Since last week, money has been pouring in to fund the charter reform debate, but so far, it appears to be largely one-sided—and Mayor Tom Potter's pro-strong mayor campaign is coming up short.
So far, Portlanders for Accountability—one of the groups opposing the government charter change—has reported bringing in $34,000, all from unions like Laborers' Local 483 and the Portland Firefighters Association. Thousands of additional dollars are expected to roll in, largely from local unions, bringing the campaign coffers well into six digits over the coming weeks. The campaign is chaired by Oregon AFL-CIO President Tom Chamberlain, and is connected to City Commissioners Randy Leonard and Erik Sten.
The Committee for Accountable City Government—another opposition group, chaired by former Mayor Bud Clark and citizen activist Chris Smith—has brought in much less so far, around $3,000. That group, though, is focused more on "grassroots" campaigning, with help from former politicians and candidates like Amanda Fritz and Dave Lister, while the union-backed committee raises cash for mailings and advertising.
In contrast, though, Citizens to Reform City Hall, the pro-change group attached to Mayor Potter, has raised considerably less money. The committee hasn't yet officially disclosed their funding—they aren't required to until the end of the month—but their treasurer, mayoral staffer Kyle Chisek, currently on leave from the mayor's office, estimates that the campaign has raised around $7,000, mostly from individuals and members of the charter review commission.
It's a far cry, so far, from what many observers expected—that business interests like the Portland Business Alliance (PBA), which pledged early, enthusiastic support for the charter change, would largely fund the campaign. Potter has been spending much of his free time making fundraising pitches and campaigning for the ballot measure, but whatever money he's raised hasn't yet made it to the political action committee.
Some people believe that money from the PBA and other organizations may be on its way.
"The larger business interests have shown a willingness to spend large amounts on issues they want to see passed," says Sten. "As someone from the opposing side, I don't take too much comfort in the fact that it hasn't been filed yet."
According to some political insiders, though, large contributions from the PBA—especially when coupled with editorial support from the Oregonian, which has already championed the strong mayor system—can be the kiss of death for a political cause in Portland. So, the pro-change campaign could have an incentive to steer clear of the PBA, either by not soliciting its money, or by holding off on disclosing the contributions until the latest possible moment.
Another possibility: There are few people willing to contribute money to pass the ballot measure. Based on polls released last week by both campaigns, potential contributors could have a reason to hang on to their money. Both polls showed a slight majority of respondents rejecting the strong mayor idea.
Both polls show that a large number of people are undecided, and it's those votes that the campaigns will have to go after. That will take a substantial amount of money, and so far, the opponents are well in the lead. If Potter's campaign is serious about changing the form of government, they'll need to raise more cash—the question is, if all of the money comes from the PBA, will it do more damage to the campaign's reputation than the cash can fix?
Over the next two months leading up to the May 15 election, the campaigns could turn into a fight between labor unions and business associations, and the success of either campaign will depend not only on the amount of money they can raise, but the popularity of those organizations among Portland voters.
The unions, at least, will be able to turn out thousands of members to vote—in an election that could have a turnout as low as 25 percent, those votes may be even more important than money.