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March 24th, 2004 Nick Budnick | News Stories
 

The $25 Candidate

Tom Potter thinks he can be elected mayor without selling out. Is he crazy?

     
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Last fall, Chuck Duffy walked outside his Northwest Portland home and found an envelope in his mailbox. It bore an invitation to an evening of cocktails and hors d'oeuvres at the posh Multnomah Athletic Club--as well as precious face-time with the man likely to be this city's next mayor: Jim Francesconi.

In exchange for this privilege, Duffy would be required to write a $1,000 check.

"I was offended. I thought to myself, 'That's absolutely what Portland does not need,'" Duffy recalls. A few days later, the local personal-injury lawyer read about another candidate, former Police Chief Tom Potter, who was refusing any contribution above $25.

Duffy, who'd worked as an aide to former Mayor Bud Clark, had butted heads with Potter more than once. Still, for him the choice was clear. "Anybody that gives $1,000 wants something," says Duffy. "But people that give $25 don't want anything--and know they don't get anything."

The May 18 mayoral primary has drawn 23 candidates, but it's being viewed as a two-man affair. The two candidates' messages are so similar--jobs, kids, schools and lean government--that, as one campaign insider puts it, it's a matter of "vanilla versus French vanilla."

But there is one key difference: Francesconi, a six-year city commissioner, is well on his way to being the first million-dollar candidate in the history of Portland city government--an eye-popping distinction that is causing a mixture of astonishment and revulsion even among his fellow commissioners at City Hall. For many, he has become the poster child for campaign-finance reform.

In Potter, meanwhile, we have what voters say they want: a qualified candidate who can't be bought. We also have a guy who the experts say is doomed. "Politically speaking, the $25 limit was just a bad mistake," says pollster Tim Hibbits, who is neutral in this race.

But former City Commissioner Margaret Strachan was on the council 20 years ago when a bike-riding barkeep named Bud Clark challenged a well-financed incumbent mayor. She's heard the experts say Potter doesn't have a chance and has her own snarky reply: "That's what they said about Bud."

At 9 am last Saturday, as the sun burned through some vestigial morning haze, Clark himself was back in the saddle, joining Potter and two dozen supporters at Glencoe Elementary School on Southeast Belmont Street.

The silver-haired Potter stood at the side door of his white 1990 Volkswagen camper van, setting up his recumbent bicycle, the kind with a real seat that lets you recline. He wore a campaign T-shirt bearing the slogan "Vote the recumbent, not the incumbent."

He addressed his gender-balanced, bike-helmeted supporters, a sea of nylon, fleece, jeans and Lycra from which sprouted plenty of white beards, as well as some varicose veins.

"I never met a bike I didn't like!" Potter said to appreciative laughter. "We want to make a statement to Portland that there's more than one way to get around."

After pinning campaign signs to their shirts and bikes, and handing out noisemakers, the group set off and snaked through residential streets of Southeast, then Northeast. Like a mild-mannered motorcycle gang, to a soundtrack of bike bells, whistles and kazoos, they fanned out to fill a whole lane, waving at people and calling out, "Good morning!" and "Tom Potter for Mayor!"

Which might sound like fun to you, but to Ed Grosswiler, it's a sign that Potter has put his bike before the political bandwagon. You can't win an election with the votes of only people you meet. You need direct mail, television and, most important, the cash to afford it.

Grosswiler, who serves as spokesman for the Francesconi campaign, says that's the first speech he gives first-time candidates: For now, just get on the phone and raise dough. Back in '96, when he worked on Francesconi's first campaign for City Council, the advice wasn't necessary: "Jim already knew that," recalls Grosswiler.

Francesconi, who was a workers' comp lawyer and community organizer before becoming a commissioner, makes no apologies for his fundraising prowess.

"Fundraising is based on relationships," he says. "The reason I'm a good fundraiser is I have deep relationships that go back 20 years--and I work hard."

But it's not just the payoff that motivates him, Francesconi says: "I like talking to people. I don't just call people and ask for money. We talk about the city, what they want, what is good about the city, things they'd like to see changed. It's always a two-way conversation."

And his unprecedented war chest? "This is a very important position at a very important point in time," he says of the mayor's race. "I know of no other way to communicate with 500,000 citizens how to get our city back on track."

Potter, for his part, thinks this race is proof that something is wrong: "Something has changed in our society where money has become the driving issue for candidates, instead of their qualifications to hold office."

