Gonzalez Criticizes Small Donor Elections Program, Saying It “Makes a Bit of a Joke” of Mayoral Election

The city commissioner criticized the program for reducing available matching funds for mayoral candidates.

Commissioner Rene Gonzalez at a campaign house party. (Blake Benard)

Portland City Commissioner Rene Gonzalez, who is running for mayor this fall, went after the Small Donor Elections program at a City Council meeting earlier this month, saying that the program has failed at its mission to take big money out of Portland politics.

“It’s going to make a bit of a joke of this election,” Gonzalez said at the meeting.

The program makes it possible for candidates to run for city office while relying on small campaign contributions, matching the first $20 Portlanders give by 9 to 1 with taxpayer dollars. In January, the program announced reductions in available matching funds for candidates, citing potential underfunding and a drastic increase in the number of people running (a result of the charter reform that added eight more City Council seats and split the city into four geographic voting districts).

Mayoral candidates can now only receive up to $100,000 in matching funds, down 86% from an initial $750,000. City Council candidates are capped at $120,000 in matching funds. That ruffled the feathers of mayoral candidate Gonzalez, who pointed out that City Council candidates will only be vying for the votes in their district, whereas mayoral hopefuls will be vying for votes from all Portlanders.

“Mayors have to run citywide, [City Council] seats have to run in a fourth of a city,” Gonzalez told his colleagues. “And they doubled down and more significantly reduced the mayor’s cap versus the City Council cap.”

The Small Donor Elections program asked for an additional $5.7 million from the City Council in order to avoid reducing match caps, but the council has offered no such increase in subsequent budget cycles—including in Mayor Ted Wheeler’s proposed budget, which his colleagues unanimously approved last week.

At the May 8 meeting, Gonzalez said that lowering the mayoral match cap so steeply felt “borderline manipulative” to the current City Council, since they’re being asked to vote on the budget of a program that four of them are using to run for office in November. (In addition to Gonzalez, Commissioners Carmen Rubio and Mingus Mapps are running for mayor; Commissioner Dan Ryan is running for City Council.)

Initially, City Attorney Robert Taylor advised the City Council not to vote on adding more money to Small Donor Elections. But Taylor changed his tune when the Oregon Government Ethics Commission issued an informal opinion in January stating that the current City Council could, in fact, vote on the program’s budget without having a conflict of interest.

Gonzalez said the City Council’s failure to fully fund the program in this year’s budget will only make independent expenditure committees, which can independently pour unlimited money into fighting or promoting any candidate, more powerful. Independent expenditures, he says, defeat the purpose of the program.

Gonzalez knows of what he speaks: He benefited from an independent expenditure of $150,000 in support of his campaign against incumbent City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty in 2022. The donors included big names in Portland business, like scrap metal yard president Warren Rosenfeld, the Benson Hotel, Standard Insurance, and the Menashe family, which owns commercial properties in downtown Portland.

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