Portland city council votes for public campaign financing
Carly Edwards, director of the Oregon Working Families Party, speaks to a coalition of fair scheduling groups at a rally Oct. 12, ahead of the Portland City Council’s vote on a fair scheduling resolution. | Northwest Labor Press

PORTLAND, Ore. (PAI) — Portlanders are about to find out what a City Council looks like when candidates don’t need to rely on big campaign contributors. In a 3-2 vote in mid-December, the council approved a public campaign finance program.

Starting in 2020, the city will provide a six-to-one match for small contributions of up to $50 for candidates for mayor and city council who agree to certain limits on campaign contributions.

City Council candidates in the program could get up to $144,000 in public funds for the primary and $216,000 for the general election, if they agree to accept no more than $250 from any individual, and to limit total contributions to $250,000 in the primary and $300,000 in the general election. The figures are about double that for mayoral candidates. The ordinance limits the program to 0.2 percent of the City’s General Fund — about $1.2 million a year.

The program was modeled on similar programs elsewhere, including New York City and Los Angeles, and states such as Connecticut, Arizona, and Maine. Portland was the fourth jurisdiction to pass some kind of public campaign financing in 2016, following Berkeley, Calif., Howard County, Md., and the state of South Dakota.

The ordinance was sponsored by City Commissioner Amanda Fritz, but she said the proposal was driven by a coalition of unions and non-profit groups. United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555, the Service Employees’ Oregon State Council, Communications Workers Local 7901 and the Oregon Working Families Party were among the 31 groups in the coalition.

Fritz was joined by Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioner Steve Novick in voting for the ordinance. Commissioners Dan Saltzman and Nick Fish voted against it, after arguing that it should go be before voters for approval.

Union leaders strongly backed the Open and Fair Elections Ordinance at a public hearing in November. The ordinance would give a city council candidate access to up to $144,000 in public funds for the primary and $216,000 for the general election, and about double that for a mayoral candidate.

The ordinance comes at a time when political campaign contributions from corporations and wealthy individuals are reaching unprecedented levels. Portland’s 2012 city candidate races were dominated by 600 big donors who wrote checks of $1,000 or more, contributing a total of $1.7 million in the mayor’s race and two city council races. Oregon is one of only six states that have no limit on campaign contributions.

And the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010 took the lid off campaign contributions in federal races.

“When a wealthy corporation can call the Oregon legislature into session for a special tax deal, you know we have an influence problem,” Jeff Anderson, president of the Northwest Oregon Labor Council and Secretary-Treasurer of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555, the state’s largest private sector union, told the city council at the public hearing.

Anderson was referring to a one-day special legislative session called at Nike’s request in 2012 in which state lawmakers gave agreed to guarantee Nike a preferential corporate income tax formula for the next 30 years.

Nike founder “Phil Knight’s recent contribution of $380,000 to some Oregon legislative candidates dwarfs the largest private sector union in Oregon…I find it incredible that thousands of my members can pool their dollars together only to have that amount be offset by a single large donor.”

UFCW, SEIU, CWA and the Oregon Working Families Party worked with Common Cause, the Oregon State Public Interest Research Group, the NAACP, and other non-profit groups in a coalition to develop the Open and Fair Elections proposal.

In City of Portland elections, it’s not uncommon for union political action committees (PACs) to contribute $1,000, $10,000 or even more. Candidates who opt into the Open and Fair Elections program wouldn’t be allowed to accept money from union PACs or any other kind of PACs. Yet the program would likely play to union strengths, because it would eliminate opposing big contributors while multiplying the influence of small donors.

Imagine a fundraiser for a union-endorsed candidate: Thirty rank-and-file members or officers each willing to chip in $50 would end up generating $10,500 for a city council candidate’s campaign. The Open and Fair ordinance limits “in-kind” contributions such as office space to $20,000 per election, but donations of staff time to supervise volunteers wouldn’t count toward that limit. And the ordinance places no restraint on unions’ ability to communicate with their own members.

City Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who introduced the ordinance, said Open and Accountable Elections is as important to her as the city’s paid sick leave ordinance, which she helped pass in 2013.

“The Open and Accountable elections system will address one of the most fundamental challenges we face, which is that many Portlanders don’t trust their elected representatives to do the right thing for the right reasons, in part because of the perceived influence of campaign contributions in elections,” Fritz said introducing the ordinance.

Fritz is only person on the five-member city council who came to office thanks to Portland’s previous public campaign finance system. Known as Voter-Owned Elections, it was enacted in 2005, but had its reputation damaged by several instances of fraud. When it went before voters for approval in 2010, it lost by 1,600 votes out of 210,000 cast.

“I read that vote as Portlanders saying ‘Not now, and not this system,’ rather than ‘Nothing like this ever again,’” Fritz said.

The Open and Fair Elections proposal differs from Voter-Owned Elections in that public funding matches — but doesn’t replace — private campaign contributions.

Should it go before voters for approval? Fritz said no, arguing that the council allocates over $400 million in discretionary funds every year, and doesn’t ask voters to approve each of those appropriations. Also, if Portland residents don’t agree with this or any other action of City Council, Fritz said there’s a process by which they can collect signatures to refer it to voters, as they did with the decision to fluoridate the city’s water.

But Commissioner Nick Fish countered the elections proposal could be perceived as directly benefiting City Council members, so maybe it should be approved by voters first.

Both the floor and second floor gallery of City Council chambers were packed with supporters of the ordinance, and during several hours of public testimony, no council members said they oppose it. Fritz said Mayor Charlie Hales is supportive of the measure. Fish said he has questions about it. Commissioner Steve Novick raised concerns about the cost of the ordinance while also saying he thinks it might not be generous enough. Hales and Novick later voted for it.


Don McIntosh
Don McIntosh

Don McIntosh is Associate Editor, The Northwest Labor Press.