WHEN HE TOOK ON Commissioner Dan Saltzman for a city council seat last year, Concordia University professor Nick Caleb limited individual campaign contributions to $50—a symbolic rebuke to the big money that can tilt elections in this town.
Caleb lost, and for his next race—a newly announced bout for Commissioner Steve Novick's seat in May 2016—he's abandoned the $50 cap.
"Until we get publicly financed elections, it's impossible to compete on that level," Caleb told the Mercury on March 11.
And that public financing? It's not even on the horizon.
Almost two years after champions of Portland's scuttled "voter-owned elections" met quietly to plot the program's resurrection, supporters tell the Mercury talks are dead for the foreseeable future.
Backers in the labor movement—who'd need to invest precious dollars to mount a serious campaign in 2016—have seen other candidates and issues take top billing in recent months. Good-government advocates have begun focusing on more immediately attainable electoral reforms. The city's general fund, which paid for the campaigns, has tightened amid hand wringing over crumbling roads and city buildings.
And one of the effort's driving organizers and most potent symbols, Commissioner Amanda Fritz, has changed her mind about the timing of a campaign.
Prodded by the sudden death of her husband last fall, Fritz has decided to seek a third term next year instead of stepping down from Portland City Council like she'd planned. As the only non-incumbent to win office using public money, she was supposed to be the face of the restoration push. Now She's decided the city has more pressing needs.
"The money hasn't been there," says Fritz. "But even if we had consensus, truly it is more urgent to fix our streets and buy back programs and jobs lost in the recession."
In Portland, publicly funded campaigns took wing in 2005, a year after Tom Potter and Jim Francesconi ran one of the most expensive mayoral races in city history.
The process was simple. To qualify for public dollars, candidates for city office had to show momentum by collecting hundreds of $5 contributions. Commissioner and auditor candidates received $150,000 in exchange for 1,000 such gifts. Mayoral candidates were given $200,000 so long as they collected 1,500.
But in practice, the process led to few successes. Fritz rode public money to office. So did Commissioner Erik Sten, who used the system to win re-election. But seven other candidates tried and failed—including council candidate Emilie Boyles, who illegally used the money to pay her daughter for internet marketing.
When the program went back before voters in 2010, a recession-tainted year with lower turnout and a right-leaning electorate, the Portland Business Alliance seized on the program's track record to tip it to defeat.
It lost by a mere 1,600 votes—enough to spark revival talks in 2013. Now, those are dead.
"We just stopped talking about it," says Joe Baessler, state political director for the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 75.
Baessler, whose union fought to defend voter-owned elections, sat in on the 2013 strategy meetings, a year after 2012's mayoral race set new records for spending and lent the project new urgency. Some advocates, he said, wanted to push ahead in 2014. Others insisted on 2016—a presidential year with higher turnout and younger and more progressive voters.
But now that 2016's nigh?
Labor's still not ready to jump in. Baessler says unions need to save money to fend off what could be a slew of anti-labor state ballot measures.
Beyond that, groups like Common Cause Oregon say they're watching other reforms, like campaign contribution limits and tighter rules on financial disclosure, up for debate in Salem this legislative session. Statewide reforms might prove more attractive than fighting to revive a city program.
Moreover, Baessler worries national progressive groups may not be willing to invest in left-leaning Oregon when that money could be spent in battleground states.
"There are a lot of big obstacles" in front of voter-owned elections, says Baessler. "And none of them are because it's a bad idea."