Portland City Council looks at public campaign finance system to magnify the voice of small donors

Open and Accountable Portland City CouncilBy Don McIntosh

Portland City Council is considering an ordinance that could significantly erode the power of monied interests in city politics. Known as the Open and Fair Elections ordinance, it got its first public hearing Nov. 3.

The ordinance would set up a public campaign finance system that matches small donations. It’s modeled on programs already in place in New York City and several other locales. Candidates for mayor, City Council, and city auditor who want to participate in the program would agree to accept no more than $250 from any individual, and to limit the total contributions they’d accept to $250,000 in the primary and $300,000 in the general election (more for mayoral candidates). In return the City would provide a six-to-one match for contributions of up to $50 from Portland residents — giving a 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 limits the program to 0.2 percent of the City’s General Fund — about $1.2 million a year.

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." — UFCW Local 555 secretary-treasurer Jeff Anderson, testifying alongside State Senator Diane Rosenbaum of the Joint Interim Task Force On Campaign Finance Reform, and NAACP director Joanne Hardesty.
“When a wealthy corporation can call the Oregon Legislature into session for a special tax deal, you know we have an influence problem.” — UFCW Local 555 secretary-treasurer Jeff Anderson, testifying alongside State Senator Diane Rosenbaum of the Joint Interim Task Force On Campaign Finance Reform, and NAACP director Joanne Hardesty.

““When a wealthy corporation can call the Oregon Legislature into session for a special tax deal, you know we have an influence problem,” said Jeff Anderson at the Nov. 3 Portland City Council hearing. Anderson is president of the Northwest Oregon Labor Council, AFL-CIO, and secretary-treasurer of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555, the state’s largest private sector union. He was referring to a one-day special 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, OSPIRG, 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.

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” — City of Portland Commissioner Amanda Fritz

City Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who introduced the ordinance at City Council, 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 City 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 that this 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.

Fritz and supporters of the ordinance are soliciting feedback and proposed modifications to the ordinance, and aim to bring it to further hearings and a vote by the end of the year.

WATCH THE HEARING BELOW, beginning at the 1:17:50 mark: 

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