Photos by Darryl James

CENTER STAGE: Fritz, the only non-incumbent to win a council seat with public financing, will be in the spotlight when voters decide this November whether to continue such funding for city elections.

On a clear Sunday morning, a line of breakfasters snaked around the restaurant parking lot of Casa Colima in Southwest Portland's Hillsdale neighborhood, where a $6 blueberry pancake breakfast raised funds for the local business association.

Commissioners Nick Fish and Dan Saltzman were there, shaking hands and greeting neighbors. Commissioner Amanda Fritz visited as well, but she was performing a different kind of task. A yellow T-shirt tucked into her high-waisted jeans, she stood in the bright sun for 90 minutes pouring cups of hot coffee from an oversize plastic dispenser.

It was classic Fritz—low-key, self-effacing, under the radar. This is a city commissioner who has issued just a handful of press releases since taking office in January 2009. Mayor Sam Adams? More than 50 this year alone.

"That's Amanda," says Fish, who was dining with friends in the Pearl one recent Saturday morning when he witnessed Fritz cleaning graffiti from newspaper boxes outside the bistro's window. "She's also just as likely to be in one of our parks removing ivy, at a community celebration, or in the audience. Very rarely does she seek any kind of acknowledgment."

Nineteen months into her first term, Fritz appears as advertised during her 2008 campaign: hardworking, principled, fiscally conservative. She's often the lone dissenting voice at City Hall. And to the extent that might mean she's not the most persuasive voice on the council, she might also be called ineffective, at least thus far.

Fritz is not up for re-election until 2012 (she hasn't decided whether she'll run again), but she is in the spotlight now because Portland voters will decide this November whether to keep publicly financed election campaigns.

Fritz is only the second candidate to win election in Portland with taxpayer funding since the program's inception in 2005, and the first non-incumbent to do so. (Former Commissioner Erik Sten, a chief architect of what is sometimes called "voter-owned" elections, used tax dollars to win his third re-election campaign two years prior to Fritz's.)

Even with its short history, the five-year-old system has a checkered past. In 2006, a political neophyte from East Portland named Emilie Boyles qualified for $145,000 in public campaign financing in the May primary, then got caught giving her 16-year-old daughter $12,500 to do Internet research. More recently, candidate Jesse Cornett spent $60,000 of his allotment for the May primary on a group that paid people to go door to door for him in his unsuccessful campaign against Commissioner Dan Saltzman. That didn't violate any rules, but it did raise questions in some people's minds about whether taxpayers were funding vanity projects. Cornett then got just 8 percent of the vote.

PRESENT: Fritz was the only commissioner not to miss a single City Council meeting in 2009.

Fritz knows her 2008 win makes her the poster child for publicly financed campaigns, and it's a role she relishes.

"I consider myself the standard bearer," Fritz says. "I feel a huge responsibility to do a good job and make sure Portlanders get their money's worth."

Since 2005, Portlanders have spent almost $2 million to help 10 candidates run for five seats—that's enough to light and maintain the "Made in Oregon" sign for 70 years but also far less than the salaries of two dozen police officers for one year. But in a city that prides itself on inclusiveness, independence and grassroots politics, publicly funded campaigns hold a certain appeal, despite the price tag.

Fritz's first months in office, a symbol of that system's success, present an interesting question: Is the best candidate that public financing can produce actually any good?

Spend any time with Fritz and you'll discover what's important to the 52-year-old mother of three who retired from her career as a psychiatric nurse before arriving at City Hall.

One is attendance. In 2009, Fritz was the only city commissioner not to miss a single City Council meeting. In that time she failed to vote on just one item when she went to chase after a young woman who had testified before the council that she didn't own shoes. (Fritz gave her a pair she had in her office.) By comparison, Mayor Sam Adams missed about 90 out of 1,200-plus votes last year. Commissioners Randy Leonard, Dan Saltzman and Nick Fish missed 69, 68 and 25, respectively. When her son graduated from Princeton, Fritz scheduled an evening flight back to Portland to be sure she didn't miss a City Council session. Whenever possible, she schedules vacations around Wednesday and Thursday meetings. And so far in 2010, she's missed only five votes—to return to England, where she grew up, to celebrate her mother's birthday, an anniversary "set 80 years ago," she says in her own defense.

