April 08, 2004

City Council Approves Exploration Of 'Clean Money' Campaigns

Some Commissioners Express Reservations And Concerns

In it's "Murmurs" column yesterday, Willamette Week included the following item:

The idea of "clean city elections" appears headed to a soily grave. In a vote scheduled for today, April 7, Commissioner Erik Sten and Auditor Gary Blackmer wanted colleagues to let voters decide whether candidates who demonstrate broad-based support could tap city funding in exchange for obeying spending limits (see "The $25 Candidate," WW, March 24, 2004). Mayoral frontrunner Jim Francesconi, who boasts a war chest of close to $800,000, panned the notion in a recent Portland Tribune article, and so did Randy Leonard. Fellow commissioner Dan Saltzman has said he does not favor campaign-finance reform. Interestingly, these three are also the commissioners most heavily bankrolled by the 800-pound gorilla of city politics, the Portland Business Alliance.

Nonetheless, the City Council on Wednesday approved a resolution -- sponsored by Commissioner Erik Sten and Auditor Gary Blackmer, and amended by Commissioner Jim Francesconi -- which directs City officials to develop a detailed proposal for a so-called "clean money" campaign system which would include voluntary public financing and immediate reporting of contributions.

Approval of the resolution, of course, gives no real indication of what will happen to the eventual proposal itself once it comes before Council, which should happen someitme after the July 1 deadline the resolution imposes for development of draft Code language.

Wednesday's hearing featured testimony from an all-star cast, the likes of which we're not certain we've ever seen in a single hearing during the comparably brief time we've covered City Council sessions. Various candidates for local office, leaders of non-profits, community activists, and the ever-present Mandels converged upon Council Chambers to weigh in.

"As a former member of the Oregon Legislature," said Mayor Vera Katz at the start of the morning hearing on the resolution, "this issue was with us session after session after session." But, she said, not much occured due to concerns over issues relating to the constitutionality of various proposals, as well as questions of how to finance such a system.

"I'm thrilled at the work that two of our officials are starting to do," Katz said of Sten and Blackmer. And she said she believed that "when all is said and done" their proposal will satisfy the constitutional and financial tests which interfered with such reforms at the state level.

A random point of interest before we get underway here. Early in the hearing, Katz mistakenly referred to Blackmer as a Commissioner. From that point forward, other members of the Council, as well as some of those testifying, used the same term -- sometimes jokingly, othertimes unintentionally. Towards the end of the hearing, having heard it so many times by then, Francesconi used it as well, which prompted him to pause. "Now you've got me doing it," he said. Katz at one point jokingly warned that if they keep calling him Commissioner Blackmer, he might expect the privilege of being a voting member of the Council.

Commissioner Sten said that campaign finance reform was "something I really started thinking about two years ago" as a result of the so-called Good Government initiative sponsored by Robert Ball, which would have altered Portland's form of government to one with a "nine member Council (seven elected by district) and managed by a Mayor with veto authority."

That proposed Charter change failed by a vote of 94,179 to 29,730. But the issue of districts, in one form or another, would return again and again as City Council members discussed the campaign finance proposal during the hearing.

"There was a real split," said Sten, "whether the Good Government initiative was the way to reform the government." But, he added, there was a "good sense" that the system we have now was not perfect. Sten himself began to focus on the proposition that the "burden of fundraising is too time consuming."

"The pereption -- and for me the reality -- [is] that the fundraising is too front and center," Sten said. He differed with some of the more vocal critics, saying that believes that the current City Council "has acted as you would expect them to," and not on the basis of campaign contributions, but did argue that fundraising "turns my attention" from the more important focus of talking to citizens.

"I don't think personally that the issue is districts," said Sten. He added that he did believe that the "barriers people were trying to knock down" through the Good Government initiative can be addressed through public financing. "No system is perfect," he said, "but this system will get a better result."

Looking back on past changes to campaigns and elections -- for example, the move from party-printed ballots to publicly-funded ballots -- Sten argued that in the future the "stronger question" will be how we could have not publicly financed campaigns.

Auditor Gary Blackmer began his testimony (pdf) on the proposal by detailing the long sequence of campaign and election reform throughout the state's history -- from the secret ballot, the civil service, to the initiative and referendum, to the voters' pamphlet, to women's suffrage, and beyond.

"The pattern in all of these is very clear," Blackmer said. "Voting is intended to have real influence." Arguing that "accountability has been eroded," he said that "Portland elections have been slowly submerged in money."

"Spending large amount of money," he said flatly, "is a proven way of getting elected." According to a page on the Auditor's website: "The highest spending candidate has won 97 out of the last 108 City Elections." That page details "the 11 cases where the highest spending candidate did not win."

