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June 1st, 2005 Zach Dundas | News Stories
 

CUTTING CAMPAIGN CHECKS

How Portland's new campaign-money rules have worked elsewhere.

     
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IMAGE: ERIC KILKENNY
Barring a last-minute petition frenzy in the next couple of weeks, Portland will become the first city in America to offer full public campaign funding to give taxpayer money to qualifying City Hall candidates.

Supporters of Portland's new system say the option will attract more diverse candidates and curb big money's influence. Foes say it's a boondoggle in the making.

Arizona and Maine have offered public funds to state candidates for several years.If past is prologue, here's what's happened in those two states to illustrate the reform's promises-and potential problems.

In 2002, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat, used public funds to narrowly beat a Republican who didn't tap taxpayer money.

In Maine, despite minor abuses, public financing-which voters established by initiative in 1996-is highly popular. Nearly 80 percent of state legislative candidates in 2004 used public campaign money.

State Rep. Deborah Pelletier-Simpson, a Democrat, was a waitress and single mom when she waged her first campaign in 2000. Now she's the chair of Maine's House Judiciary Committee. "I was living in poverty," she says. "It's safe to say that I wouldn't be here if it weren't for public financing."

Candidates for the Maine House need to collect 50 checks to qualify for $4,000. Based on her experience, Pelletier-Simpson says Portland shouldn't expect the flood of free-spending novelty candidates some critics predict.

"Getting 50 checks sounds easy, but it isn't," she says.

Other stories aren't so heartwarming.

In 2003, the Tucson Citizen detailed public-financing abuses that included three thirtysomething Libertarians buying booze and hiring goofy-costumed canvassers for a "youth-oriented" campaign.

One candidate used public money to pay his Screen Actors Guild dues. Several legislative hopefuls put family members on the payroll as consultants. This March, the Arizona elections commission kicked a state representative out of office for exceeding the financing system's funding limits.

Portland City Auditor Gary Blackmer, who along with Commissioner Erik Sten wrote the city's new campaign rules, says public money can be monitored. Blackmer notes that Arizona's wrongdoers were caught-the Libertarians, for instance, had to give the money back.

A seven-person commission appointed by Portland's mayor and council will govern Portland's system. Along with the auditor's office, it will have the power to fine misbehaving candidates and recapture misspent funds.

"If a candidate has a brother who suddenly becomes a political expert,'' Blackmer says, "ultimately they'll have to pay the money back."


The Portland City Council voted to give qualifying council candidates up to $350,000 in public funds-if they can get $5 checks from 1,000 supporters. Future mayoral hopefuls could get as much as $450,000 if they can collect 1,500 checks for $5. Participating candidates can't raise other funds.

The Oregon Restaurant Association flirted with a petition drive to refer the council decision to the ballot. But the powerful lobby appears to be backing down, as public-finance supporters lean on local restaurateurs.

 
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