldn't just fork over five bucks—they said, 'I'll check out your website and see what your positions are.'"
Fritz's supporters, like West Portland Park Neighborhood Association President David Gens, point to her ability to make different governmental agencies work together to raise funds for projects—like the 1.7 acre holly farm in SW that is being converted into park space using grant money from the state and other municipalities.
"She doesn't just react to situations—she creates solutions," Gens says.
Fritz says the council—and Mayor Tom Potter in particular—needs a neighborhood advocate that can implement recommendations made by the myriad, navel-gazing "re-visioning" task forces that are currently discussing Portland's future.
"Previous task forces have come up with similar recommendations in terms of what the bureaus needed to do to implement them, and the bureaus refused. That's not a problem that's going to get resolved if we just get more people to discuss it again," she said. "Commissioners need to buy into it and say, 'In my bureau, we will do it this way.'"
Fritz's campaign platform will likely be overshadowed by the debate over the public campaign system itself. A business-heavy group is currently gathering signatures to put a repeal of the system on the May primary ballot. If the repeal goes through, Fritz and the other public candidates (if there are any) will be forced to either bow out of the general election race or attempt to solicit money the old-fashioned way—by "dialing for dollars." Fritz says that would probably force her out.
"[Before the ordinance passed] I thought I could spend my kids' college fund starting my own campaign," she said. "I thought I'd be able to do some fundraising—I've done a lot of fundraising for the schools and for parks. But it's qualitatively and quantitatively very different, even asking for five bucks. It's asking for something which is not quite so obviously in the public good."
Opposition to the VOE system, Fritz says, has mainly come from big business groups—her network of supporters featured many small businesses. In an orange notebook with the word "success" printed on it, she has written a figure that frequently gets overlooked: Of some 44,000 employers in Portland, 39,000 have fewer than 10 employees. Fritz says she would look for ways to enable those businesses to hire additional staff.
The VOE system, she says, shows how elected leaders can become unduly influenced by campaign funds from large donors—although she stopped short of directly criticizing her opponent, Saltzman, whose donation report so far reads like a who's who of local businesses.
"I am beholden to these 1,000 people, and to the 100 people who solicited," Fritz said. "And I'll be beholden to the 95 neighborhoods who will be volunteering to help get me elected. If I had taken $500 from anybody, that would be a huge debt. You couldn't help but remember that.
"We don't want people whose major skill is attracting large quantities of money from developers."
Additional reporting by Amy Jenniges