AMANDA FRITZ spent a recent Thursday evening doling out rhetorical red meat to a Northeast Portland gymnasium.
In a forum on Fritz’s long-anticipated attempt to create a new system to fund campaigns with public money, the city commissioner boasted to cheering attendees that she’d kept enormous checks out of her bids for office (the largest contribution she’s accepted in any of her four races is $500).
“The biggest challenge we face is trust in government, and the lack of it,” Fritz told more than a hundred people who appeared primed to champion her latest cause, dubbed Open and Accountable Elections. “[Citizens] may disagree with me... but they can’t say, ‘You made that vote because you’re bought and paid for.’”
Fritz has been using pretty much the same line since 2006, when she tapped public financing to unsuccessfully challenge Commissioner Dan Saltzman. The suggestion, then and now, was that any politician who does take big donations leaves themself open to questions about their motivations.
But while that plays great in a gym filled with would-be reformers, it’s not likely to help Fritz win over her city council colleagues, all of whom accept the large checks that increasingly flow through Portland politics. There’s a very real chance city commissioners will opt to push Fritz’s proposal to voters in May, rather than passing it into law themselves—an option Fritz and others are hoping to avoid.
First, a rundown of the new proposal: Boosters of public financing have been hinting since 2013 that it was coming, and that it’d be different than the “voter owned elections” system that Portland voters killed in 2010.
In the old system, candidates could collect hundreds of $5 donations to qualify for $150,000 or $200,000 in public funds, depending on which office they were seeking. Fritz was the only non-incumbent to win under the system, which eventually proved susceptible to fraud, but the general idea was to level the playing field between those already in power and potential challengers.
This new proposal has the same goal, with key differences. Based on a system New York City has used for decades, the policy would force interested participants to show they’re viable by collecting at least $2,500 total from 250 people for city commissioner races, or $5,000 from 500 people for mayoral races.
If they can meet that threshold, candidates would get a 6-to-1 match for contributions up to $50. In other words, each $50 donation would generate an additional $300 from the city’s general fund (but multiple $50 donations from the same person wouldn’t count). Fritz’s office has proposed earmarking 0.2 percent of the city’s general fund budget for the program, which would translate to a little more than $1.2 million of this year’s $602 million fund.
In exchange for the funding boost, candidates would have to limit contributions to $250 and refuse donations from political action committees or corporations (though $5,000 in “seed money” could come from anywhere). They’d also be forced to limit spending: a max of $550,000 for city commission races between primary and general elections, and $950,000 for mayoral races.
At last week’s forum, the idea was touted as a way to lure fresh faces into the political scene, decrease overall campaign spending, and force candidates to prioritize large groups of individuals, rather than moneyed interests. Candidates in the system “get small donations so they are accountable to many people,” Fritz aide Cristina Nieves told the audience (another statement not likely to win over city councilmembers).
Former mayoral runner-up Jefferson Smith spoke in favor of the plan. Current city council candidate Chloe Eudaly, who’s at a steep fundraising disadvantage to Commissioner Steve Novick, said she wished it was in place today.
Meanwhile, it’s looking doubtful the proposal will even get passed this year. Fritz and a host of advocacy and labor groups are stressing that city council should pass the proposal outright, without voters’ direct approval. They argue such a vote would be tantamount to trying to reform the big money system via the big money system.
“Sometimes it is appropriate to send things to voters and sometimes it isn’t,” Fritz told the Mercury the morning after the public forum.
She may face an uphill battle convincing her colleagues this is one of those latter times. Commissioners Nick Fish and Saltzman have been proponents of sending potentially controversial proposals to the ballot, as when they demanded a “street fee” proposal be put to voters in 2014.
The fact that voters narrowly scrapped public campaign financing once before will definitely enter into their thinking.
Saltzman hasn’t taken a firm stand either way, but his chief of staff, Brendan Finn, notes that he’s historically believed that “if voters have weighed in on a certain issue they should get the chance to do it again.”
Sonia Schmanski, chief of staff for Fish, offered a similar take.
“He’ll be asking three questions,” she says. “What’s the problem we’re solving, how will we pay for it, and given that voters repealed the last experiment, do we have an obligation to refer this to them?”
Statements from Mayor Charlie Hales’ and Novick’s offices say neither man has made up his mind on referring the policy.
Hales, who decided not to run for re-election partly to avoid long hours of fundraising, is an outright supporter. Novick has said he’s worried about the potential costs of the program at a time when the city’s already built a $3.5 million hole into its next budget, and may be working toward a multi-million dollar pay increase for cops. That concern is shared by the City Budget Office.
Fritz says she’ll press her colleagues to adopt the policy outright in coming days. She notes she led the fight for a parks bond in 2014, and will push a citywide 3 percent pot sales tax in November. She clearly doesn’t relish the idea of another ballot fight.
“I haven’t had an opportunity to circulate the final proposal with my colleagues,” Fritz said September 9. “Anything they said today would be based on what they know today, which is not a full discussion.”
A council referral isn’t the only way Fritz’s proposal could land on the ballot. Anyone who opposed the policy—hint: the Portland Business Alliance (PBA)—could set about collecting enough signatures to force a public vote.
Conveniently (and probably not coincidentally) the PBA’s got a bigger fight on its hands right now. It’s busy mobilizing against Measure 97, the $3 billion corporate tax hike voters will consider in November.
“Quite frankly, that’s probably why Amanda Fritz picked this opportunity,” says Jo Ann Hardesty, president of a local NAACP chapter and a long-time advocate for public campaign financing. “There’s this huge $3 billion measure that the business community is really focused on.”
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article has been altered from its original version to remove reference to former city council candidate Ann Sanderson. Sanderson does not support the campaign finance plan, as originally stated.