Contribution reports won't be filed for three weeks, but it's obvious what they will show. While Potter says he has raised just $36,000, Francesconi is aiming for as much as $1 million before the primary--and he's well on his way there (see "The Dollar Derby," page 20).

That would be more than any Portland mayoral candidate in history, and as much as Earl Blumenauer and Vera Katz spent combined in the primary when they went head to head in Portland's last seriously contested mayor's race, in 1992.

"I think it's fairly outrageous," says former commissioner Strachan. "For years, if you wanted to run and had something to say, you could probably raise enough money to get elected. But now elected office is out of the reach of the average John Doe."

Francesconi's dash for cash began more than a year ago, when many expected Rep. Blumenauer to make a second run at the mayor's office. By the time Blumenauer decided to stick on Capitol Hill, Francesconi's bank balance was so big it scared off other potential rivals.

"With raising that kind of money, it is assumed the candidate has already won because they can buy the election," complains Mayor Katz, who is remaining neutral in the race. "Special-interest groups will not look at any other candidate--no matter how experienced or capable."

But don't you need cash to alert voters to your campaign? Sitting in her chambers, Katz spreads her hands as if holding a foot-wide pile of money. "There's about this much you need," she says, then spreads her hands twice as wide: "This much," she says, "is obscene."

The million-dollar question is, has the money had any effect on how city officials vote at council meetings?

"Some days I think it has, some days I think it hasn't," says Katz dejectedly.

Commissioner Erik Sten says the current fundraising situation at City Hall "distorts the entire process."

"The people who can write very large checks have too much influence in the building," he says. "I don't think our government is corrupt, but I don't think it's as good as it could be if we didn't have this system of constant fundraising."

"It just seems that the money is getting beyond reason," says City Auditor Gary Blackmer, who oversees the city elections office. "When you're raising a lot of money from a lot of people, I think there are expectations that they are going to get something for their money."

Indeed, City Hall watchers say there's a growing perception in Portland of a "pay to play" system, in which developers, contractors, lawyers and others with business before the city feel pressured to give.

One reason for that perception, according to many, is Francesconi.

Last November, at Morton's steakhouse, Francesconi asked fellow City Commissioner Randy Leonard to endorse him for mayor. When Leonard balked, Francesconi said that when he was elected, "I'm going to remember who supported me early."

To Leonard, this came across as a threat. And he says contributors have complained to him that Francesconi used the same pitch with them, too. "I told him, 'Jim, you can't talk like that,'" recalls Leonard. "That may work in Chicago, but that does not work in Portland."

Leonard last week endorsed Francesconi, saying he has not heard any complaints since giving the mayoral candidate an earful.

Francesconi cops to the conversation with Leonard, but he denies using the same line with contributors. "That's not true, not that I recall, " says Francesconi. "It's not what I do."

But that has not stopped people from using terms like "relentless," "shakedown" and "strong-arming" to describe Francesconi's fundraising style.

Just ask Jim Kelly.

In 1996, in Francesconi's first council campaign, the candidate called Kelly, the owner of Rejuvenation House Parts, and asked for a donation. Kelly, whose family attended the same church as Francesconi, declined, saying he was supporting Francesconi's opponent, state lawmaker Gail Shibley. But Francesconi kept calling--at least five times in all, Kelly recalls.

One week before the election, it was clear Francesconi--who had raised twice as much as Shibley--was going to win. That's when Kelly received what he calls the "last-chance call."

"I congratulated him," Kelly recalls. "He said, 'I'm going to give you one last chance to support me.'"

Kelly says he's gotten hundreds of fundraising calls from politicos, but never one like that.

"I considered it a shakedown," says Kelly. "I don't hate the guy, but I do hate to see stuff like that happen in Oregon."

Told of Kelly's account, Francesconi says, "I don't recall doing that." He adds that because he doesn't like to be a pest, "What I could have said is, 'I won't call back again.'"

Francesconi insists that while the folks who write the big checks may get a phone call returned a bit quicker, they don't get any favors. "I have more than 1,000 contributors," he says. "I'm not beholden to anybody, because I have such varied support."

Others, however, think Francesconi has done favors for contributors. His campaign reports are rife with contributions from prominent members of the influential Portland Business Alliance--such as $10,000 from real-estate investor Melvin "Pete" Mark. That's why the commissioner's opposition in January 2003 to a resolution against the invasion of Iraq raised so many eyebrows. In explaining his position at a council meeting, Francesconi repeated almost word for word the text of a letter he'd received from the PBA opposing the resolution--this just days after he'd joined in a march to protest the invasion.