She also values thrift. She's so frugal, in fact, she refuses to keep a fax machine in her City Hall office, a standard piece of office equipment that all her colleagues have. Without the dedicated phone line to operate that device, Fritz saves taxpayers $35 a month.

Such penny-pinching is not lost on colleagues at City Hall, where Fritz's exactitude and attention to detail sometimes cause her to "delve into extreme minutiae," Saltzman says. Just as often, it leads her to force hard questions, he says.

Last year, when Beavers and Timbers owner Merritt Paulson asked City Council to turn publicly owned PGE Park into a single-use stadium for Major League Soccer, Fritz was the only commissioner to vote no at every major step of the process. That's even though, as a season ticketholder to Ducks football games and a British-born soccer fan, she is as much if not more of a sports fan than her male colleagues. The final deal, though less expensive for taxpayers than originally envisioned, still called for $12 million in city money. Fritz argued those funds could have gone to something with a higher purpose than a sports stadium. "It is a matter of fiscal responsibility," she calls her vote.

In May, Fritz opposed the Water Bureau's request for a 12 percent rate increase, saying the proposal was too high and not entirely justified. And last month she voted against Leonard's $72.4 million bond referral that would fund new equipment and a fire station for the Portland Bureau of Fire & Rescue. That's a politically dangerous position given the enormous popularity of firefighters with the public. But in Fritz's view, public safety is a core city mission, and if the Fire Bureau needed improvements, Leonard should have fought for funding during the regular budget-approval process—not sloughed them off to voters who are already under financial strain. "I really appreciate her strong will and her not necessarily knuckling under to the flavor of the day or the flavor of the month," says Saltzman, who voted for the measure. "She really sticks to her convictions."

Usually, however, these convictions have put Fritz, the only woman on the five-member council, on the losing side of votes. On the soccer issue, the water-rate hike and the Fire Bureau levy, she was in the minority.

Which is why some observers question Fritz's ability to shape her own agenda, as any successful politician should. "I don't think she's figured out how to build coalitions and get three votes for the things she wants done," says Greg Peden, a lobbyist for Gallatin Public Affairs who represented Paulson's Major League Soccer agenda at City Hall.

Fritz herself recognizes it's not enough just to say no.

Sitting on the red plush couch in her City Hall corner office where disembodied hands wave to her from the bus stop outside, Fritz laughs when reminded she is often alone in her vote. "I'd rather win," Fritz admits. "I'd rather be able to persuade at least two of my colleagues that my position is correct."

In a small way, that is starting to change.

"Amanda, in her first year or so, was comfortable being a principled no on a lot of things that came before council," says Fish, the second-most junior member of the council. "It's important to dissent when you disagree. But from a leadership point of view, I think the real test is: Can you get three votes in favor of something? It's not just what you're against; it's also what you're for. And the harder part in this building is getting three votes to yes."

Fritz has not been without successes. Only months into her term last year, as city leaders weighed how Portland would comply with federal drinking-water regulations, Leonard crafted a plan that would have cost taxpayers $700 million. Fritz believed the city could pass muster with the feds and build a water-purifying system in much cheaper fashion—with a system that used ultraviolet light instead of sand filtration. Commissioner Nick Fish and Dan Saltzman, both of whom were gearing up for re-election, sided with Fritz, who ultimately prevailed.

"That issue started out in 2009 with Commissioner Leonard bringing it to us as sort of an FYI issue, and 'This is what I as Water Bureau commissioner am going to do,'" Saltzman says. "If it wasn't for her persistence making that a council decision instead of a commissioner-in-charge decision, we would not be going with the more effective, least expensive option."

