David Plechl
On Wednesday, council member Erik Sten will introduce an idea that could radically reshape the politics of Portland. Under the ordinance, campaigns will be publicly financed--that is, if a candidate gathers 1,000 $5 donations from registered voters, he or she will receive $150,000 to pay for a campaign. The money would be supplied by a minor administrative fee charged to city departments. (There would be no new taxes to fund the project.)

But that resolution may already be too late. Currently, council member Jim Francesconi has raised nearly $900,000 to finance his bid for mayor. No polls have been released to the public yet, but conventional wisdom has placed Francesconi as the frontrunner in the current campaign. There are 21 other candidates, but it is believed that Francesconi has raised more than 10 times all the other candidates combined. It is the largest amount of money ever raised and spent on a mayoral election in Portland. If Francesconi wins, it will most likely set a new benchmark for subsequent campaigns. "You won't be able to have good candidates without having them spend a full year begging for money," says Sten, "That's a lousy system." In his first campaign, Sten raised $80,000. Four years later, he had to raise $400,000 for a successful campaign. "It's not fair to have fund-raising determining who wins," he explains.

Most contributions to Francesconi have come in large chunks from big business managers and downtown property owners--$5,000 here, $10,000 there--and $30,000 from conservative business developer Bob Pamplin. (Unlike presidential elections, which cap donations at $2,000, Oregon's liberal free speech laws do not place any restrictions on contributions.)

"There is no confidence in city council when a decision involves property owners," adds Sten. He says that, even though he has confidence in his co-council members' objectivity, the large donations emit an air of impropriety.

The most damning allegation against Francesconi and his connection to big business was his vote against the anti-war resolution last year. Although the city commissioner pledged that his personal beliefs were aligned with the ordinance, and in spite of overwhelming public testimony, Francesconi cast the deciding vote against the resolution. At the time, he said that city council had no role in international matters. His explanation suspiciously echoed a memo sent from the Portland Business Alliance that lobbied him to vote against it. In subsequent weeks, Francesconi refused interviews with the Mercury on the matter. Oddly, three weeks later Francesconi pushed through a resolution to make Bologna, Italy Portland's sister city. Perhaps coincidentally, Nike's European headquarters are housed in that very city.

The second problem with large money donations is they allow a candidate to shortcut past grassroots campaigning. Instead of meeting, and listening to constituents, a candidate can simply roll out massive promotional campaigns. It is believed that Francesconi has nearly $200,000 in airtime reserved for the first two weeks in May, when voters will have ballots in their hands.

Meanwhile, the other three candidates who reportedly round out the front pack--Potter, Posey, and myself--have been pounding the pavement since September.

Potter's campaign, which Francesconi's outspends by $20 to $1, has relied on knocking door to door and asking supporters to post his lawn signs. Posey, alternately, has walked business districts. My campaign has held public forums, like movie nights at coffee shops, and hosted benefit concerts. (Both Posey's and my campaign have one hundredth of Francesconi's war chest.) Unlike TV ads, grassroots campaigning puts heavy demands on time commitment, but is mercifully short on cash outlays. Not coincidentally, all three candidates have limited contributions; Potter to $25 and Posey and myself to $100. (The $100 limits are tied to ballot initiative 53. That initiative would not allow corporations to donate to campaigns and would set limits in state races to $200, local races to $100.)

To a large extent, the mayoral vote on May 18 will illustrate what role money plays in Portland politics. Francesconi has been roundly criticized for his votes on social matters. Francesconi cast the only dissenting vote against rezoning city property to allow Dignity Village to stay put. And, most recently, he has claimed support for civil unions--but is the only primary candidate who does not endorse the legalization of same-sex marriages. Ultimately, his voting record has gone against the grain of progressive politics in town. Yet, it's doubtful that his ads will set forward his voting record or pin down his stances on social policies.