On Monday night, January 14, just days after the city council created a special election to replace outgoing City Commissioner Erik Sten, Portland's Citizen Campaign Commission had a big decision to make, one that will very likely impact the outcome of the race: Should they craft special public financing rules for the surprise special election?
As it stands, the city only has public financing rules for regular elections: Candidates have until January 31 to collect 1,000 to 1,500 valid $5 contributions and signatures, depending on the seat they're after. If they succeed, the city hands over $150,000 to $200,000 to fund a primary campaign, and candidates who make it to the general election get another wad of cash.
But Sten's January 2 announcement that he'd be leaving city hall in April caught everyone off guard—the commission hasn't come up with rules for special elections, which have a short time frame. Sten said he'd timed his announcement to create another open seat in the May primary, citing the strong slate of candidates already running under the public financing program.
"There's a great field of candidates, the likes of which has never been seen," Sten said, adding that his departure creates a second open seat, and "doubles their chance of winning."
But current rules prohibit candidates in the public financing program from switching the contributions and signatures they've collected from one race to another. Existing candidates would have to start over, new candidates would have to start from scratch, and they'd all have to beat the January 31 deadline to use public funds for the new open seat—unless the campaign commission drafted new rules, quickly.
On Monday night, the seven-member commission, headed up by Leslie Hildula, heard from candidates like Nick Popenuk—who recently switched from the mayor's race to the new open seat, and hopes to qualify for public funds in the next two weeks—and clean money advocates Janice Thompson of Democracy Reform Oregon and Carol Cushman of the League of Women Voters of Portland before making a decision. Everyone urged the commission to avoid making a rash decision.
"We're backed into a corner to make a decision that we might simply regret later because we haven't had time to fully examine it," commission member Kathryn McLaughlin said. "I'm really in favor of leaving it how it is."
The other six members agreed, and the commission moved to stick with the existing rules, and see how the election played out.
"The opportunity to watch this and have that inform what we do on special elections is a really good one," commission member Peter Forsyth said.
"We'll see what happens," Thompson said after the meeting. Three candidates are currently trying to qualify for public funds in the shortened timeline, while two other candidates who haven't filed—Nick Fish and Brendan Finn—are likely to be strong privately funded contenders.