Last summer, Commissioner Erik Sten was still on the fence about running for a fourth term on the city council.
"I was reasonably close to not running," he explained over a café au lait on a recent drizzly Monday afternoon. But two things prompted him to file: First, there's a stack of projects he's passionate about that are "really on the verge of tipping." Another term would help Sten—the council's most veteran incumbent, with 10 years under his belt—make strides on affordable housing, environmental issues like global warming and endangered species, and the city's plan to end homelessness.
His second reason for running, however, is decidedly less principled. Portland's biggest business interests—PGE, Qwest, the Portland Business Alliance—threw their weight behind State Senator Ginny Burdick, one of the most liberal politicians in Salem, in a bid to unseat Sten.
"I'm in a fight I didn't really pick," Sten said. "But if I'm bothering them that much, I must be making progress."
Sten certainly is bothering the city's power elite: Burdick and some of his other opponents, like Eastside businessman Dave Lister, are running against Sten because he's one of the architects of Portland's nascent public campaign financing. They also point out his involvement in the city's bid to buy PGE from Enron, his oversight of the water bureau during the billing fiasco, and his role in the budget-busting tram project.
Sten's expecting a "classic, 'the city's in terrible shape' campaign" from his opponents. "But I think the city's doing really well. Most of our problems are structural," he says. "The quality of life here is as good as it gets in an urban environment."
However, the city needs a way to patch up the schools' budget before families jump ship, and needs to focus on economic strategies and increasing job choices, especially in light of expected population growth. Repairing Portland's unfriendly-to-business rep and exploring urban renewal that increases the affordable housing stock—as it did in the Pearl District, Sten points out—wouldn't hurt, either.
Those are the issues he'd rather talk about—ways to make Portland a "more dynamic version of what we are now"—but he's ready to address his opponents' criticisms: He takes responsibility for the water billing problems ("I've said I was in charge, blame me, and here's how we're going to fix it," he says), and he hasn't given up on the push for a publicly owned utility. Enron may have squashed the city's dream of buying PGE, but Sten would still like to set up a public corporation and "hire PGE to run it." As for the tram, Sten says he's unlikely to greenlight any more city money for the project (but if OHSU came up with a sweet offer that played to Sten's passions—like offering land for affordable housing—he says he'd be willing to take a look).
Though the voter-owned elections repeal effort failed to make the ballot—if it had, Sten thinks the repeal campaign would have been "a surrogate campaign against me"—it will likely be another issue. One of his opponents, Emilie Boyles, qualified for public funds on Tuesday, February 21, while a few others are still out collecting their contributions. Meanwhile, Lister, the Eastside businessman, criticizes voter-owned elections, calling them the "Erik Sten reelection insurance fund." Senator Burdick (who works for the downtown PR firm Gard & Gerber in the off-season) isn't opposed to the idea of publicly financed campaigns—even though Gard & Gerber and her backers ran the repeal effort. She believes voters should have had a say on it—and she's opting out in favor of raising money "the old-fashioned way."
Sten's using the new system—he turned in over 1,000 $5 contributions on February 21, many of which he collected by mailing petitions to his past supporters.
"It's a much more optimistic system than I thought," he says. "The vast majority of my contributors, I do not know. It works as a way to engage people."
If his list of contributors check out, he'll get his $150,000 from the city. That's a lot less than he's spent in past campaigns, which means more door-to-door campaigning, and less advertising.
"It's been more like $300,000 in the past. But you do end up spending a lot of money raising money," he says.