Though some may say differently, it looks like the new Publicly Financed Elections plan actually has the merit and the guts to work. Under the plan, qualifying candidates will receive $100,000-plus to run their campaigns for city council. The goal is to limit the influence of big-money interests in local politics and to free politicians from owing anyone (but the city) their attention. How do we know the plan is working? Well, quite simply, because the Portland Business Alliance is freaking out!
As a refresher: The PBA is the downtown organization of big businesses that several years ago, in a power grab, gobbled up the Chamber of Commerce. More recently, in 2003, they successfully lobbied city council to vote down an anti-war resolution—a move that was surprising considering what little relevance foreign policy has to downtown commerce. It also becomes increasingly shameful with each American and Iraqi war casualty. A month prior to the vote on a resolution denouncing military action in Iraq, the PBA president sent out memos to the mayor and city commissioners requesting that they vote against the matter.
The organization also led a yearlong inane effort to plop an ice skating rink in Pioneer Square (these are the same people who are now arguing that sponsoring candidates would be a waste of public money).
As primary campaign donors, the organization and its members have enjoyed wide-reaching influence on local politics. In one stark example, the PBA is guaranteed a seat on the city's Children's Investment Fund, a group that oversees spending of locally collected tax dollars. Each year, that five-person board spends $5 million of public revenue for early childhood development. The permanent board consists of a member from city council, a member from Multnomah County and a representative from PBA; those three members elect the other two.
In an interview with the Mercury several months ago, commissioner Dan Saltzman explained that PBA's involvement with the Children's Fund is a thank you for helping to pass the tax initiative that funds the program. But that answer does not explain why a downtown business group determines the spending of public dollars—especially for an issue like early childhood development that has only the faintest connection to downtown commerce.
Currently, however, this wide-reaching political influence is under direct attack. In May, city council approved to publicly finance the next three election cycles. (After that time, in 2010, residents will vote whether to continue the program or not.) Under this plan, candidates will no longer need to grovel to big business interests to secure campaign donations. In 85 percent of recent campaigns, the candidate with the most money won. A significant amount of the big-ticket donations come from PBA members and downtown developers.
In response to the public financing plan, PBA is pushing back hard. Two weeks ago, they urged members to begin a drive to place an initiative repealing the campaign financing plan on May's ballot. The coalition to repeal the financing plan includes both Scott Andrews, PBA's chairman, and Judy Peppler, PBA's chairwoman-elect.
The primary argument pushed by the PBA is that publicly financed elections waste public money. In an interview with the Tribune, Laura Imeson, a former AT&T lobbyist and a spokesperson for the coalition asked, "Do Portlanders want their money spent on political campaigns or on police officers, firefighters, and other basic services?" (An argument that's hauntingly similar to the Bush administration's use of terrorists and public fear to push their agenda.)
Through a spokesperson, Mayor Potter refuted PBA's allegation that publicly financed campaigns are a trade-off for public safety. "There is no correlation between the ordinance and the number of police officers and fire fighters," explained the mayor's spokesperson, John Doussard. "It won't change the number of officers and firefighters on the street."
Even so, it is likely that signature gatherers will use this very pitch to persuade residents to support their ballot initiative. Don't be fooled by their hogwash. If you would like to see Portland free its elected politicians from owing favors and paybacks to big business interests, DON'T sign the petitions.
Portland is the first major city to try publicly financed elections. This is a golden opportunity to make a positive change to campaigns and elections—and we should at least try. Besides, if the PBA is so freaked out, there must be something to the plan.