IMAGE: EBEN DICKINSON
So it struck many observers as odd that the small, underfinanced Multnomah County Libertarian Party emerged last week as the lead public player in a petition drive aimed at derailing Portland's bid to acquire Oregon's largest utility.
After City Council voted itself authority to issue $3 billion in bonds toward the purchase of PGE, Libertarians formed a self-described "coalition" called "Ask the Voters First." The group is circulating petitions to require a May 2006 vote on the bonding authority.
A couple of oddities about the Libs' opposition to the public-power push led by Commissioner Erik Sten with Mayor Tom Potter's support:
First, they waited about a week after the council's July 5 vote to get started. The Libertarians must persuade nearly 18,000 registered Portland voters to sign the petition by Aug. 5. Libertarian state party executive director Richard Burke says the push will rely on direct mail and the party's website rather than the traditional army of street-corner signature gatherers.
"Judging from the late start and the apparent lack of professional campaign personnel, it doesn't look like a serious effort," says Ted Blaszak, an initiative-campaign organizer based in Washougal, Wash.
Second, if it is serious, the snap campaign will need big money. And the Libertarian Party, which has about 3,000 members in Multnomah County, doesn't appear to have much cash. According to documents filed with the state elections division, the state party ended 2004 with $7,054.15 on hand. (The county party's financial statement is unavailable.) Burke says the petition drive has a budget of about $100,000 but declined to disclose its sources.
If that's not enough to induce head-scratching, the Libertarians (and their mystery backers) aren't alone in the political maneuvers around PGE.
On July 7, Ken Rust, the city's chief financial officer, took a call about the petition system from William Ohle, a lawyer with the prominent Portland firm Schwabe Williamson & Wyatt. While Ohle confirms the call, he won't say whom he was working for-but he says it wasn't the Libertarians.
Meanwhile, a potential sugar daddy for the petition drive surfaced Monday. The public-relations firm Gard & Gerber-which has long represented PGE and orchestrated a ballot campaign against a proposed Portland public utility district in 2003-announced that prominent local businessmen had formed the Committee to Support PGE. The committee includes Tom Walsh, the local frontman for Texas Pacific's failed effort to buy PGE, and former PGE president Dick Reiten.
The new group supports redistributing PGE stock to Enron creditors. PGE executives want that redistribution, which would kill the city's purchase.
In addition to endorsing the Libertarians' effort, the Committee to Support PGE is cooking up a separate initiative campaign to stop a city purchase. The group would need more than 26,600 signatures by January 2006 to qualify for the May ballot.
All this comes as the city's parley with Enron heats up: On Monday, Sten met with Enron's acting CEO, Stephen Cooper, for 90 minutes in New York, with Potter participating by phone. The substance of the discussion isn't known.
WW reporter Nigel Jaquiss contributed reporting for this story.