With potential 2008 City Council candidates already hinting they'll ask Portland taxpayers to fund their campaigns, one of the original backers of the city's "voter-owned elections" is stepping up to defend the system.

Carol Cushman, president of the League of Women Voters of Portland, says despite the chaos that the public campaign-finance system brought in the 2006 election, it's still the best way to break Big Money's grip on local politics.

Transportation activist Chris Smith and Portland Public Schools Development Director John Branam, both potential candidates, say they'll use the system to fund their campaigns. So does declared candidate Charles Lewis, owner of the Portland Duck Boats tour company. The law provides public money to candidates who collect a signature and $5 from 1,000 registered voters.

The system came under heavy fire after candidates Lucinda Tate and Emilie Boyles turned in fake signatures in 2006, and again when Slavic activist Volodymyr Golovan was sentenced Sept. 4 to nine months in jail in connection with Tate's campaign.

Cushman, a 62-year-old retired Portland Public Schools teacher at the former Gregory Heights Middle School, says the system can work if the city provides real oversight this time.

WW: What good are voter-owned elections?
We feel there is a need to get special-interest moneys out of the campaigns, so that candidates can put their energies into worrying about the grassroots or the ordinary citizen—being accountable to the voters instead of being accountable to the people they need to fundraise with.

But doesn't old-school politics also help weed out candidates with no credibility?
I think we've got people that are not capable of putting together huge sums of money. It does not necessarily mean they don't have credibility. I do not think it is possible for someone to make it through the [voter-owned elections] system here in Portland legitimately, without also being credible.

What about Emilie Boyles? She got $145,000.
That is true, and she should not have made it through the system. I think there was an eagerness to certify people. And I think the safeguards were actually there if they had been used properly.

Do you blame City Auditor Gary Blackmer?
No comment.

Why not?
As president of the League, I just do not want to be quoted making that kind of a statement. I guess what I could say is that there needs to be aggressive oversight on the part of those responsible.

Critics say the system should have been approved by voters instead of City Council.
I think that we elect our representatives, or councilmen, to make decisions. Our state Legislature has done that a lot in recent years—instead of being willing to take a stand, they instead refer it to the voters. A true representative government does not do that.

This time around the rules were stiffened, and signatures have to be from registered voters. Is that enough to stop scammers?
I don't know. I hope so. I hope all people involved will be watching more closely this cycle. There will probably be someone that is going to try another loophole, but my hope is that it would be caught. That's just my feeling of human nature. There is always going to be someone out there who is going to look for a loophole.

Do you expect a lot of candidates will try for public funding?
We know that [City Councilman Randy] Leonard has refiled for his seat. If Potter decides to run for mayor again, I would expect that [City Councilman Sam] Adams would again run for his seat on the council [instead of trying for mayor]. So if those three are all running, I do not expect a large number of candidates to file. However, if there are in effect two open seats [Adams' and Potter's], I would expect that there will be a large number of candidates, and with a large number of candidates, I would expect a fair number of them to attempt to use the system.

Even after what happened last time?
My main hope is that we can move beyond hearing about Boyles and Golovan, and hearing instead about the new candidates.