The final vote was 5-0, with even Leonard switching sides. Today, Leonard says he still believes the sand filtration plant would have been a better option; he changed his mind because he didn't have the votes to do it his way, he says. "Our job here is not just to find the cheapest way to do something," Leonard says. "It's also to do things that ensure basic services to citizens if something bad happens."

Fritz still counts the victory among her biggest successes, and it's one she points to when her critics note that her two publicly financed campaigns (she initially ran unsuccessfully against Saltzman in 2006) cost Portlanders almost $500,000. The option to use ultraviolet light is expected to cost $200 million, compared to $700 million for sand filtration.

"I went home that evening having gotten this 5-0 vote," Fritz recalls, "and I said to my kids, 'I saved the ratepayers $500 million today,' and the answer was, 'Well, that's great, Mom. What's for dinner?'"

Then she breaks out her calculator.

"I worked it out, and for the 1,461 days that I will be in office, it's $342,000 a day [saved]," she says.

FRITZ SUPPORTER: Former City Commissioner Gretchen Kafoury calls Fritz an "adopted daughter." Kafoury says the political process in Portland suffers from sexism.

Gretchen Kafoury thinks part of Fritz's challenge at City Hall flows from an undercurrent of sexism. In 1991, Kafoury became only the fifth woman to win a seat on City Council. Fritz, the seventh, commemorated the occasion by wearing her son's No. 7 basketball jersey on election night. The framed jersey now hangs in her City Hall office.

Twelve years after leaving, Kafoury still considers City Hall something of a boys' club. "There's a lot of testosterone down there," Kafoury says.

Fritz publicly denies the charge and insists that the treatment she gets at City Hall is consistent with what other inexperienced lawmakers get. But despite her request in 2008 that she be given the Police Bureau, the mayor assigned Fritz only the smallest, softest or least consequential city bureaus: the Office of Neighborhood Involvement, the four-employee Office of Human Relations, the newly established four-employee Office of Healthy Working Rivers, the nine-employee Office of Cable Communications and Franchise Management, and the 144-employee Bureau of Emergency Communications. Saltzman calls those the "rookie" bureaus and notes he got similar assignments when he arrived at City Hall under then-Mayor Vera Katz in 1999. A longtime neighborhood activist, Fritz says she wanted those human-services assignments.

But Kafoury is adamant Fritz was snubbed. "There are major bureaus [in the city]," Kafoury says, listing transportation, parks, police and fire services. "It's a fact, and somehow she was not in line to get one."

Leonard rejects the idea Fritz wasn't assigned substantive bureaus, calling it "really unfair." He also rejects the idea a boys' club exists at City Hall. "If there is, they haven't invited me," he says.

A citywide vote on Portland's public campaign financing is three months away. Already battle lines have been drawn.

On one side are the Portland Business Alliance and a newly formed group calling itself Portlanders Against Taxpayer-Funded Political Campaigns. They argue campaign financing should not figure among the city's budget priorities. (Perhaps not surprisingly, they also represent interests who write sizable checks to candidates in traditional campaigns.)

The proponents include groups like the League of Women Voters and Common Cause Oregon, which contend that the goals of public financing are worth the cost: It gives nontraditional candidates the ability to run, and it reduces the influence of special interests. In their minds, simply the appearance of special-interest influence on city politics degrades public trust.

Locally, advocates are keeping mum about whether their message resonates with voters. But national polls show a majority of Americans think campaign donors hold undue sway over politicians. As of Aug. 6, only proponents of retaining public financing had reported raising any money for their campaign—more than $75,000.

Opponents of tax-financed campaigns have a very vocal ally in Leonard, who insists he gets along with Fritz "better than anyone else" on council. "We don't have the money to pay for people to run political campaigns when we can't fund basic public services," Leonard says.

