A Multnomah County judge denied a request Friday to prohibit Mayor Ted Wheeler's campaign from spending donations that violate the city's newly-upheld donation limitations.
The request for a temporary restraining order on Wheeler spending the funds came from lawyers representing mayoral candidate Sarah Iannarone, along with three other campaign finance reform advocates. The group filed a lawsuit against Wheeler's campaign earlier this week.
Their argument is rooted in a recent decision by the Oregon Supreme Court to uphold a Multnomah County campaign finance ordinance—prohibiting individuals or committees from making donations over $500 per campaign—passed by voters in 2016. Portland voters passed an identical ordinance regarding city-level campaigns in 2018, which had been on hold until the state courts made a decision about the county finance rule. Following the Supreme Court's ruling, Portland's elections office announced it would be enforcing the campaign donation limits starting May 4.
Wheeler, however, had solicited campaign donations over $500 since the beginning of his campaign. Lawyers for Iannarone (whose campaign has adhered to these limits) say that Wheeler should be penalized for continuing to spend hefty donations collected before the Supreme Court's order.
Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Tom Ryan disagreed.
In the hearing, which was largely conducted over the phone, he pressed attorneys to explain what kind of injury or loss their clients would suffer if he chose not to halt Wheeler's spending.
"People of this city voted and expressed an overwhelming opinion that large campaign donations effect campaign equity," said Alan Kessler, an attorney representing Iannarone. "My client is injured as a citizen of Portland, as well as a candidate facing an unfair playing field."
"Do you conclude that the candidate that spends more money gets more votes?" Ryan asked.
"No," Kessler responded. "Money has a harm and effect on the way electoral politics benefit the people who can donate the most amount of dollars."
Harry Wilson, an attorney representing the Wheeler campaign, argued that this complaint could be resolved outside of court.
"Plaintiffs have a remedy," Wilson said. "They can file a complaint to the auditors office. If this [restraining order] is entered, it will shut down a campaign three weeks before an election. There is no way that the balance of equities would favor such a drastic order."
The auditor's office, meanwhile, has already stated it won't be enforcing the new limits on donations collected before May 4.
"As far as this record reveals, campaign funds were legally raised," Ryan concluded. "There’s no sufficient injury, loss, or damage... The motion is denied."
Ryan's order halts the immediate request for a restraining order, but doesn't throw out Iannarone's entire lawsuit against Wheeler's campaign. Ryan said he's unsure when another hearing will be scheduled to address the broader complaint.
Jason Kafoury, an attorney representing two other plaintiffs in this case, said his clients are continuing to review their legal options.
"Today’s preliminary ruling shows how hard it is to get big money out of politics, even after 87 percent of Portlanders demanded that and it became law last fall," Kaforuy wrote in a statement sent to the Mercury. "People who don’t like Ted Wheeler taking big donations have other great choices in this race."
Wheeler addressed the ruling in a statement sent by his campaign late Friday afternoon.
"Today a judge rejected the politically motivated attempt by one of my opponents to use the court to advance her campaign," said Wheeler. "From the beginning we have followed the law and adjusted when courts have made new rulings. We ask the Iannarone campaign to cease wasting additional taxpayer resources on distracting legal filings she knows are not going to withstand scrutiny under the law."