Neighborhood activists in Northwest Portland also point to the plan he introduced last August, which would have dropped six multistory parking garages in the middle of the city's most heavily populated residential area. In doing so, he overruled the recommendation of the transportation bureau he oversees but echoed a proposal backed by a major Northwest commercial property owner, Dick Singer.

Campaign reports show that Francesconi received more than $5,000 in contributions from supporters of the garage proposal, including a $500 check from Singer consultant Tim Ramis, which was received the day before Francesconi proposed the plan.

Last October, when it was clear the garage proposal would be approved by a majority of the City Council, Mayor Katz (who was joined by Commissioner Sten in opposing it) publicly complained that "the special interests have won." (The plan has since foundered due to a lack of neighborhood support.)

Last week, when told that Francesconi received several contributions at about that time from individuals and businesses that benefited from his vote, she said she couldn't say it was a quid pro quo. "You can never prove it--because people can always make excuses," said Katz. Then she sighed, saying: "It's an ugly business."

There are also contributors who may be hoping for a favor in the future. To date the city has not finalized terms under which it will take over ownership of Ross Island--which could cost the city millions of dollars in environmental liabilities stemming from the island's history as a gravel pit. The island's owner, Robert Pamplin Jr., has given money to many local officials, including Sten, but contributed an unprecedented $30,000 to Francesconi's mayoral campaign (see "The Dollar Derby," page 20).

Oddly, when the huge margin in fundraising is brought up to Potter, he seems annoyed by the focus on money that his campaign helped create. He, like Francesconi (and unlike candidates James Posey and Phil Busse) denied WW's request to let us look at his contribution reports before they're filed later this month.

"Rather than focus on who has more money, why don't you do a poll?" he asked. "You'd find that I'm even with Jim. That's the number that matters, not who has the most money."

Potter has a point. But polls also show a race where both candidates are unfamiliar to most voters, and experts say Potter's self-imposed $25 limit will allow Francesconi to define both men. "This race is a clean slate," says consultant Mark Wiener, "and Tom Potter decided not to buy any chalk."

So does the chalkless ex-chief have a chance? His best hope is to finish second in the May primary and pray that Francesconi is held to less than 50 percent of the vote. That would force a two-man runoff in November.

Francesconi's camp is downplaying the likelihood that their man will win it in May, yet given the amount of TV time they've locked up, that seems to be their intent. Records show that at KGW-TV, Francesconi has reserved $73,100 worth of commercial air time over the first two weeks of May. At KOIN, the figure is $64,130. (KATU says Francesconi's campaign has expressed interest in reserving time at that station as well.)

Potter, for his part, is pursuing what could be called a gray-gay strategy: targeting seniors who will be attracted by his age, 63, and residual name recognition, as well as a gay community that was incensed by Francesconi's public statements that "marriage" should be between a man and a woman. Potter is also tapping into networks like Portland's bike mafia, former Clark supporters and a neighborhood-activist network that feels Francesconi is in the pocket of special interests.

Hibbits, the pollster, says today's voters are "grumpy" and "disgruntled" at government, so an "outsider" like the former chief could conceivably surprise.

And if Potter makes the runoff, says his supporter Duffy, then "it's a whole new ballgame." Media outlets that have largely ignored the primary would start to pay attention, and the pressure would be on Potter to raise his contribution cap to $250 or so--which would make the same philosophical statement. There also has been talk of an independent "anyone but Jim" campaign by wealthy individuals who don't like Francesconi.

Potter's $25 cap "is almost a scientific experiment," says Blackmer, the city auditor. "Can someone actually run a race on that principle, without a lot of money, against someone who has a lot of money and name recognition--and win?"

Even the chief's supporters aren't sure of the answer. "I understand why he's doing it, and I think it's noble and great," says Duffy. "But I kinda wish he wasn't doing it. I don't know how realistic it is."

TRYING ON A NEW CAP

If you want to help put someone in the White House, federal election law limits you to $2,000 in contributions per election. But if you want to help put someone in Portland's City Hall, you can write a check for whatever you want. Under Oregon law, contributions are considered a form of speech, and thus protected from limits.

That's why City Auditor Gary Blackmer and City Commissioner Erik Sten are working on the idea of voluntary limits on contributions in exchange for public money. Candidates who demonstrate widespread grassroots support--say, by turning in $5 checks from 500 voters--would be granted a certain level of city funding to get their message out.

In Tucson, where a similar system is in place, participating mayoral candidates can accept contributions no larger than $350 from an individual and can spend no more than $143,000. The city matches every dollar of private money they raise.