"If Amanda were the only example of voter-owned elections, I might vote for it," Leonard adds. "Unfortunately, voter-owned elections also include examples such as Emilie Boyles…. It's a system that continues to be subject to a lot of abuse. Those of us who are looking at it to see whether it works well, without having an oar in the water, see it as a seriously flawed system that we can't afford to fund."

Fish is more circumspect. He says he hasn't decided whether he'll vote for the measure. But he bristles when anyone suggests campaign contributors receive special treatment because of their donations. "I've never had someone point to an example in recent history in this building where a contribution translated into a vote," he says. "I do not believe you are beholden to someone just because you receive a contribution."

In November 2008, just after having won election, Fritz herself made that indictment. "Because I've been elected with public money, I'm beholden to every voter and citizen in Portland, rather than a few affluent donors with interests that don't always dovetail with community concerns," Fritz wrote in a Nov. 21, 2008, op-ed piece in The Oregonian.

She now says she regrets her use of the word "beholden." "I know that my colleagues are principled men who don't make decisions based on campaign contributions," she says. "We all agreed as part of fixing the campaign financing rules and doing the referral that none of us is going to use that word, because we're all beholden to the people who filled in the bubbles next to our names."

Saltzman won't say how he will vote on the measure. Mayor Adams says he supports public campaign financing and will vote yes.

Whatever one's view about voter-owned elections, one thing is clear—Fritz is a unique political figure.

One of her first acts as commissioner was to schedule more City Council meetings in the evening so interested Portlanders could attend deliberations without taking time off work.

Thanks also in part to Fritz, a City Hall staffer is now available at the beginning of City Council meetings to help visitors who need accommodations for disabilities. And, starting soon, all measures that go before City Council for a vote will include information about the degree to which the public was involved in the process.

UNDIVIDED ATTENTION: Commissioner Amanda Fritz tried to make eye contact with everyone along the parade route at the Division-Clinton Street Fair on July 24.

Perhaps the easiest way to reach Fritz is to email her close to midnight; she responds to all her own correspondence late into the night every night. "I feel a personal responsibility to reply to people who write to me," says Fritz, who replied to 7,945 emails in 2009. "When they send me particularly nasty, rude, abrasive emails, I remember that this person helped pay for my election."

Even impolite emailers get at least three replies to a given topic. "That's where my psych-nurse training comes in," she says. "I try to find some measure of agreement. Sometimes I'm stretching it a long way to get there. Part of what I ran for is that I want people to be able to trust government. And I want them to be able to know their city commissioners, their elected leaders, as real people."

Close watchers of City Hall politics have noticed the effect.

"She's definitely a different kind of city councilperson," says Mike Roach, co-owner of Paloma Clothing in the Hillsdale neighborhood, "in part because of the way she was elected."

Fritz says she never would have run without public campaign financing, and not having to worry about fundraising for future races frees her to consider each vote on its own merits. "I don't have to think about who's going to be paying for my next election," she says. "I just have to be thinking about whether voters are going to be happy with each decision that I make."

Her next big test comes in November.

Amanda Fritz

Age: 52

From: Leeds, England

Family: Married to Steve Fritz, a psychiatrist at Oregon State Hospital. Mother of three grown children.

Education: Cambridge University, natural sciences and psychology. St. Francis Hospital, nursing degree.

Neighborhood: West Portland Park

What brought her to portland: In 1986, Fritz and her husband pointed their Chevrolet Chevette toward Portland so he could complete his residency requirements at Oregon Health & Science University.

Political Awakening: An OHSU nurses' strike in 2001. "I realized I had an obligation to speak up on behalf of others, because I could speak when others were afraid to challenge those in power," Fritz says.

Political history: Served as a volunteer on the Portland Planning Commission, 1996-2003. Ran unsuccessfully in 2006 against Commissioner Dan Saltzman.

Management style: Fritz is known around City Hall for doing her homework—and expecting her staff to do it as well.

Favorite mode of transportation: Walking and public transit. "I don't think it's mandatory to ride a bike. In fact, what I am is very pro-pedestrian. I don't think pedestrians get enough attention."