A judge’s decision about Multnomah County’s strict new limits to campaign contributions was supposed to arrive by the end of August.
Everybody’s still waiting.
It’s now been more than three weeks since proponents and opponents of a voter-approved set of campaign finance reforms faced off in Multnomah County Circuit Judge Eric Bloch’s courtroom on August 15, and days since the reforms kicked in September 1. Though those new restrictions are supposedly in effect, Bloch has yet to rule on whether the campaign contribution and expense caps violate the state constitution. Multnomah County, officials say, is now in a gray area of campaign finance law.
So what are elections officials telling candidates for county office about accepting big checks? To ask their own lawyer.
“Given the uncertainty (the fact that we don’t have direction from the court), candidates for Multnomah County office right now should seek their own private attorney to discuss their interpretation of what’s happening,” county spokesperson Julie Sullivan-Springhetti says. “Their best path forward is to get their own attorney and talk through how they’re going to act as a candidate.”
Dan Meek, the lead attorney pushing the finance reforms, says the county’s wrong to say the limits are up in the air. “It’s not in limbo, it’s in effect.” Meek says. “Nobody’s asked for an injunction.”
Measure 26-184, the “Honest Elections Multnomah County Charter Amendment,” was approved by 89 percent of county voters last November. The bill slapped tight limits on the contributions candidates for elected office in Multnomah County government can accept.
Individuals and political committees can give only up to $500 to a candidate for county office (county commissioner, county chair, auditor, sheriff, and district attorney), and the measure caps how much money can be spent to advocate independently for a candidate. Both of those are unregulated under Oregon’s laissez-faire, donor-friendly campaign finance laws.
The measure also requires independent committees that run political ads on behalf of candidates to prominently disclose their top five donors (if their donations exceed $500).
Opponents say these provisions are at odds with a controversial 1997 Oregon Supreme Court ruling and the 2010 US Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United decision giving corporations and deep-pocketed groups approval to spend unlimited money touting or tearing down a candidate for office.
The next elections under the now-implemented but murky campaign finance rules will be held on May 15, 2018, with races for sheriff (Sheriff Mike Reese is the running for re-election), auditor (which will be vacated by Auditor Steve March due to term limits), District Two commissioner (which will be vacated by Commissioner Loretta Smith due to term limits), and county chair (Chair Deborah Kafoury is running for re-election).
Kafoury says she’ll honor the new law—but not before she accepted a bevy of big checks before it went into effect.
Kafoury, who voted for the measure (and is a cousin of attorney Jason Kafoury, one of the main proponents of the county charter amendment), told the Mercury her reelection campaign will now be “following the will of the voters” and complying with the measure as if it were not caught up in court. (Reform backers say Kafoury’s $466,000 war chest during her 2014 campaign is the reason the new caps are necessary.)
So what about three $2,500 checks to her campaign reported on August 30—five times larger than what the new caps permit beginning September 1?
“I’m going to do my best to limit the contributions to the amount that was prescribed in the ballot measure,” Kafoury said on September 1. “Yesterday, if I received a campaign contribution for $1,000 I would have accepted it. Today I would not.” Records show Kafoury’s raised nearly $80,000 in cash contributions this year.
The county’s awkward waiting period is just the latest development in the battle to take on big money in politics.
In April, county commissioners, expecting but not yet facing a legal challenge to the measure, voted to send it through an extremely rare “court validation” process, in which a judge rules preemptively on a law’s legality (well, it was supposed to be preemptive) before it is even challenged. Controversially, though, the board of commissioners initially said county lawyers wouldn’t defend the law’s legality in court. The next week, after outrage from reformers, the county changed course and said they’d defend it at the August hearing.
This summer, an attorney for the Center for Competitive Politics—a Virginia-based nonprofit funded in part by conservative billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch that swoops into courts around the country to stamp out campaign donation caps—sought to represent the conservative Taxpayers Association of Oregon in opposition to the measure. They were joined in opposition by the Portland Business Alliance, landlord lobby the Portland Metropolitan Association of Realtors, realtor Alan Mehrwein, and corporate advocacy group Associated Oregon Industry—groups that don’t want to lose any of the sway over politicians that a big check can bring.
The new system currently applies only to county races, though its authors want their vision of reform to spread throughout the state and country (they’ve said they’ll float a similar proposal for city races). Judge Bloch’s ruling in the near future represents the biggest tipping point for reform since it was placed on the ballot.
And we’re still waiting.