The politics of Portland’s public campaign finance project

By Dave Lister
Guest columnist in The Oregonian

By the time you read this, the Portland City Council will have adopted a resolution to put the city’s public campaign financing system, also known as “voter-owned elections,” on the November ballot. What’s curious is that one of the most vocal opponents of the system, the Portland Business Alliance, just last week may have ensured its future. The alliance, which in 2005 objected to the city’s adopting the system without a popular vote and in 2006 ran a petition drive to force that vote, asked the council to eliminate the system by ordinance — without a vote. How can Portland’s premier jobs-advocacy group be so ignorant of the pulse of Portland politics?

Don’t get me wrong: The voter-owned election system is flawed and should be abandoned. In three election cycles Portland taxpayers have spent nearly $2 million, and for what? We’ve re-elected one incumbent, Erik Sten, who quit halfway through his last term, and one new commissioner, Amanda Fritz. Fritz has displayed an independence — perhaps due to public financing — that’s shown she’s not afraid to go against the grain as the lone dissenting vote on a myriad of issues. But the simple fact of our form of government is that you must have three votes to prevail.

While I agree with Fritz that Merritt Paulson shouldn’t receive taxpayer money to bring Major League Soccer to Portland, her lone vote out of five didn’t prevent that from happening. “Voter-owned elections” may have given her independence, but it didn’t give her a leg up on building coalitions.

On the other hand, our public financing system ensured that a good man, Sho Dozono, was hobbled from fundraising by legal challenges from Mayor Sam Adams. It allowed Emilie Boyles to game the system and leave town with tens of thousands of dollars. It allowed Jesse Cornett to challenge incumbent Dan Saltzman and garnish a laughable 8,000 votes while using nearly $150,000 of taxpayer money.

So how could the Portland Business Alliance make such a fundamental mistake?

The alliance’s relationship with the city since it morphed from being the Chamber of Commerce in 2002 has been rocky. One of its leaders, Kim Kimbrough, threw down the gauntlet with then-Mayor Vera Katz, going public with his views on Portland’s anti-business environment. Katz’s response was to pull downtown’s lucrative city-owned parking lot contracts from the alliance, nearly cutting off its income stream.

Then came the adoption of public campaign financing and the alliance’s attempts to put the program on the ballot. Unfortunately, the alliance didn’t screen its petition signatures before submitting them to the city auditor, and the petition was disqualified. After that came the city races of 2006. The alliance recruited a faux business candidate, Ginny Burdick, to run against Sten in the primary. That so incensed me personally that I entered the race, telling the alliance that if it wanted a business candidate, it should get a real one.

The alliance stuck with Burdick, figuring a well-known liberal would have a better shot. Alliance members tried to convince me to be a plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging the public financing scheme, with the explanation that I needed the name recognition. Well, I’d fallen off the turnip truck way too long before to bite on that one.

Because of this miserable track record, some have come to calling the business alliance a paper tiger. But I don’t think that’s quite right. I think it’s more like the Cyclops in Homer’s “Odyssey” — an outwitted, blinded behemoth, flailing away and hitting nothing.