Next Wednesday, the race for city council begins in earnest. With terms expiring for the two most senior council members, there is potential for a major change at city hall. But most significantly, candidates will have the chance to have their campaigns financed by public dollars—the first such experiment in a major American city.
That is, unless big money and big business interests don't derail the innovative program first.
In May, city council approved a plan 4-1 to provide candidates with $100,000-plus to run their campaigns, with the idea of leveling the playing field. In roughly 85 percent of recent local campaigns, the candidate with the most money has won. To qualify for public funding, candidates must first gather 1,000 $5 donations.
But last week, a group of major players and campaign donors filed a petition to yank the rug out from underneath the plan, hoping to refer the matter to the voters next May—and if they have their way, cancel the publicly funded program.
Of course, the petitioners had an opportunity to testify against the plan this spring, when city council was debating the idea. However, at that time, only three people showed up to give somewhat feeble testimony opposing the plan. The remaining testimony overwhelmingly supported the idea and congratulated the current officials for such a creative way of shaking local politics from money and undue influence. While similar to plans in Maine and Arizona that limit the influence of big money in politics, so far no major US city has tried to replicate the program for locally elected officials.
Supporters of publicly financed elections believe that no one stepped forward in May to oppose the plan because they knew their dissent would be futile. Explained Janice Thompson, director for Money in Politics Research Action Project, opponents are instead choosing to fight their battle in a forum that is more easily swayed by TV ads and glossy brochures.
"Ballot measures are where big money and sound-bite campaigns can carry the day," she explained. The petition was filed by a coalition of business owners. (One of the three petitioners, Reuel Fish, co-owner of Urban Wineworks, does not even live in Portland.) Reportedly, the petitioners are backed by the usual suspects: the Portland Business Alliance, Portland Metro Association of Realtors, and the Oregon Restaurant Association. Those organizations are routinely some of the largest contributors to local and state campaigns—and the very ones who stand to lose significant influence if big money donations are eliminated.
The current fight is particularly curious since city council has already built in a mechanism that would refer the matter to voters in a few years. Under the current plan, candidates will be eligible for public funds for the next three election cycles. After that time, in 2010, the matter will be referred to voters to determine whether or not to continue the program.
"Voters should chime in," agrees Thompson. "But," she hastens to add, "they should first have real, first-hand experience [with the issue]."
On Wednesday, September 1, potential candidates will have their first opportunity to file for the public funds. So far, only six residents have expressed interest in trying to secure the money. (At least three of these potential candidates are gunning for City Commissioner Dan Saltzman's seat. The others, including Bruce Broussard, have not indicated which seat they plan to run for. Broussard is a long-time pundit who most recently tried to win the Republican nomination for US Senate.)
In May, one of the potential candidates, a Reed College student, proclaimed he would run against Erik Sten, one of the co-sponsors of the publicly funded elections plan. But shortly thereafter, he withdrew from the race.
To qualify their initiative for May's ballot, the petitioners have until mid-January to gather nearly 27,000 signatures.