Money Laundering 

Council Cleans Up Campaign Finances

Last week was perhaps one of the most glorious weeks in Portland politics--if you believe in progressive politics, that is. Behind closed doors, Mayor Tom Potter continued to wrestle control and oversight of the Joint Terrorism Task Force away from the federal government. If successful, Portland could set a national precedent for accountability that would affect other Task Forces around the country.

Meanwhile, last year's unlikely power to the people pipe dream inched closer to reality as an out of state corporation, Texas Pacific, buckled to pressure and officially bailed on its effort to purchase PGE. That move clears the way for the city to purchase the power company and chalks up a decisive victory against corporate greed.

Then, to cap off the week, on Thursday afternoon in city council chambers, the notion of publicly funded campaigns took a giant leap forward.

For three hours laypersons and political experts alike spoke in support of so-called "Voter Owned Elections" (previously named the "Clean Money Campaign"). A wide array of citizens praised city council for its novel idea with words like "groundbreaking" and "gutsy." If the ordinance passes, Portland will be the first city in the country to publicly finance its campaigns.

The four council members in attendance practically gloated over their support for the ordinance. (Dan Saltzman, who has been stubborn in giving his support, was conveniently sick with the flu.) At various times, the mayor and council members individually spoke of how the plan will curb influence from lobbyists and open up the playing field for candidates. Under the ordinance, any candidate who gathers 1,000 five-dollar donations from residents will, in turn, receive $150,000 in public funds to run his or her campaign for city council or mayor.

A final vote on the ordinance will most likely occur in early May. At this point, unless city council members have an unexpected personality and philosophical overhaul, the ordinance is destined to pass.

Throughout the session, the mood in council chambers was lighthearted, and almost jovial. At one point, Potter responded to an accusation that city council lacks diversity (which the ordinance will help remedy) by stating he was "honored to sit next to a gay city council member on one side." He paused before adding, "and a happy city councilor on the other," presumably referring to Erik Sten, who championed the ordinance.

City Commissioner Sam Adams took the opportunity to lean forward and quip: "You decide [which is which]."

A few people did step forward to voice limited concerns. One woman representing the Metropolitan Association of Realtors, a moderately powerful lobby group, trotted out a few sacred cows and tried to stir up doubts about the plan.

"When there is already a budget shortfall," the spokeswoman explained, "money should not be taken from parks, children and police."

Sten addressed those concerns, stating that funding comes from small surcharges on the city's various bureaus. (Funding for the plan is roughly equivalent to $2.50 per city resident.) A few other city hall insiders said the lobby groups were objecting to the plan's funding as a smokescreen to hide their real concerns: That publicly financed elections will take away lobby groups' most powerful tools--large campaign donations which, in turn, lead to favors from elected officials.

But now, with the ordinance moving into reality, the true test will be whether or not it can work. (Publicly financed campaigns will most likely take effect during next spring's campaigns against Saltzman and, in a twist of Frankenstein-ian irony, against the creator of the ordinance himself, Sten.)

A 26-year-old African American woman was energized by the idea, explaining to council how she helped register 628 voters last year. However, she also noted how difficult it was to gather those signatures--let alone a five-dollar donation. In short, getting a council seat may not be as easy as it may seem.

In an interview with the Mercury, Jo Ann Bowman, a former state representative and a longtime proponent of the plan, admitted that the hurdle of gathering 1,000 five-dollar donations will be difficult to clear. For the past year, Bowman has been working with Oregon Action, a community-based political organization, to push forward the plan.

On the other hand, Bowman explained that gathering 1,000 donations would weed out all but the serious candidates.

"You should be able to show broad-base support of the community before we give you money," she explained. "It's not easy; but it's also not impossible."

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