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Carmen Rubio never imagined running for public office.
“I wasn’t sure I would have access in the same way that traditional candidates have access,” says Rubio, the executive director of the Portland nonprofit Latino Network. She says she was deterred by Portland voters’ history of electing well-financed candidates—mostly white men—as city commissioners.
But then Portland approved a new public campaign financing program: Open and Accountable Elections (OAE), a system built to give all politically minded Portlanders a fair shot at winning a local election.
To qualify for OAE, candidates for city council must first collect contributions from 250 Portlanders, each of whom has donated less than $250 to the candidate’s campaign. (The number of contributions doubles to 500 if the candidate is running for mayor.) At that point, the city will match all previous and future campaign donations up to $50 at a six-to-one rate, using money from the city’s general fund. That means if a candidate collects 500 contributions of $25, the city will turn their $12,500 total into $75,000. (The city will only match the first donation an individual makes to a candidate.) Candidates participating in the May 2020 primary election will be the first to be allowed to use OAE.
The potential financing boost provided by OAE was enough to change Rubio’s mind about running: In early July, she became the first candidate to announce her run for city council, crediting OAE as a motivating factor. She’s one of several candidates hoping to replace outgoing Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who brought the idea of OAE to City Council in 2016.
“Open and Accountable Elections allows me to be competitive,” says Rubio. “And it puts voters—not donors—squarely in the center of my campaign.”
Rubio is one of five candidates who have already registered to participate in OAE—and more have signaled their intent. Registering isn’t a guarantee that an individual will actually raise enough money to qualify for OAE, but it’s given the city an idea of what kind of participation to expect.
For OAE staff, candidates’ early engagement with the program is a positive sign, indicating that Portlanders want a more equitable way to run for office. But with eight months until Election Day, they also worry the program may be a victim of its own success. If more than two or three candidates participate, OAE’s small budget might bottom out—forcing the city to renege on its financial promises to candidates. While City Council has an opportunity to bulk up the OAE budget this fall, it’s still not clear if enough commissioners believe the program is worth investing in.
For people who support local campaign finance reform, the stakes are high.
“I don’t want to see this fail,” says Commissioner Nick Fish. “It could be the last chance we have to have publicly financed elections.”
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