FOR AN EFFORT organizers are keeping hush-hush, the sign posted at the entrance of a downtown office building on a recent Friday was surprisingly frank.
It might have said "meeting," or even "election meeting," and not drawn much attention. Instead, it blared: "Voter-Owned Elections Meeting, Seventh Floor."
Upstairs, in a closed-door huddle with an untold number of attendees, Commissioner Amanda Fritz and others began brainstorming how to bring publicly financed elections back to Portland.
"It was sort of getting folks who care in a room and trying to talk about what could happen," says Joe Baessler, state political director for the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), Local 75. "It was definitely not campaign writing."
But supporters of publicly financed city elections may have to think fast if they hope to land a proposal on the 2014 ballot, which Baessler says is being considered. Otherwise, they'll likely look to 2016.
"We have to have the early conversations now in order to do anything, but we may still wait," Baessler tells the Mercury. "If it doesn't go in 2016, I don't see it going."
So-called "voter-owned elections" were first enacted by city council in 2005—envisioned as a way to get questions of corporate influence out of the city's races, as well as a means of attracting different sorts of candidates.
Under the system, candidates for mayor, city council, or city auditor had to collect either 1,000 (for council and auditor) or 1,500 (for mayor) $5 contributions to receive $150,000 or $200,000 in public funds, respectively. Over the course of three election cycles, the city paid out a little more than $1.75 million to nine candidates. According to the City Club of Portland, the policy cost about $1 per resident each election.
The system's biggest success was Fritz, who in 2008 became the only non-incumbent candidate to win a race with public money. Former City Commissioner Erik Sten won reelection with the funds in 2006. Seven other candidates were unsuccessful in their bids for office under the system, and former council hopeful Emilie Boyles was disgraced when it was unearthed she paid her daughter $12,500 in public money.
That debacle fueled opponents' arguments the system was ripe for abuse, and that public money has no place in elections to begin with. The Portland Business Alliance (PBA) led that charge. Spokeswoman Megan Doern says the PBA would question the use of public funds on elections at a time when the city's slashing services.
"It's a solution in search of a problem," Doern says. "Portland voters are very savvy. They look where dollars are coming from."
Built into council's adoption of voter-owned elections was the promise voters would get a say before the program became permanent. Thanks in part to pushback by the PBA, Portlanders rejected public financing by a mere 1,600 votes in November 2010, less than one percent.
The narrowness of that vote—in a mid-term election that saw banner gains for conservatives, nationally—convinced supporters the idea is far from dead.
Several people who attended this month's brainstorming session didn't want to talk about it on the record. Some didn't respond to repeated requests for an interview.
"There were definitely more people sitting around the table than we had in 2010," Baessler says.
But it's clear Common Cause Oregon, a driving force in the 2010 campaign, is again at the forefront. And that Fritz—who indicated she'd raise the issue even as she spent thousands of her own money to win reelection in 2012—is also leading the way.
What's less clear is what a new proposal would look like. According to Baessler, any eventual proposal will likely differ from Portland's earlier policy. He says the new proposal could be more akin to one in New York City, which provides continuous matching money in exchange for continuous signatures—not a one-time cash payment.
Fritz, asked about her ideas for the effort last week, demurred.
"Yes, it will be very interesting won't it?" she says. "There's nothing to talk about yet."