Money Is No Object! 

Can City Council Really Wash the Green Out of Campaigns?

What's wrong with money in politics? Let us count the ways: Special interests and donors like big-time developers can plunk down large campaign contributions; in turn, they expect a sympathetic ear once the candidate is elected. Or consider this: Is the best candidate really the person who can raise the most money? Of course not, but as city council member Erik Sten likes to point out, roughly 90 percent of elections in Portland have been won by the candidate with the biggest bucks and the largest media commercial blitz. (Of course, the exception to that rule occurred during the most recent election, when Tom Potter--outspent $1 million to $225,000--won the mayor's election over Jim Francesconi.)

Can we all agree that the easiest way to shut the door on this influence is to start with taking money out of the campaign equation? Well, this Thursday that is exactly what city council hopes to do when they approve a radical plan for publicly financing campaigns. Under the Voter Owned Elections plan (originally called "Clean Campaign Reform"), mayoral and city council-hopefuls will be able to receive $150,000-plus from the city to finance their campaigns.

Currently, Maine and Arizona use similar plans for statewide elections, but Portland will become the first city to experiment with such a plan. (San Francisco, New York, Tucson, and Austin are similar, but only partially fund campaigns.) Its original proponent, council-member Sten, believes it will dramatically and drastically transform politics in town--in terms of who is elected and, once elected, being freed from special interests.

Or then again, everything may simply remain the same, leaving the concept of Voter Owned Elections to become another political theory gathering dust on the shelves of city hall.

Under the plan, any potential candidate who gathers 1,000 contributions from registered voters (1,500 for mayor) will receive public financing for his or her campaign. (Candidates participating in the plan will not be able to raise any additional funds.) This financing will be a healthy sum intended to pay for campaign staff and the materials needed to help eacha candidate get out his or her message. In theory, no candidate will have an advantage over another--at least in terms of getting out the message.

A candidate may also simply skip the whole also process and run the old-fashioned way--raising funds and spending them however they choose.

While the vote for the plan occurred after press time, a majority of council members had already pledged approval, leaving the only question to be whether or not it would pass unanimously.

About the only truly vocal opponent to the concept has been Phil Stanford, a columnist for the Portland Tribune. During the months of debate leading up to this week's vote, Stanford has ridiculed the plan, claiming he will simply gather these donations, take the $150,000 from the city and conduct his campaign sipping Mai Tais in Maui. When Sten informed him that taking such action would be considered a felony, Stanford backed down a bit. Under the new plan, candidates are still bound by normal campaign financial laws.

Nevertheless, there are still potential shortcomings and concerns. Most proponents have trumpeted the plan for its ability to open up politics and level the playing field. That argument holds some truth, but it's also untested.

Take, for example, the most recent election. Out of 22 mayoral candidates, only about half gathered more than 1,000 votes in the primary election. Candidates for council seats fared better, but barely. In the races for Commission Position Number One (which Sam Adams ultimately won), all seven candidates secured more than 1,000 votes. But four of them only cleared that mark by a few hundred votes--and that was after several months of campaigning.

The point is that gathering 1,000 people to support a campaign in Portland is a formidable hurdle--and, sadly, it's probably easier to get a vote than five dollars from someone. Sure, well-known public figures may be able to collect those contributions and signatures. But would you really be willing to give five dollars to a stranger who approaches you at Pioneer Square, asking for your support? Isn't the intention of this plan to help pull unknown candidates into the ring?

That said, three cheers for city council for its willingness to experiment and solve a problem creatively. The Voter Owned Election ordinance is a wonderful theory and hopefully one that Portland residents--and candidates--will make a reality and a model for the rest of the country.

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