IN NOVEMBER, voters will decide whether to continue the so-called "voter-owned elections," a test program for public campaign funding in place since 2006. Currently, Portland provides a way for candidates to run with city cash—presumably so they don't end up beholden to special interests.
But is it worth the money? Results have been spotty, with only two of nine publicly funded candidates prevailing, despite $1.8 million in city spending. All the same, backers are paying close attention, warning that setbacks here could cause ripples nationally.
"There are lots of people nationally who are interested in seeing public financing work," says Ian Greenfield with the Bus Project, which supports the measure. "But if Portland isn't able to pass it, that will be a huge indicator that hey, maybe this thing isn't doable anywhere."
The four-year-old experiment was introduced by then-City Commissioner Erik Sten, who was reelected in 2006 using public funds. He and current Commissioner Amanda Fritz are the only two successful candidates.
The program provides $150,000 to any candidate in a primary election who raises $5 contributions from 1,000 registered voters. It was designed to come back before voters this year, after they'd seen it in action.
Supporters are out in force. Tyler Patton and Jenny Smith, both 20, were canvassing in the Eliot neighborhood Saturday, August 14. As part of a campaign by the Bus Project and the League of Women Voters, they asked residents about public funding—euphemistically calling it "community support" for "actual ideas" in politics.
At a pre-canvassing rally in Dawson Park, State Representative Ben Cannon praised the independence that comes with public financing.
"I took a personal pledge not to accept money from political action committees or corporations," says Cannon. "But the amount of money needed to take a campaign citywide would make that very challenging."
"Like so many of Erik [Sten]'s ideas, it was a good one in many ways, but the execution didn't work," says Oregonian columnist Dave Lister, who lost a 2006 city council race. He notes that no challenger using public money has been able to unseat an incumbent.
Another critic, the Portland Business Alliance, says the city should spend its money elsewhere at a time when cash is tight.
But Fritz, who claimed Sam Adams' vacated city council seat in 2008, calls herself the "poster woman" for public financing.
"We just had an election cycle where it was very clear that the kinks have been worked out," says Fritz.
Then there's Jesse Cornett. Cornett, the only candidate in May's city council race to qualify for public funds, finished with 8,053 votes—about $18 in public funds per vote.
Afterward, his campaign was lambasted as a symbol of the system's impotence, even though Cornett's rival, incumbent Dan Saltzman, also limited his spending to $150,000.
"You're not going to take down an incumbent if it's an even-money race," says Lister. "Part of being credible as a candidate is to get people to open up their checkbooks."
But Fritz says the system should be looked at separately. "It's not a guarantee for anyone to get elected," she says. "They have to prove themselves."