For all city hall has done to make local campaigns not about money, it looks like money will be the central concern for the upcoming city council elections.
In April, city council approved a plan to publicly finance candidates in city council and mayoral races. Under the new rules, any candidate who gathers 1,000 $5 donations is eligible for $150,000 in public funds to run his or her campaign. It's a bold experiment, intended to put all candidates on equal footing. In the past, the candidates with the most money have won approximately 80% of the times.
Portland is the first city to experiment with such public financing for campaigns and this pioneering status has placed a certain onus on the program's success—in particular, city hall is counting on a few qualified candidates to step forward and prove it can work. If successful, the plan could help set a new tone for city elections throughout the country.
On September 1, candidates were first allowed to begin gathering the $5 donations. But an early snapshot of the race isn't showing a stampede of wildly enthusiastic candidates; instead, and at best, the experiment is off to a meandering start. Although all have continued to express optimism, not a single candidate has collected more than 100 donations—a far cry from the necessary 1,000.
The candidate who seems to have an early lead in the foot race is Mike Casper, one of three declared contenders for Dan Saltzman's seat. Casper has been an insurance agent, a bouncer at Shanghai Tunnel, and works with local artists. In the first three weeks, Casper has pulled in a modest 70 $5 donations. "I'm pacing it out," Casper explained.
But the biggest hurdle may be a lack of publicity. Many—if not most—people in town aren't even aware that Portland has embarked on this groundbreaking experiment. Casper has been asking friends and coworkers for donations as well as soliciting donations from strangers on the street. With a straightforward pitch, he explains his candidacy and that the city will be financing his campaign—that is, if the stranger gives him $5.
"People are not aware of it," Casper explained. "But I see their eyes open."
Casper went on to admit, "1,000 is a lot bigger than you think at first." Even so, Casper remains excited about the experiment and said it has been an excellent excuse to talk one-on-one with voters.
Another candidate who expressed optimism about gathering the requisite donations was less enthused about strangers' reactions. Jory Knott officially declared his bid for Commissioner Erik Sten's seat on September 8 and, since then, has been pounding the pavement, looking for supporters and donations.
Knott did not disclose the exact number of donations he has managed to collect, but called it "a moderate amount." Still, he said, "I am expecting to easily get the 1,000 signatures [and $5 donations] we need." Knott says he has been warmly received when he explains his platform.
But he did note that, "many people are astonished to find out that this public finance program even exists." Knott added, "When I tell them [about the experiment] they just see it as another example of the city misspending their money."
All told, there are currently five candidates challenging Saltzman and Sten's seats on council. All five have declared they will try to qualify for the public financing. Ultimately, this group will be the ambassadors for the program—and their successes and failures will color whether Portland and other cities will adopt such plans in the future.
Meanwhile, incumbent Saltzman, who voted for the ordinance that set in place the publicly financed campaigns, has taken a different route—choosing instead to fundraise the old-fashioned way. Even though Saltzman has yet to declare his candidacy, his contribution and expenditure reports released by the city last week showed he had more than $70,000 in his war chest. Many of those donations are from downtown business developers.
But in an attempt at populism, Saltzman has explained that he is following Mayor Tom Potter's lead, who capped donations to his mayoral bid. The big difference is that Potter limited the donations he would accept to $25 for the primary campaign; Saltzman has a $500 cap on his contributions.