Multnomah County Circuit Judge Thomas Ryan this afternoon rejected a legal argument that would have blocked Mayor Ted Wheeler from spending most of the campaign funds he has raised.
Ryan said attorneys representing challenger Sarah Iannarone and other plaintiffs failed to demonstrate a specific harm that would come from Wheeler spending the disputed funds.
"What plaintiffs seek is tantamount to prior restraint," Ryan said in a ruling from the bench. "Motion denied."
Iannarone and her co-plaintiffs earlier this week filed a lawsuit against Wheeler's campaign, seeking to block his use of campaign funds gathered in contributions larger than $500, the limit Portland voters approved in 2018.
After the Oregon Supreme Court ruled April 23 that contribution limits were constitutional (overturning a 1997 case that held they were not), campaign finance reformers and Iannarone's attorneys sought to clamp down on Wheeler's campaign war chest.
That effort was complicated by an April 28 statement from City Elections Officer Deborah Scroggin, who said her office would begin enforcing the $500 limit but not until May 4 and then only prospectively. That meant Scroggin would not penalize Wheeler for the many contributions exceeding $500 he accepted earlier.
This morning, attorneys representing Iannarone and the other plaintiffs asked for a temporary restraining order, the effect of which would have been to stop Wheeler from spending all the money he'd raised from contributions in excess of $500.
The Wheeler campaign's attorney, Harry Wilson of the Markowitz Herbold firm, filed a 15-page response arguing why the temporary restraining order should not be granted.
In court this afternoon, Wilson told Judge Ryan that granting the plaintiffs' request would be an unprecedented interference in the electoral process.
"This will shut down a campaign three weeks before the election," Wilson said.
In a surreal proceeding where only one of the five lawyers arguing in front of Ryan—Alan Kessler, representing Iannarone—was physically present, Ryan agreed with the Wheeler campaign's arguments.
Ryan's decision marked a ray of good news for the mayor's reelection bid, a day after the Wheeler campaign sent out a mailer that contained some information that was false: a claim that Commissioner Chloe Eudaly has endorsed Wheeler (she hasn't).
There was also social media consternation over another part of the mailer, which showed endorsements from the Portland Timbers and Thorns. Merritt Paulson, who owns the teams, expressed surprise on Twitter about those endorsements. But the Wheeler campaign produced an official endorsement form that Mike Golub, the president of both teams, signed on March 23.
After Ryan's ruling today, Wheeler said he'd like to focus on the campaign.
"Today a judge rejected the politically motivated attempt by one of my opponents to use the court to advance her campaign," Wheeler said in a statement. "The simple fact is that our campaign opted out of using taxpayer dollars to fund our election efforts. We have followed the existing laws, implemented self-imposed contribution limits, and adopted new limits of $500 in advance of the City's implementation of that rule, in effect on May 4. From the beginning we have followed the law and adjusted when courts have made new rulings."
Innarone's campaign issued a statement, as well.
"We view Ted Wheeler's insistence on defending his illegal contributions as a distraction from the issues people care about most such as homelessness, housing, traffic, affordability, and public safety," Iannarone said. "While the mayor will be able to spend his illegal contributions, for the time being, we still hold the remedy of the ballot box where we expect the people of Portland will reject this arrogance."
Ballots for the May 19 primary should now have reached nearly all Portland voters.