Arizona voters passed the Citizens Clean Elections Act in 1998. Representative Meg Burton Cahill testfied on that state's experiences under that new system.

Calling herself "an accidental politician," Cahill argued that Arizona's experience shows that "publicly financing campaigns does increase competition," results in "less frivilous candidates," and "less uncontested seats and at the same time more debate on the issues."

"I don't believe that you can prove," she added, "that there's a relationship between being able to raise funds and being qualified to do the job."

As we'll see later, this contention was almost directly contradicted by Commissioner Dan Saltzman towards the end of the hearing.

Frances Baker of the local League of Women Voters said that the proposed system "will benefit the voters as well as those running for office." Regardless of the level of actual influence, Baker said that there exists the perception that "the ability to raise large amounts of money is the primary qualification" for elected office.

Kate Lore, Social Justice Director for First Unitarian Church of Portland (actually, we didn't capture her name so we're going by what the church's website says) said: "No single issue has galvanized our church membership like campaign finance reform." She argued that "of course such contributions affect decisions" and that fat is preisely why corporations give so much.

Commissioner Dan Saltzman asked Representative Cahill if the Arizona system included restrictions on the usage of publicly-provided campaign money -- for example, restricting the hiring of familiy members using those funds.

Cahill replied that "there are rules and regulations in place" and that use of funds for things such as hiring spouses or family members is prohibited.

Commissioner Randy Leonard asked if a publicly-financed candidate was permitted to contribute that money to another candidate. "This is a little but more than a hypothetical," he said, a reference to the group of neighborhood candidates running against him. That group has stated that they will back whichever of them manages to force Leonard into a November runoff, should that happen.

"I don't know," Cahill said. But she added: "I would venture to say there is some kind of regulation." She pointed out that under the Arizona system, both the state and a non-profit are responsible for establishing guidelines which publicly-financed candidates much abide.

"This issue boils down for me to one thing," said Johnnie Gage of Oregon Action, "and that's access." Without the sort of access which campaign contributions create, he said, "we get listened to if its motivated by a crisis." He added that it "shouldn't take something like that to make people feel listened to."

Bob Ball, the chief petitioner behind 2002's Good Government initiative, said: "Sometimes you need to look in the mirror even if something doesn't seem to be in your individual interest." He said, despite its clear contradiction, that reforms such as the one before Council were important "not because developers have too much influence but that everyone should have the same influence."

Referring to geography, economy, and gender in addition to race, Ball said of the proposal: "I believe it will being us a more diverse Council." He also argued that "our current ampaigns are lacking in eneergy and ideas," and that finance reform could result in campaigns that the media were more interested in covering in ways beyond the usual "horse race" coverage. "Campaign finance reform," he said, "will lead us to better solve the bigger problems of our City."

Whatever the reason, we only seem to have captured one remark by Deborah Ross of Public Campaign: "The Portland we love is threatened." Commissioner Franesconi asked her if there were also any efforts underway to force the media to charge lower advertising rates to political candidates. "Yes," she said.

Francesconi also asked about the limits on campaign contributions that are part of systems in other localities such as Los Angeles, Miami-Dade, and New York City. The limits in these areas are in the millions, which makes sense due to their size, and are not directly comparable to Portland.

"It's my opinion that this is a much-needed change," said Commissioner Leonard, despite the Willamette Week reporting above that he had "panned" the idea at some point. But he also argued that adding districts to the City structure is "how we get the rest of the way" to a solution.

"I can say that I wholeheatedly agree," said Bob Ball, unsurprsingly. "There is a connection," said Mayor Katz, "although I don't agree it's districts."

Before continuing on to public testimony, Commissioner Francesconi explained that he intended to introduce a substitute resolution, which would add a call for immediate reporting of contributions, and an examination of potential funding sources other than the 0.1 to 0.2 perent of general fund money called for in the original Sten/Blackmer proposal.

Francesconi also said, "Money doesn't translate into votes." The assembled crowd rumbled and murmured. He also called for a "multi-approach" which would include an amendment to the Oregon Constitution instituting campaign limits.

"I do think it's time we look at districts," Francesconi added. "I don't believe that public financing alone will do it." He also said that he does not believe the Auditor's estimate of $1.5 million per year will be enough to fund the system.

Mayoral candidate Tom Potter said, "I have not waited for a law to enact campaign finance reform." Potter's campaign only accept $25 contributions. Potter spoke in support of the proposal (referring at one point to "Auditor a.k.a. Commissioner Blackmer"), saying it would level the playing field and allow "all voices to be heard," and "communities to focus on candidates' fitness for the job." It would, he said, lift "the dark cloud of suspicion from politics."

