The deadline to collect signatures to get an initiative on the November ballot is only a month away—forcing petitioners to scramble into panic mode. In some cases, that means petitioners are apparently grabbing signatures by any means necessary.
In recent weeks, the Mercury has received reports that some petitioners—in particular, out of state petitioners carrying initiatives sponsored by conservative groups—have been somewhat less than forthcoming about the nature of their initiatives.
And in a surprising twist, many petitioners are using former city council candidate Chris Iverson's citywide marijuana initiative to grab the attention of people on the street.
According to eyewitness reports, the pot petition—making marijuana offenses the lowest law enforcement priority in Portland—is being used as a "stopper" or, in Iverson's words, a "loss leader."
It's an old practice among petitioners, especially petitioners peddling conservative initiatives in a town like Portland.
At their most innocuous, petitioners will simply use a "stopper" to pull signers in, then try to convince them to sign their remaining petitions—this was witnessed by the Mercury news team this past weekend at the farmer's market on the South Park Blocks. A gentleman with a clipboard adorned with pot leaves was pulling in signers, then asking them to sign petitions for other initiatives, like the Term Limits initiative, which is sponsored by Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform and a group called US Term Limits that has ties to the archconservative, anti-tax Americans for a Limited Government. The signature-gatherer wasn't carrying the texts of the initiatives—a violation of state election law.
The backers of the term limits initiative have paid at least $37,500 to a Sacramento, CA-based company called Arno Political Consultants, which specializes in running signature-gathering efforts exclusively for conservative groups. Arno and a subcontracting company, JSM Inc., are reportedly bringing signature gatherers into Oregon from California for the last few weeks of the petition process. Calls to both companies were unreturned at press time.
A source from inside the signature-gathering industry, who wished to remain anonymous, says he has had multiple conversations with out-of-state signature-gatherers who haven't carried the initiative texts and have been unable to explain the petitions they're carrying—including the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, which caps state spending on human services. The result: People who sign the petitions have no way of knowing what they're signing.
Since many of the signature-gatherers on Portland streets are considered by legitimate petition firms to be "mercenaries"—that is, they are carrying multiple petitions for multiple companies—and since so many firms subcontract with other, smaller firms, and since they all have a poor track record of responding to media requests, it's difficult to decipher who is actually arming and training (or, as the case may be, not training) signature gatherers.
One thing that is known, however, is that a firm called Democracy Direct, which has ties to Bill Sizemore and is carrying initiatives to elect Supreme Court judges by district and lower state income taxes, is getting help from Brian Platt, currently under investigation by the state for improperly paying his employees.
Platt, who was formerly involved in B&P Campaign Management, was brought before a Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI) hearing on Tuesday, May 30, to answer charges that he failed to pay signature gatherers at the hourly rate they were promised. He brought along payroll records to prove his case—according to witnesses, the "records" were hand-scribbled notes on loose sheets of paper. (There was no final decision at the hearing, but BOLI spokesperson Marc Zolton says the attorney general will be obtaining a judgment against Platt for three wage violations.)
At the hearing, Platt said that he was no longer operating B&P, but was recruiting signature gatherers for Democracy Direct.