Last September, a volunteer with Multnomah County Commissioner Loretta Smith's campaign began asking Multnomah County Democrats to give Smith a privilege the party reserved for candidates officially running for office.
The request teed up a conflict:
The Multnomah County charter prohibits commissioners from running for another position prior to their final year in office. That meant if Smith began running for city council last September, she should have resigned her county seat.
Emails obtained by WW show that Jerome Brooks, a former staffer for Smith at the county, approached the Multnomah County Democrats asking for access to the party's voter database that helps candidates track what individual voters to target for knocking on doors and phone banking.
At the time, the county party had a policy that required Democrats to file to run before getting access to the data tool called the "voter activation network," or VAN, developed for Barack Obama's first run for the White House and used by Democrats across the country since.
But Brooks sought special consideration for Smith, because she was hamstrung by the county charter.
"I would think the County Party would…allow exception for the few people who would be caught in this predicament," Brooks emailed on Sept. 5, 2017.
Brooks' email exchange with party officials offer one more indication that Smith was campaigning in September, despite her denials to the contrary.
"You're not going to ask for VAN access if you don't have an active campaign running," says former Multnomah Democratic Party's Tracee Larson, who was chair of the campaign candidate liaison committee.
State officials last month determined that Smith had in fact launched her candidacy for the seat being vacated by City Commissioner Dan Saltzman last year, even though she claimed otherwise.
The Oregon Secretary of State's election division fined her $250 for failing to properly register her campaign committee.
But it remains an open question whether Smith will have to resign her county seat for violating the charter's rules. Smith maintains that, under legal advice she received from the county, she could retain her seat so long as she didn't file. Smith officially filed for the City Council race on Jan. 2.
Brooks' emails with the Multnomah Democratic Party show Smith's campaign volunteer sought access to the voter database even before Saltzman announced he wasn't going to run again.
In the Sept. 5 email, sent a week to the day Saltzman shocked City Hall with his retirement announcement, Brooks explained his original request for VAN access this way:
"As [Smith] is currently a sitting County Commissioner, she won't actually file for election until January 1, 2018, as she would have to resign her seat to file for another office before January 1st," Brooks wrote. "We'd like to get access to the voter file as soon as possible."
Larson turned Brooks down, citing party policy restricted the VAN to official candidates.
A week later, Brooks tried again.
"Loretta will file for Portland City Council seat #3, currently held by Commissioner Dan Saltzman," Brooks wrote on Sept. 12. "She made her announcement public earlier today and her website landing page is already up – www.lorettaforportland.com."
Larson resigned her post in September. Since then, the Democrats offered Smith access to the VAN in part based on the advice of the Democratic Party of Oregon.
DPO executive director Brad Martin says he advised the county party to give Smith VAN access in order to be more inclusive.
"We want to encourage candidates to do grassroots outreach," Martin says. "We encourage [county parties] to give them access when there's a reasonable expectation they will be candidates."
On Nov. 13, the Smith campaign cut a $750 check to the DPO for "voter database access."
Asked why Smith would seek access to a voter database if she wasn't campaigning already, Smith campaign spokesman Jake Weigler said the campaign needed it for research purposes.
"It was necessary to renew the Commissioner's voter file subscription to maintain access to her data in the file and analyze the makeup of the electorate," he says.
Here is the email correspondence (email addresses and phone numbers were removed):
Read from the bottom.
———- Forwarded message ———-
From: Jerome Brooks
Date: Tue, Sep 12, 2017 at 5:30 PM
Subject: Re: VAN Access
To: Tracee Larson
Cc: Josh Latto Hi Tracee,
Thanks for the quick response. Loretta will file for Portland City Council seat #3, currently held by Commissioner Dan Saltzman. She made her announcement public earlier today and her website landing page is already up – www.lorettaforportland.com. I think Multnomah County is one of the few jurisdictions that actually requires a sitting elected official to resign to seek office, so I would think the County Party would take this into account and allow exception for the few people who would be caught in this predicament. Loretta not only has a longstanding commitment to both the Democratic Party of Oregon and the Multnomah County Democrats, but is also currently a member of the State Central Committee. I don’t say that for special treatment, but to recognize that she isn’t just person who has been committed to the party here for a short time or one that has shown any indication of switching parties. If you have any additional questions, please let me know.
Jerome On Tue, Sep 12, 2017 at 5:17 PM, Tracee Larson wrote: Hi Jerome, While I completely understand that Loretta can’t file until January 1 without resigning, we have not allowed VAN access to any Democrat who hasn’t filed for a seat. That is for a multitude of reasons, including a) VAN access is tiered to the boundaries of what seat someone has officially filed for, and b) we have other Democratic alliances (such as Future PAC) who are much more selective of which Democrats gets VAN access that if we gave to someone who would then use it in a manner that contradicts what our alliances stipulate, we then burn some major bridges with alliance partners. Also, if we give VAN access to a Democrat who hasn’t officially filed for a seat, then we have to open that process up to any Democrat who asks, and if they get VAN access and then decide not to file for anything or maybe they decide to switch parties, then we’ve allowed them key access to voter files and information that could be used against our own party. I know that Loretta would never do that, but breaking precedent for one means we have to open it up to all who could very well abuse the system. There is no mention in your request about what seat she intends to file for, and even then, an intention to run is just that – intention. Without true filed documents, the VAN access could very well be compromised by opening it up to all. Another perspective – giving VAN access to folks who haven’t filed is not fair to those who have officially filed for a seat and asked for VAN access. Many of those people take a hiatus from their own paid jobs to run for office and by giving access to someone who hasn’t officially committed to file and run for a seat may position the party in such a way that it may appear we’re offering favors to elected Democrats and suspending rules that have been in place for a long time. I’m more than happy to send your request to the County Party officers for consideration, once you’ve let me know what seat Loretta plans to run for. Thanks,
Traces On Tue, Sep 12, 2017 at 5:00 PM, Jerome Brooks wrote: Hi Tracee, Rachel, from the DPO, gave me a personal email address for you once I told her I had been unsuccessful in reaching you. See below. Look forward to talking soon. Thanks,
Jerome ———- Forwarded message ———-
From: Jerome Brooks
Date: Tue, Sep 5, 2017 at 3:41 PM
Subject: VAN Access
To: [Multnomah County Democrats Elections]
Cc: [Democratic Party of Oregon It] Hi Tracee! I hope all is well. I spoke with Josh over at the DPO about getting access to the voter file for Multnomah County Commissioner Loretta Smith and he suggested I reach out to you as a starting point. Loretta has had access to the voter file in her last two elections and of course is a big supporter of the Democratic Party. As she is currently a sitting County Commissioner, she won’t actually file for election until January 1, 2018, as she would have to resign her seat to file for another office before January 1st. We’d like to get access to the voter file as soon as possible. Thanks,
— Jerome A. Brooks