City Council candidate Frank Dixon said that "no incumbent Commissioner should fear this measure," because it would allow them more time to focus on their work and point to their achievements rather than their campaign warchests.

"I believe the City Council can and should act immediately," Dixon said. He also called upon the Council to adopt an "ethical standard" ordinance, details of which can be read in his testimony as posted to his campaign website.

Jake Oken-Berg -- who once, at age nineteen, nearly forced Mayor Katz into a runoff election -- also testified in support of the proposal. "Does everybody remember who Jake was?" asked Katz. "I sure do."

Oken-Berg said that "the vast majority feel shut out of the proess" because of the influence of money and special interests. "With few exceptions," he said, "they have it exactly right." He said that it's as if City Hall had posted a sign outside its doors which read: "Those who cannot dial for dollars need not apply."

In response to the concerns of some Commissioners about spending public money on campaigns during touh fiscal times, Oken-Berg countered that "re-energizing our citizens" should be considered "a top priority." You can read his testimony via the Zephyr website.

Chris Smith, who chaired the City Club of Portland committee which issued a report on Measure 6, which would have created publicly-funded campaigns at the state level (which failed, but was supported by a majority of voters in Multnomah County), simply offered some of the observations from that report, saying its arguments about Measure 6 were directly relevant to the current City proposal.

City Council candidate Nick Fish expressed his support for the "general principles" but with "caveats." He also said he "caught Hell" from his campaign staff for his decision to come testify. "I'm supposed to be raising money," he said.

Fish said that he's "proud of the fact that over 600 people" have contributed to his campaign. "I don't believe this process is inherently corrupting," he said. "But it is a distraction." He also said that three additional issues needed to be addressed: transparency in contributions, the "shame" of the broadcast media not covering the election (we should say that we noticed the utter lack of any television media present at this particular hearing as well), and the possibility of a voluntary check-off on tax forms to fund such a finance system.

"I'm concerned about public financing at a time voters in this county voted down Measure 30," he said.

"Hallelujah, campaign finance reform," said Howard Weiner, chair of the Old Town Chinatown Neighborhood Association. His explanation for why community volunteers believe they can't run for office: "It's all about the money game."

"Take the money out of politics," Weiner said, "and let the good ideas rise through their own merits."

"He said 'Hallelujah,' I say 'Praise the Lord,'" said Mayoral candidate James Posey. "This is the kind of leadership this City needs."

However, he also said this: "I'm not going to be all kissy-face about this whole thing." He stated that he believed there was a connection between campaign contributions and the decisions made by City Council. As to the proposal itself: "It's a no-brainer for me."

Our notes on the testimony of City Council candidate Jim Whittenburg consist only of this statement: "I'm no longer running for office, I'm limping for office." This may seem unfair, but it's very difficult to capture Whittenburg's testimony before Council, existing as it does in a kind of rambling state which takes much of the two or three minutes available to him even to reach the issue at hand.

Lily Mandel's testimony boiled down almost entirely to this: "It's long overdue." To which Mayor Katz quipped: "See, you can do it in less than a minute."

Irwin Mandel argued that "despite Auditor Blackmer's portrayal of our political history" and its advances in campaign and electoral reform, there is a real history of corruption. "We currently face a blizzard of dollar bills [spent on] feel-good advertising," he said.

There was further public testimony after this, including from City Council candudate Mary Ann Schwab, Mallory Pratt of Oregon Action, and Chris Nelson of Hosford-Abernathy. Our notes don't capture these, since we took a break. Also missed altogether was the testimony of Maureen Kirk, executive director of OSPIRG. We did capture one part of Pratt's testimony: "If the candidates are up for sale, then why shouldn't the public be the one that buys them?"

Public testimony concluded, Commissioner Francesconi formally moved his susbstitute resolution. Commissioner Leonard seconded, and the substitute was accepted without objection. Commissioner Sten said he was "fully supportive" of the additions, especially the requirement for "immediate disclosure" of campaign contributions.

"I support campaign finance reform," Francesconi said, "and I support this resolution in its entirety." But he did say that "we need to be aware" of the additional need for Federal legislation to address the costs of media advertising for candidates, as well as the need for finance limits. He also expressed concern that the reforms could "favor incumbents heavily."

However, he added: "We do need options at the local level to increase diversity." And he said that "above all else" it was necessary to do something to combat public perception of the influence of campaign contributions. Despite calling discussion of his Mayoral campaign "inappropriate," Francesconi nonetheless said he is "proud of the average contribution" to his campaign. He also said that the issue for him wasn't that fundraising takes time away from other City duties, but from his family and personal life.

