The upcoming re-election campaigns of Commissioners Nick Fish and Dan Saltzman will be the last test of public campaign financing for City Council races before voters decide in November whether to keep the relatively new system.

And with the Jan. 29 deadline looming for candidates to qualify in the May primary for $150,000 in public financing, none of the challengers to those two incumbents appears to have a lock on the money. They each need 1,000 signatures and matching $5 donations from registered Portland voters to qualify.

That's a big contrast to 2008, when six candidates, five of them seeking an open seat, qualified for funding in the May primary. Two then qualified for funding in the November general election, for a total cost to taxpayers of $1.2 million. But a gathering last Friday night of four Saltzman challengers seeking public campaign financing shows Commissioner Amanda Fritz that the setup remains a success. Fritz is the first and only city commissioner to win election with public funding, in 2008.

"To me it's working because it's available," Fritz says. "Citizens have a realistic chance of running for City Council and winning."

All four candidates who showed up at Northeast Alberta Street's Dough Nation pizza tent (you can't really call it a food cart) want to unseat Saltzman, a three-term incumbent who has lately angered some Portlanders for his management of the Portland Police Bureau. In November, Saltzman reversed an earlier decision to place the officer at the center of James Chasse's 2006 death on administrative leave, pending an investigation into the officer's shooting a beanbag at a 12-year-old girl Nov. 14.

But a visitor to the pizza tent Jan. 8 wouldn't have thought the public finance system was being used to outgun a sitting commissioner.

As of Friday, none of the four candidates—mental health advocate Jason Renaud, ex-Portland State University lobbyist Jesse Cornett, former longtime city employee Mary Volm, and Spencer Burton, a mason—was close to gathering the minimum number of signatures or $5 contributions to qualify. (Family therapist Ed Garren, a fifth candidate, did not appear at the event. Candidate No. 6, Rudy Soto, a Fish intern and former student-body president at Portland State University, announced on Jan. 11 he will run.)

All except Burton were optimistic they would make it by the Jan. 29 deadline.

"I've got a good clip going," says Volm, who got 11 donations and signatures at the aptly named Dough Nation. "Everyone thinks it's doable."

When it comes to hustle Jim Middaugh—once chief of staff to former Commissioner Erik Sten—is something of a model. In his race to replace Sten when Sten resigned midterm in 2008, Middaugh collected almost 1,600 signatures in about three weeks. (Not that it mattered, since Fish—who spurned public finance to raise about $160,000—beat Middaugh.)

Fritz says gathering signatures and $5 donations is not as easy as it looks. In part that's because the fundraising also comes with a hefty amount of paperwork.

"It's a lot harder than it sounds," she says. "And if you think it's easy, you've never tried."

In 2005, Sten, then-Mayor Tom Potter, Saltzman and then-Commissioner Sam Adams voted 4-1 to create public financing for city candidates. The idea was to refer the system to voters after Portlanders had tested it three times. Commissioner Randy Leonard was the only "no" vote. "I believed it needed authorization from voters," he says now.

In 2006, Saltzman faced what initially appeared to be a tough re-election campaign after he angered neighborhood activists with a decision to cover the Mount Tabor reservoir. But, despite drawing six opponents, Saltzman won handily.

As of Jan. 11, Saltzman hadn't officially announced he would run in 2010. But he had a campaign manager, and he appeared poised to begin collecting private donations in earnest.

Fish, who has already collected donations this cycle from the Perkins Coie law firm, R.B. Pamplin Corp. and the Trail Blazers, also hadn't officially declared his intention to run. Only one of Fish's four challengers, Sylvia Evans, has said she intends to seek public financing.


Portland's public campaign fund currently has about $731,000.