When the Portland City Council voted to provide public funding for city campaigns last year—after months of hearings and public input—it set the stage for a showdown between business interests and activists who want to even out the political playing field. And when the First Things First Committee gathered enough signatures last week to get a repeal of the system on the May ballot, it turned up the heat on a battle ready to boil.
On Tuesday, January 17, the day after First Things First filed 40,988 signatures supporting the repeal, a group called Vote No Power Grab—a coalition of smaller groups like League of Women Voters and Money in Politics Research Action Project (MIPRAP)—began its campaign to fight the repeal. (Background: The Voter-Owned Elections system gives campaign money to candidates who can secure 1,000 $5 contributions. So far, only one candidate, Amanda Fritz, has qualified.)
First Things First won't be filing its list of contributors until February 1, but a peek at their public list of members paints a clear picture of who is behind the repeal effort: downtown business interests. The Portland Business Alliance is roundly represented on the list, including PBA President/CEO Sandra McDonough, Chair-Elect Judy Peppler (Oregon president of Qwest), Vice-Chair Greg Goodman (president of City Center Parking), and most interestingly, Government Affairs Director Cameron Vaughan-Tyler, whose job is to lobby city council, Multnomah County, and the Metro Board. Vaughan-Tyler has been Dan Saltzman's chief of staff and a policy advisor.
First Things First also proudly lists a cadre of business endorsers—including Qwest, the Oregon Restaurant Association (which has consistently battled minimum wage laws), PGE, and Gard & Gerber. Anti-tax group Oregon Taxpayers Association has also been soliciting support for the repeal.
"They're the people we used to see at city hall using special interest money to get their point across," League of Women Voters' Carol Cushman told the Mercury. Or, as the Vote No Power Grab campaign puts it more directly: Big business interests are "trying to grab back the power they previously had over our city government."
Of course, First Things First will probably not gain much widespread support based on a campaign to give corporations more control in city elections—that message is not likely to resonate in the People's Republic of Portland. Instead, the repeal effort is centering around the idea that the city can't afford to spend the money on campaigns when other services are left wanting.
In fact, at least two official complaints have been filed against First Things First, alleging that its petitioners lied in order to get signatures. Specifically, the complaints claim that petitioners told Portlanders that the public campaigns take money away from schools. Since the city isn't responsible for funding schools, the Voter-Owned Elections funds don't impact education. Those complaints may go to the state Department of Justice.
But the petitioners' apparently dishonest claims shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone—First Things First has been telling the same story for months. It's on the front page of their website: "Now is not the time to spend millions of public dollars on political campaigns—when we can't properly fund our schools or keep our jails open." Notably, keeping jails open is also not under the city's jurisdiction—that's the county's job.
In response, Vote No Power Grab is arguing that by keeping candidates free of corporate influence during campaigns, city bureaus will get a "fairer shake" when it comes to budgeting. In other words, corporate players will no longer be able to push costly, unnecessary pet projects that take money away from more vital services.
What will make the job more difficult for the supporters of Voter-Owned Elections is the lack of any widespread, embarrassing corruption among city leaders. Instead, MIPRAP Executive Director Janice Thompson says their message will be that it's worth it to "spend a small amount of money to keep city hall open."
Since the Vote No Power Grab group is likely to be well outspent by the financially advantaged First Things First, observers should expect a more grassroots—more typically Portland—campaign of house parties and volunteer involvement.