"When we can't adequately fund our police, parks, and infrastructure," he said, "the idea of taking large amounts of public money to finance politicians still does not make sense to me."

"There is nothing more powerful," said Commissioner Leonard, "then a citizen who has three pairs of shoes and a copying machine, in a district." He cautioned against "fooling yourself" that campaign finance reform will solve the problem, putting his weight behind the idea of districts. "That is how you will level the playing field."

"My biggest hurdle to supporting this," said Commissioner Saltzman, "is the use of public tax dollars to fund politicians." He said he would support the resolution in order to "see how it's going to be addressed." Saltzman went on to express concern for preventing abuses. "People abuse how they spend other people's money."

We have to interject here. We found this to be extraordinarily galling, given the endless controversy over the burial of the Mt. Tabor reservoirs, and the ties between the Water Bureau and the contractor/consultant involved in nearly every stage of that project. Frankly, we're somewhat surprised that there wasn't a vocal outcry at that particular remark about absuing other people's money.

Saltzman also wondered "what happens if you take public money and win the election." His concern appeared to be whether or not such a candidate would then return to soliciting campaign contributions once in office.

Remember earlier, relating Representative Cahill's testimony, we wrote this:

"I don't believe that you can prove," she added, "that there's a relationship between being able to raise funds and being qualified to do the job."
As we'll see later, this contention was almost directly contradicted by Commissioner Dan Saltzman towards the end of the hearing.

Here's where this comes into play, because one of Saltzman's next statements on the time and energy required to conduct fundraising was this: "It is a sign of a work ethic, too. It shows how hard people want this job."

In addition to this other conerns, Saltzman also had questions about third-party expenditures and in-kind contributions under a "clean money" system. Our question for Saltzman would be this: Why didn't you ask those questions of Representative Cahill, who could have actually answered them, rather than leave them all until the end to just hang in the air, like accusations that such a system could never work?

"I think we can get an answer to just about all these questions," said Commissioner Sten, who want on to say that "the system stinks."

Sten said that fundraising "does have an impact on my time on my job," and regardless of whether or not contributions influence actual votes, large contributors do get through the door more easily than individual citizens. "People instinctively sense [that] this needs to be fixed," Sten said.

He also said that the argument that such a system will favor incumbents "won't hold up as we look at other places" with reformed campaign finance. He admitted that "big money will try to find a way around it," but that the central question should be, "Is the system dramatically different than what we have?"

"I don't think there's any question," Sten added, "that Portlanders get this issue."

Continuing to try for some context, Sten went on: "I don't know that you'll ever find a moment when the argument that you shouldn't spend public money on politicians won't have some legs." But he re-iterated his earlier contention that in the future, people will look back and understand that it was the right way to do it.

"We are not solving the major problems of our community right now," Sten asserted. Structural changes, he said, would boost community support for the process and "keep civi democracy vital."

After telling "a little story" which escaped our notes and escape our memory (although we suspect it had something to do with her time in the Oreogn Legislature), Mayor Katz said: "Money does somewhat corrupt."

She argued that the influence of money on the state level can be somewhat diffused by the larger numbers of people in the Legislature, who can band together on one issue or another in ways that can counteract such possible influence. But: "I understand the perceptions of impropriety when you look at the small group of us here."

Saying she wouldn't "address the form of government," she nonetheless went on to describe it as a "dysfunctional form of government." However, she added: "I am not prepared for districts, because that will add mroe dysfunction to this form of government."

All five members of the City Council voted to adopt the Sten/Blackmer resolution as amended by Commissioner Francesconi, which directs Auditor Blackmer, Commissioner Sten, and Mayor Katz (with "technical assistance" from the City Attorney and Office of Management & Finance) to "develop a clean campaign system" for City elections.

Under the resolution, proposed Code language for such a system, as well as for "instant disclosure" of campaign contributions, must be developed by July 1, 2004. At that point, the proposal will return to City Council, who must determine whether to move forward with it, and if so whether to vote on the changes itself or refer them to the voters.

For more coverage of yesterday's hearing, see this OPB News report, and today's Oregonian article. In addition, check in with Jack Bogdanski's opinion on the proposal.

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Comments (3)

  1. brad on 09 Apr 2004

    for the record, i testified for the need of campaign finance reform. although i too see the need to get candidates off the phone and into the community, i am mainly disturbed by the lack of voice given to low income voters in our current system. not to mention low income candidates.

  2. Ehab EL SAYED AHMED on 24 Apr 2004


  3. EHAB EL SAYED AHMED on 24 Apr 2004