Commissioner Randy Leonard is "intrigued" by the idea. Mayor Vera Katz likes it "in spirit." So does Jim Francesconi--if, he says, it doesn't interfere with getting his message out.

The matter will be discussed by the City Council at its April 7 meeting. If the concept is approved, Blackmer and Sten will work with the city attorney on a measure to put before Portland voters. --NB

THE DOLLAR DERBY

Tom Potter is not the only candidate to make an issue out of campaign finance reform. So is Phil Busse, managing editor of the Portland Mercury, and James Posey, a contractor and owner of Eliot E-mat deli on Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

Busse limited his campaign to $100 contributions and has raised about $4,000, not including $2,000 he has loaned to himself (see "The Campaign Busse," page 11). Posey has raised more than $6,000. (See "Paving a Trail," March 10, 2004).

Last week, in addition to allowing WW to look at their contribution records, Busse and Posey took advantage of a little-known law allowing them to review Francesconi's campaign books. By prearranged appointment, they took the elevator to the 34th floor of the U.S. Bank building and the offices of the Miller Nash law firm. There, the campaign's treasurer sat them down at a table bearing a hefty stack of pages listing contributions and expenditures.

As Busse and Posey thumbed through the pages, with figures of $1,000, $5,000 and $20,000 contributions jumping out at them, a sinking feeling came over them.

"I feel sort of like the Taliban, just waiting for the war machine to roll out," quipped Posey. Busse admits to being "a little bit shell-shocked."

The two rivals report that Francesconi's roster of thousand-dollar donors looks like a list of the city's top contractors, developers, union leaders and lobbyists. Not only that, but they are giving unprecedented amounts.

For example, Busse says Robert Pamplin Jr., the owner of Ross Island Sand and Gravel and the Portland Tribune, has given Francesconi $30,000. Harsch Investments, owned by the affluent Schnitzer family, has given $10,000.

"James' and my entire campaign totals don't even add up to Harsch's contribution to Francesconi," Busse says. "That's a little dispiriting."

According to Busse, Francesconi has taken in $743,000 in cash contributions and as much as $110,000 more in non-cash donations. After spending roughly $300,000, Francesconi has a cash balance approaching $500,000. Among his expenditures is $25,000 paid to Lisa Grove. Told that Grove is a pollster, Busse sounds even more dejected: "He spent $25,000 just on polling?" --NB

A TALE OF TWO CAMPAIGNS

Tom Potter's brochure is a thin piece of two-color cardstock. Jim Francesconi hands out a glossy, eight-page, full-color brochure.

That's not the only way in which the gap in their budgets can be seen. Potter's campaign, wedged into the first floor of a house on Southeast Belmont Street, has two full-time employees, including a campaign manager, Marlis Miller, who has never been more than a political volunteer. Francesconi, meanwhile, has relatively spacious digs on Northeast Glisan Street, where five full-time paid staffers toil. His campaign manager, Phil Donovan, has directed statewide campaigns, including Measure 28, last year's rejected income-tax hike.

Francesconi also has some high-priced outside talent, such as Washington, D.C.-based national consultant Dixon/Davis Media Group, which is producing television ads; Rich Schlackman, considered the dean of direct mail, who helped elect Bill Clinton and, more recently, Gavin Newsom, the mayor of San Francisco; Lori Hardwick, a Republican fundraiser who works for Sen. Gordon Smith and whose husband, Dan Lavey, heads Bush's 2004 Oregon campaign; and Lisa Grove, a pollster who has worked for Sen. Ron Wyden and Gov. Ted Kulongoski. --NB


Political strategists say a commitment of $200,000 in contributions was the price of admission for a candidate to be taken seriously in this year's mayor's race.

Greg Nickels won the mayorship of Seattle in 2001 with $541,969 in total contributions. His opponent, incumbent Paul Schell, raised $384,580.

In Milwaukee's mayoral primary last month, the first-place vote-getter, Marvin Pratt, raised $289,026 and the runner-up, Tom Barrett, raised $896,463.

The deadline for registering to vote in the primary is April 27. Ballots are mailed out at the end of April and must be returned by May 18. See http://www.co.multnomah.or.us/dbcs/elections for more information.

On March 26, Francesconi is filming a campaign commercial featuring children recruited from families of friends and acquaintances.

In the November 2000 election, 57 percent of Portland voters favored Measure 6, a statewide campaign-reform measure featuring public financing. Statewide, the measure lost.

 
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