Next year, Loretta Smith will find herself somewhere she’s never been: on a City of Portland ballot.

The two-term Multnomah County commissioner announced last month she’ll be running for Commissioner Dan Saltzman’s seat in the May primary. Smith has campaign logos and slogans on her Facebook page, and a website: Her candidate committee is raking in thousands of dollars in contributions from deep-pocketed developers. She’s got a campaign staff.

But to hear Smith’s campaign consultant tell it, she is not currently running for city council.

“She’s indicated she intends to run for Portland City Council,” consultant Jake Weigler told the Mercury last week. “She has not formally filed for office.” 

Weigler—and Smith, who referred all questions to him—have reason to be cautious. Under Multnomah County rules, Smith would need to give up her current position if she begins a formal run for City Council before January.

But the current limbo the commissioner finds herself in comes with fraught questions—especially after voters enacted strict campaign finance limits for Multnomah County elections last year. Smith’s raising money as if she were running for city office, and disregarding those new county limits in the process. But she’s not technically filed to run for city office.

To some observers, it looks like Smith is breaking the rules.

“There appear to be violations,” says Seth Woolley, state secretary of the Pacific Green Party. “Once you start behaving like a candidate, you have to resign.” 

The difficulties for Smith have roots in a patchwork of complex laws governing her activity.

Multnomah County’s charter states that no elected official “may run for another elective office in midterm without resigning first.” An elected county official is no longer considered “midterm” in the last year of their term. Smith still has two months to go to reach that mark. 

  • Multnomah County charter

The charter also says that “filing for another office in midterm shall be the same as a resignation.” Smith is emphasizing the term “filing” to skirt this. She can keep her seat while raising thousands of dollars and publicizing her campaign, her team says, as long as the formal paperwork isn’t in yet.

That’s complicated by the Secretary of State definition of a “candidate,” which is someone who has either formally submitted proper forms to be on the ballot or someone “whose name is expected to be or has been presented, with the individual’s consent, for nomination or election to public office.” 

Using the state’s definition, is Smith a candidate for city council? “You’d need to consult an attorney,” Weigler says. “We are in full compliance with state and county rules.”

Then there’s the matter of contributions to Smith’s campaign committee, including $10,500—from two construction companies, an investment firm, and the CEO of a development company—that she accepted in October, just weeks after her announcement that she’d be running for council.

“She’s raising money into her PAC for a future run for political office,” Weigler says, declining to say if a $4,000 check from Leader Capital Corp, checks for $2,500 apiece from Pacificmark Construction Corp and O’Neill Construction Group, and a $1,500 check from GSL Properties CEO Walter “Skip” Grodahl were meant for her city council campaign.

Those contributions raise questions for campaign finance reformers because of the designation that’s still attached to Smith’s campaign committee: county commissioner. Candidates for elected office at the county level have to comply with the strict restrictions approved last year. The rigid caps began in September, though a county judge has yet to rule if the limits are constitutional.

Under the new campaign finance rules, Smith wouldn’t be able to accept the $10,500 in contributions detailed above.

Another question is whether Smith is allowed to maintain the “county commissioner” designation even as her committee hauls in cash for a city council run. Under state law, once she began accepting contributions for a city council race, she should have changed her committee’s paperwork with the secretary of state to indicate her “office sought” is city commissioner.

  • Orestar

“We’re in the process of updating our campaign information,” Weigler says. “She’s term-limited out of that position so I think it’s a safe assumption that she would not be running for that office.” 

Weigler sent the Mercury a list of 10 other Oregon politicians, including Gov. Kate Brown and County Chair Deborah Kafoury, who also didn’t amend their candidate committee forms with up-to-date information as prescribed by state law.

Even so, Smith’s recent campaigning has caught the attention of the central backers of the new campaign finance reform laws.

Woolley says he’s investigating Smith for campaign violations and may file a complaint when he’s done. He previously filed a complaint against then-Mayor Charlie Hales, alleging that Hales wasn’t a legal Portland resident when he voted in Oregon while filing taxes in Washington prior to his election. 

The race for Saltzman’s city council seat will be competitive. Jo Ann Hardesty, president of a Portland NAACP chapter and a former state representative, was the first viable candidate to announce a run. Andrea Valderrama, a staffer for Mayor Ted Wheeler and David Douglas School Board member, joined in later. Former council candidate Stuart Emmons is also raising money for a run.

Of course, those other candidates don’t have a pesky county charter to worry about.