The largest independent expenditure so far in this spring's election cycle is $90,000 spent on a TV attack ad.
The campaign commercial, which began airing by May 1, accuses former Rep. Shemia Fagan of hypocrisy in her crusade to overturn Oregon's statewide ban on rent control.
Fagan is seeking to unseat incumbent state Sen. Rod Monroe in the Democratic primary.
But Monroe didn't pay for the ad.
Instead, a political action committee spent the money in a Democratic primary that's turned into a knock-down, drag-out fight over the future of housing policy in Oregon.
The reasons for the expenditure are clear: The funders want to keep the rent-control ban in place. But the individuals behind the campaign contributions are far more opaque.
It's surprisingly easy for large out-of-state interests to influence Oregon politics from behind several smokescreens.
Dan Meek, a lawyer and advocate for campaign finance reform, expressed alarm that the ad fails to fully disclose its funders. "It says that democracy is in peril, if not in death throes," says Meek.
The ad and the campaign contributions that led up to it provide a window into the way interest groups try to influence voters and why.
Who's the man behind the curtain?
Brian Fitterer made his fortune in mobile home parks.
The New York Post dubbed him the "California trailer-park king turned swimsuit designer" when he bought a New York City condo in 2013.
He dabbled in swimwear: In 2011, Fitterer sponsored the Miss USA swimsuit competition—a pageant then owned by a real estate mogul named Donald Trump. The pageant entrants that year wore Fitterer's high-end line of skimpy bikinis called Kandy Wrappers.
Fitterer also served as a Miss USA judge that year. His official judge's bio listed his net worth as half a billion dollars.
But his focus is real estate. On his LinkedIn page, Fitterer lists himself as principal owner of Investment Property Group, an Irvine, Calif.-based company that manages dozens of mobile home parks in the West. At least 30 of those parks are in Oregon, according to the company website.
What's at stake for him in Oregon?
Companies Fitterer is affiliated with are linked to 30 mobile home parks, including properties in Portland, Salem and Bend, as well as Oregon apartment complexes. So he has an interest in the future of Oregon housing policies and tenant protections.
That future hinges on the outcome of next week's election. Monroe, who represents House District 24 in East Portland, is facing two challengers from the left in the Democratic primary ("Hot Seat," WW, April 11, 2017). Monroe opposed overturning the state's ban on rent control during the 2017 legislative session. His challengers, former legislator Shemia Fagan and nonprofit leader Kayse Jama, have pledged they'll champion renter protections.
Fitterer says he likes Monroe's policies: building more housing instead of capping what landlords can charge.
"I've long been an advocate for the building of both more affordable and market-rate housing, and feel that Sen. Monroe supports that position and is the best candidate to help achieve more housing for Oregonians," Fitterer tells WW in a statement.
John DiLorenzo directs the More Housing Now PAC, which was created in December 2017 to represent landlords. He says Californians like Fitterer have been eager to help. "They know first-hand the destructive impacts of rent control and do not want the same thing to happen in Oregon," says DiLorenzo.
Portland Tenants United says the cash infusion shows California landlords aren't hurting. "The donations flowing into More Housing Now's PAC from California expose the obvious truth that California's landlords aren't suffering any economic losses from rent control," says Margot Black, an organizer with PTU.
How did the money get funneled to Oregon?
The money passed through multiple middlemen on its way into the state.
On March 15, the More Housing Now PAC received $100,000 from 40 separate limited liability companies.
All of those companies have the same business address in Irvine—an address Fitterer has used on company paperwork. Fitterer or companies that bear his name are listed as the principals of many of these 40 companies. When contacted by WW, Fitterer and a spokesman for the PAC confirmed Fitterer's involvement.
The $100,000 from companies linked to Fitterer was pooled with money from three other California real estate companies. It was then funneled through a second PAC, and bundled with money raised by Oregon Realtors PAC.
Meek says the money's sources aren't disclosed in the ads themselves because of Oregon's lax campaign-finance laws.
"If Oregon had the same tagline requirements as other states, putting out such ads would be counterproductive, because they would have to identify the top five funders and the businesses they are engaged in," says Meek. "Saying that your ad is paid for by real estate developers or mobile home park owners would not, IMHO, engender public support."
Shaun Jillions, a director of Responsible Leadership PAC, who also works as a contract lobbyist for the realtors, says "there's no disguising anything" in the state database of campaign contributions.
"Much like the unions and trial lawyers set up A Progressive Voice for Oregon [PAC] to hit Monroe," Jillions adds, "we all knew within a week where the funding came from."
What was the result?
On April 19, the same day the Fitterer-connected funds moved into the Protect Sensible Leadership PAC, the committee paid $90,000 for broadcast TV ads.
Besides being the most expensive, the ad is among the most aggressive and negative ad of this cycle. The spot calls Fagan a "corporate lawyer" who, among other cases, represented a landlord in an eviction.
"She even helped a shady landlord who evicted and took advantage of an illiterate tenant," the ad states.
The real picture is more complicated. Fagan acknowledges representing one landlord while at Ater Wynne, a corporate law firm she previously worked for, but it's not clear the renter was in danger of being put out on the street.
"In the one case I represented a property owner, it was after real estate speculators—a woman, her husband and her father—moved into a 3,000-square-foot house in Happy Valley," Fagan's website says. "After the housing market crashed, they refused to buy the house or pay rent."
The woman who was evicted is part of a family that does not appear destitute. Property records show they now own a $780,000 home in Clackamas. They won a subsequent case against the landlord.
The PAC stands by its ad. "The court documents speak for themselves," says Jillions.