Reformers had an easy time last year convincing Multnomah County voters to put limits on campaign contributions for county races. Now they're hoping to make the same plea at the city level—even as the legality of their reforms remains an open question.
Months after more than 88 percent of voters approved Measure 26-184, which strictly limits financing in elections for county officials, local progressive activists have drafted a measure to slap the same basic strictures on city races, the Mercury has learned.
"Clearly the citizenry here wants to do something," says Jason Kafoury, a Portland attorney who had a central role in pushing last year's reforms. "We should be thinking big in Portland. Especially with national politics as corrupt as it is right now."
To refresh, the regulations [PDF] voters passed in November—set to take effect in September of this year—limit campaign contributions at $500 per individual or political action committee, per candidate. So-called small donor committees could only accept donations of up to $100 per contributor, but contribute as much as they want to candidates.
The regulations also limit how much people or organizations can spend to tout a candidate via "independent expenditures," and require that the top five donors that fund campaign advertisements are explicitly listed.
As we reported recently, there's no telling whether some of those provisions are legal. A 1997 Oregon Supreme Court ruling prohibited limits on campaign contributions, and the US Supreme Court's infamous Citizens United decision did the same for independent expenditures. As a result of all this, Oregon has some of the loosest campaign finance laws in the country.
So the county is taking the rare step of asking a Multnomah County judge to gauge the merits of its new campaign finance laws before they kick in. A hearing in the case is expected next month, and could culminate in the policies being wholly or partially ruled illegal (an outcome advocates would appeal).
The uncertainty doesn't matter to Kafoury and his cohort, who tentatively hope to land a city campaign finance measure on the May 2018 ballot. An early draft of that measure [PDF] has many similarities to the county policy, but also far more specifics about how top donors to campaign ads would need to be identified (including a partial accounting of how they make money).
Kafoury argues the limits would have a more profound effect on city races, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars more to run than contests for county seats. Mayor Ted Wheeler, for instance, raised more than $780,000 last year—and his race didn't go past the May primary.
But it's not clear a majority of council will agree. Reformers are hoping the council will vote to refer a change to the City Charter to the ballot, which would save them from having to collect signatures.
But the makeup of City Council shifted in January in ways that might not favor them. When Commissioner Amanda Fritz succeeded in pushing a public campaign finance system through council late last year, she relied on the votes of former Mayor Charlie Hales and former Commissioner Steve Novick to do so. Commissioners Nick Fish and Dan Saltzman both opposed passing the policy outright, instead saying they wanted voters to decide. Wheeler, not in office yet, was perceived to be skeptical of the program. Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, also not in office yet, publicly supported the effort.
It's too early to say what shape discussions around campaign finance reform could take in the next year. We've reached out to various commissioners' offices to see if they'd support a new push, but Kafoury acknowledges his group hasn't set meetings.
In addition to the potential push in Portland, the Oregon Progressive Party and Alliance for Democracy are hoping to change the state constitution to formally allow campaign contribution limits. According to that initiative's website, they're shooting for a November 2018 ballot measure.
By the way, speaking of campaigns, next Tuesday is election day. YOU NEED TO VOTE.