SOMEONE BROUGHT CIGARS to Jesse Cornett's "victory party" in Southeast Portland on election night, Tuesday, May 18.
There were seven in all, handed to Cornett's campaign manager, Peter Markgraf, who turned white as a sheet when he noticed reporters had spotted them, hurriedly stashing the celebratory smokes in a desk drawer.
Cornett snuck next door to the Lucky Lab brewery at five minutes to eight o'clock to check the early returns on his MacBook. As the only candidate to qualify for $150,000 in public campaign financing out of the eight candidates challenging City Commissioner Dan Saltzman in the May primary, Cornett was predicting he would bring in around 30 percent of the vote.
But it was far worse for Cornett than anyone had imagined: Saltzman had snagged 55 percent of the vote, winning comfortably. Mary Volm, a prominent supporter of the effort to recall Mayor Sam Adams, had 12.7 percent, while Rudy Soto, a former Portland State University student body president who rarely showed up for debates on the campaign trail and ran his campaign almost exclusively on Facebook, had 7.3 percent of the vote. Cornett trailed them all with 6.9 percent.
"That can't stand, I mean... Rudy Soto got more votes than me," Cornett told a campaign buddy, looking stricken. Then he staggered back next door to his campaign office—looking to his wife, Molly Aleshire, for some kind of explanation.
"It's just the pre-count stuff," said another staffer, as Cornett walked in the door.
"Fuck," said Cornett. "That's half the votes."
By press time, at 10:30 pm, with all the precincts counted, Cornett had scored just 5,121 votes compared to Satlzman's 40,204—that works out to roughly $29 of taxpayer money per vote.
Only two publicly financed candidates have ever won election to Portland City Council: Erik Sten in 2006, who was an incumbent, and Amanda Fritz in 2008.
Nick Fish, a privately financed candidate, killed former Sten staffer Jim Middaugh in 2008, taking 61 percent of the vote to Middaugh's 22 percent. Fritz herself ran against Saltzman with public financing in 2006, losing with 25 percent of the vote to privately financed Saltzman's 57 percent.
Even by the Goliath and David standards of Voter Owned Election (VOE) losses, however, Cornett's final mere 7.1 percent of the vote represents an absolute trouncing. Low voter turnout may have hurt his chances: Only 24 percent of registered Multnomah County voters bothered to turn in their ballots for the election.
"This suggests that beating the incumbent is always hard," says Janice Thompson, executive director of Common Cause Oregon—who will lead the charge to defend VOE when the system heads to voters in the fall.
"I think $150,000 makes it tough to defeat an incumbent," says Middaugh, who lost to Fish in 2008. "You've got to have the right mix of a good candidate and the right issues, and we didn't have it this year."
"I think I'm going to vote for it," says Middaugh, when asked about whether he'll support VOE in November. "But it's worth taking a hard look at the system if you're trying to reform things. What else can we do to give newcomers and non-incumbents a fair shake?"
The Oregonian's conservative-leaning columnist Dave Lister had been predicting Saltzman's victory, and Cornett's defeat, for weeks.
"Voter Owned Elections are an incumbent protection program," he says. "It's that simple."
Either way, Cornett's defeat will certainly make life harder for defenders of the VOE system in the run-up to November.
Cornett's crushing defeat was all anyone could talk about at Saltzman's victory party across town at Curious Comedy Theater on Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd, although nobody would go on the record.
"I think the results speak for themselves," said Saltzman's chief of staff, Brendan Finn, staring intently at the television. Earlier, his boss, who Mayor Sam Adams fired last week from his job as police commissioner, told the Mercury he was "nervous" about the outcome of the vote.
Apart from Saltzman's clear victory, election night held few surprises.
Nick Fish easily held onto his council seat with 79 percent, while acting County Chair Jeff Cogen scored a 77 percent mandate.
Former Trailblazer Chris Dudley comfortably beat Allen Alley in the Republican Governor's primary, while John Kitzhaber breezed past Bill Bradbury for the Democrats, as predicted.
"I am very proud to be a Democrat in Oregon tonight," said Kitzhaber, to the crowd at the Melody Ballroom on SE Alder.
"The choice in this election could not be more clear," said Dudley from his victory speech at the Rose Garden, referring to his imminent duel with Kitzhaber. "Our future or our past? A comeback or a rerun?"
"Make no mistake," Dudley continued. "Oregon is governable."
As Dudley spoke, the Oregon Democrats had already launched a new website against him called DudleyDoLittle.com.
On the county level, Karol Collymore will be the favorite in a November runoff for a commissioner's seat against Senator Ron Wyden's staffer Loretta Smith. Collymore had been up since 5 am on Tuesday, anxiously staring at her bedroom ceiling wondering about the election—but she beamed onstage at Curious Comedy Theater after leading the pack of eight candidates in her race.
"I wrote a whole speech and then I left it in my purse!" Collymore blurted, excited by the results. "I wish my parents were here!"
Metro Council President Candidate Bob Stacey's election party (at Holocene, of all places) was packed with excited Stacey supporters. The numbers indicate that Stacey will out-race his liberal, green-cred competitor Rex Burkholder to face off against the more centrist candidate Tom Hughes in the fall.
"A lot of folks, Hughes included, told me it was going to be a Hughes-Stacey runoff. And I frankly didn't see that," said Stacey. "But now it looks like that may be the case."
And then ubiquitous politico Steve Novick jumped up on a bench and said, "Tonight, Bob Stacey rocked down to Electric Avenue. And in November, he will take it higher."
–Reporting contributed by the Mercury’s Election Party Crashing Squad: Courtney Ferguson, Alison Hallett, Stefan Kamph, Wm.Steven Humphrey, Noah Dunham, January Vawter and Angela Webber