Portland Commissioner Amanda Fritz wants to spend $1.2 million a year in public money to pay for City Council candidates' campaigns. Part of her reasoning: First-time, female and minority candidates can't raise enough money on their own to challenge incumbents or beat wealthy white men who've dominated City Hall elections since Portland's founding.

But Election Day—and Chloe Eudaly—shredded that narrative.

Eudaly's upset of Portland City Commissioner Steve Novick on Nov. 8 shows again that an outsider candidate with a modest budget but a strong message and a creative campaign can break through to Portland voters. Novick outspent Eudaly 6 to 1, but mostly squandered his $600,000 budget on polling, consultants and mailers.

Eudaly won by 10 percentage points, upending the conventional wisdom that her squadron of door-to-door canvassers and fliers hand-drawn by cartoonist Joe Sacco couldn't get her enough name recognition to oust Novick.

Now her victory raises fresh questions about the need in Portland for public campaign financing—a concept that Portland voters narrowly rejected in 2010.

It may also make reform seem less urgent and raise anew the question of whether voters themselves should decide whether to enact the program or whether the City Council can implement the program unilaterally, as Fritz would like.

Even critics of public campaign finance, though, say it would be a mistake to ignore the political winds behind Eudaly, the same desire for change that helped President-elect Donald J. Trump. "She is a function of something very large that was happening in the election," says veteran lobbyist Len Bergstein. "The financing of the election is not the thing that is the fundamental driver behind that."

The program Fritz now hopes to enact is different from Portland's previous experiment in campaign financing.

Its aim is to amplify the voices of small donors by providing $6 in matching funds for every $1 in individual contributions, up to $50 per donor. Candidates who volunteer to participate also would agree to limit individual contributions to $250 and accept an overall cap on contributions as well.

Election results last week suggest Portland voters are eager for campaign finance reform. Almost 90 percent of voters in Multnomah County approved a charter change that limits campaign contributions in county races.

Eudaly backs Fritz's plan, and says her win doesn't undermine the need for change: "My circumstances were not remotely typical and are unlikely to be replicated—even for me."

It's true that she ran against a vulnerable incumbent, signed on a onetime aide to former Commissioner Erik Sten to guide her campaign, and already had successfully organized a community of supporters concerned about the housing crisis.

But it remains to be seen whether voters would again spend taxpayer money on city campaigns if given the chance.

"I don't think there's any harm in asking, what does this race tell us?" says Debbie Aiona of Portland's League of Women Voters, speaking as an individual. "I just think there's something different about this year that allowed her to run and win against an incumbent."

Chloe Eudaly (Christine Dong)
Chloe Eudaly (Christine Dong)

Rewind to five days before Election Day and a Eudaly victory seemed unfathomable, even to her. The owner of Reading Frenzy bookstore, Eudaly is a single mom, a high school dropout and a renter who says she's never paid herself more than $36,000 a year. She'd never run for office before but felt inspired to fight for more affordable housing and better tenant protections in Portland.

Mayor Charlie Hales, speaking at City Hall on Nov. 3 about why he thinks Portland needs public campaign financing, said much had changed in Portland politics since he won a position as a city commissioner in 1992— the last time a newbie ousted a Portland incumbent.

"It was possible then for a new candidate who hadn't run for office before to run a shoe-leather campaign on a modest budget and win," he said. "Can anyone say that's still true?"

Eudaly herself testified, saying her campaign should be a case study. "I have struggled to raise enough money to run a competitive campaign," she said.

Five days later, she beat Novick.

Eudaly's victory isn't without precedent. Tom Potter beat then-Commissioner Jim Francesconi for the job of Portland mayor in 2004 after limiting donations to $25 in the May primary. Bud Clark, a barkeep, famously swept Mayor Frank Ivancie from office in 1984.

Advocates for public campaign finance say three upsets do not an effective system make. Two of those wins still went to white men, for example. No woman of color has ever held office at Portland City Hall.

Kate Titus, executive director of Common Cause of Oregon, says public campaign finance also would reshape candidates' focus. "The current big-money system incentivizes most candidates to spend their time reaching out to a narrow set of wealthy interests," she says.

Steve Novick gets a consoling hug on election night. (Maya Setton)
Steve Novick gets a consoling hug on election night. (Maya Setton)

Yet Fritz's proposal hasn't received an entirely warm reception at City Hall. Mayor-elect Ted Wheeler, who raised about $1 million for his campaign, has said he has different priorities. Commissioner Nick Fish has wondered aloud whether commissioners should be tapping taxpayer funding to pay for their own campaigns. And Commissioner Dan Saltzman has said he supports sending the question to voters.

Meanwhile, City Hall's top watchdog has raised concerns about proposed management of the program.

Portland's independently elected auditor, Mary Hull Caballero, oversees Portland's elections. But those responsibilities are minor, and Hull Caballero says her office isn't in the position to take on a complicated, highly visible and politicized bureaucracy.

"The city has no room for error," she says.

Fritz says she's taken into account the failings of Portland's old system, which got its start in 2005. That system gave $145,000 to candidates for commissioner, mayor and auditor in the May primary who collected signatures and $5 contributions from at least 1,000 voters. Candidates who advanced to a November runoff got more.

The system was subject to abuse, most famously by candidate Emilie Boyles, who used public money to pay her teenage daughter $12,500, and Boyles' consultant, Vladimir Golovan, who faked voter signatures for Boyles.

It was also subject to ridicule, including in 2010, when a publicly financed candidate named Jesse Cornett got just 8 percent of the vote after spending $160,000.

The old system, sometimes called "voter-owned elections," also scored a victory. Fritz tapped the system in 2006 for her own failed bid to unseat Saltzman. She used it again in 2008—this time successfully—to win an open seat left by then-Commissioner Sam Adams.

Fritz declined to comment for this story.

Amanda Fritz and Charlie Hales (Emily Joan Greene)
Amanda Fritz and Charlie Hales (Emily Joan Greene)

At the Nov. 3 hearing, Novick revealed another motivation for supporting the proposal, which heads back to the City Council for a second hearing in December.

Speaking on behalf of other candidates, Novick said he needed more of a financial incentive to talk to regular voters, acknowledging he spent most of his time fundraising among homeowners who could write big checks because it wasn't worth his time to collect small checks from renters. "We spend too much time talking to people with money and not enough time talking to people without money," he told his colleagues. "This would even it out."

Portlanders' vote for Eudaly was a signal they wanted change. The same kinds of forces could come together to propel another outsider to City Hall, says Portland pollster John Horvick. But that won't be the norm, he says.

"Over the long term, well-financed campaigns with strong name recognition are going to be more successful," he says.

Having waited until after Novick's election to force the issue, Fritz gave Portland voters a fuller picture of what's possible in Portland politics.

"People who believe in public campaign finance think it's a cure-all," says former Commissioner Randy Leonard, "and I don't think it is."