Secretary of State Shemia Fagan Poised to Delay Campaign Finance Measures on Technicality

“This is a death knell for us.”

Secretary of State Shemia Fagan. (Alex Wittwer)

Secretary of State Shemia Fagan is raising hurdles for election activists who want to regulate campaign contributions in Oregon, one of just five states that have no limits.

Honest Elections Oregon, an advocacy group that won limits on contributions in Multnomah County and Portland, is trying to extend its streak and rein in big money statewide. It is sponsoring three similar ballot initiatives—43, 44 and 45—that would cap contributions to candidates for statewide office at $2,000 from individuals and $50,000 from political parties, among other limits.

The group’s efforts hit a snag this week when Fagan’s chief legal counsel, P.K. Runkles-Pearson, wrote to Honest Elections organizers Jason Kafoury and Dan Meek, telling them Fagan planned to reject the language of the initiatives because it did not include the full text of the Oregon laws that would change. A final decision from Fagan is expected Feb. 9, according to her office.

Kafoury says Fagan’s decision is unsupported by both precedent and practice and will prevent the measures from making it onto the ballot this year. Honest Elections Oregon must gather 112,020 signatures by July 8 to qualify the measures.

If forced to resubmit the language, there is no way Honest Elections can get the signatures in time because of the lengthy list of preliminary steps required to get a measure on the ballot, Kafoury says. Those include: gathering 1,000 “sponsorship signatures,” which Honest Oregon has done and would have to repeat; getting those certified; acquiring a new ballot title from the Oregon attorney general; and getting comments on that title.

“This is a death knell for us,” Kafoury says.

Ben Morris, a spokesman for Fagan, says the law is clear on including the full text of laws that would be changed. “This is a pretty cut-and-dried situation,” he adds. “They just need to fix a technical error in a filing. We’ve applied this standard consistently.”

The defect that Fagan cites was pointed out during a public comment period on the petitions by Michael Selvaggio, a lobbyist for United Food & Commercial Workers Local 555.

“The constitution requires initiative petitions include the full text of the proposed measure,” Selvaggio wrote on UFCW letterhead Jan. 19. “See Oregon Constitution, Article IV, Section 1(2)(d). The draft of IP-43 is out of compliance with this requirement.”

The initiatives would limit the campaign spending of UFCW and other labor unions. Under the most restrictive of the three measures, unions would be limited to $10,000 per legislative race and $20,000 for statewide races.

Such spending bolstered Fagan’s rise to overseer of Oregon elections.

The UFCW gave Fagan $50,000 when she ran for secretary of state in 2020, according to campaign finance records. She was the top recipient of union contributions during the campaign, winning endorsements from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Oregon AFL-CIO. Fagan raised more than $3 million for the race, much of it from unions.

Morris says the UFCW’s public comment had no bearing on Fagan’s handling of Honest Elections Oregon’s ballot measures. “Every single initiative that’s filed goes through the exact same review process,” he adds. “It doesn’t have anything to do with any outside groups.”

Runkles-Pearson wrote to Meek and Kafoury on Feb. 3, saying Fagan would soon reject the petitions and describing a conversation they had earlier that day as “a courtesy call to let the chief petitioners know and give them the opportunity to withdraw and refile before the petition is formally rejected.”

Kafoury and Meek told Runkles-Pearson they don’t intend to withdraw the ballot measures. They asked the Secretary of State’s Office to put off a final decision and consider a legal memo that they sent to the office Feb. 4 outlining their legal position. The secretary of state has approved initiative petitions in this election cycle that don’t reproduce the affected sections of Oregon law, they say in the memo.

“This is a very typical delay tactic for people who don’t want things on the ballot,” Kafoury said in an interview. “They file ballot title challenges, and then they file an appeal to the state Supreme Court, and it takes a couple months for the court to rule. It smells like selective enforcement to me, and it reeks of political cronyism.”

Morris, Fagan’s spokesman, says the secretary plans to pass Kafoury’s legal memo along to the Oregon Department of Justice for review.

The fight with Honest Elections Oregon is Fagan’s second high-profile dustup on election matters. On Jan. 6, she ruled that former New York Times columnist and Yamhill, Ore., native Nicholas Kristof did not meet the state’s three-year residency requirement to run for governor.

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