On August 15, there will be an unprecedented battle in a Multnomah County courtroom over the fate of local campaign finance reform.
In an opinion that could come to shape political races statewide, a judge will decide whether strict contribution limits approved overwhelmingly by county voters last fall are constitutional.
And now, after the deadline to submit arguments to the court last week, we know who’s trying to secure a spot in the courtroom to oppose these reforms, defending unchecked spending on candidates running for county office.
For starters, there’s the Koch brothers.
Amid the standard deep-pocketed business groups worried about losing sway over politicians, the list of opponents to campaign reform includes the Center for Competitive Politics (CCP), a litigious nonprofit funded in part by billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch and right-wing dark-money sources like the Donors Capital Fund and Donors Trust.
CCP swoops into courts around the country to stamp out laws that cap money in elections—arguing huffily that such limitations are an assault on the First Amendment. And at some point since Multnomah County’s reforms passed in November, the Virginia-based organization reached out to the conservative Taxpayer Association of Oregon (TAO), offering to have CCP lawyers represent the group as an intervening party in the case against Measure 26-184, known as the “Honest Elections Multnomah County Charter Amendment.”
“They gave me a call,” says TAO Executive Director Jason Williams. “And I’m glad they’re around. I hate these laws that try to limit free speech.”
TAO is based in Washington County, where the measure wouldn’t apply.
Owen Yeates, the lead CCP attorney representing TAO in opposing the reform measure, defends his organization’s involvement in protecting a status quo that allows wealthy donors to greatly influence elections: “It’s not a case of a big group coming from out East violating the will of the people,” Yeates says, noting he personally lives in Portland. “The First Amendment and Bill of Rights have always been about protecting minorities from the majority. That’s why we’re doing this—we want to protect people who feel they’re being violated and oppressed.”
Joining CCP to fight the limitation on money in elections are the violated and oppressed Portland Business Alliance, landlord lobby the Portland Metropolitan Association of Realtors, realtor Alan Mehrwein, and corporate advocacy group Associated Oregon Industries.
The CCP’s role isn’t yet ironclad. The group is attempting to become an intervening party in the case—which would give it the right to appeal, should it lose—but the CCP attorney, on behalf of TAO, filed to join 38 days after the deadline. County attorneys requested last Friday that the court prevent the organization from joining the case.
Yeates, in a filing on Sunday, said the CCP’s intervention should still be valid, arguing the deadline was arbitrary and inconsequential. Multnomah County Judge Eric Bloch hadn’t ruled on the matter as of press time.
The county charter amendment, approved by 89 percent of voters last November, capped how much money people and political committees can give to a candidate for county office (county commissioner, county chair, district attorney, sheriff, auditor) and how much money can be spent to advocate independently for the candidate. It also forced the disclosure of candidates’ major donors in political ads.
These things are not regulated under Oregon’s laws, which the Center for Public Integrity has given an “F” grade for their permissiveness. According to the organization, Oregon’s elections laws rank 49th in the country, besting only Mississippi.
Starting in September, charter amendment would change this for county races. There’s a problem, though: The provisions are at odds with a controversial 1997 Oregon Supreme Court ruling and the often-criticized 2010 Citizens United ruling by the US Supreme Court, which gives corporations and donors permission to spend as much as they want touting candidates and tearing down their political opponents.
Reform advocates have long anticipated the measure would be challenged and taken to the state’s high court, hoping the 1997 legal interpretation could be reversed.
Since the campaign finance measure is potentially at odds with Supreme Court precedent, the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously in April to send the measure to what’s known as a court validation proceeding, where a judge preemptively rules on whether a law is constitutional before it’s implemented. It’s possible this procedure has never happened here before—Deputy County Attorney Jacquie Weber told the Mercury she hasn’t seen it in her quarter-century at the office.
“This is all uncharted territory, and the judge is going to have a lot of leeway to do what he wants,” says attorney Jason Kafoury, a major backer of the reform effort and cousin to County Chair Deborah Kafoury.
The unprecedented nature has been evident in the county’s bobbling of the issue. Earlier this year, county commissioners said they wouldn’t send attorneys to defend the voter-approved reforms in court. They changed their tune following advocates’ outcry.
Dan Meek, a volunteer attorney with the group Honest Elections Multnomah County, submitted about 300 pages of legal argument, which the county used in a legal brief submitted to the court in support of the measure last week.
“I think their brief is good,” says Meek.
In court filings, reformers decry the notion that unchecked campaign violations are free speech. Their word? “Bribery.”
“Countering bribery is a longstanding exception to freedom of speech protection,” says Meek’s pro-reform filing with the court. “So the way for Multnomah County to restrict opportunity for legal actual bribery of public officials by means of campaign contributions is to limit the size of allowable campaign contributions....”
In coming weeks, the court will decide who will be allowed to present arguments at the August 15 validation hearing. It’s anticipated Bloch will take time afterward to make his decision on the measure’s legality.
The loser will certainly appeal.||