Second Life

Can public campaign finance be revived in Portland?

Four months after Portland voters killed public financing of political campaigns for city office, a small cadre of supporters is organizing to bring the issue back.

They got the OK last month from the city elections office to begin gathering the 29,490 signatures needed to put an initiative on the November 2012 ballot, and plan to begin that effort this spring.

But some of public financing's higher-profile supporters aren't leaping in to back this new campaign, led by Spencer Burton, an unsuccessful City Council candidate last May who couldn't even qualify himself for public financing before voters killed the program later in 2010.

"I understand their concern. I'm new to the scene," says Burton, chief petitioner for an initiative that would restore the public campaign finance program. "It's like a dance floor and I'm one of those guys who jumps in first. As the dance floor starts to fill, they’ll jump in.” 

Although this new effort comes right after Portlanders rejected a measure to continue public financing, Burton believes it's not too soon to make a run at a revival. He points out that only 50.4 percent of voters opposed public financing in November 2010 and that higher turnout for the 2012 presidential election will mean a more supportive electorate. 

"We have a progressive city and we should come right back," says Burton, a 53-year-old stonemason who placed fifth in a nine-candidate field last May for the Council seat won by incumbent Commissioner Dan Saltzman. "You don't let the fire go completely out."

Burton bases his optimism in part on the volunteer and donor base of the Green Party, which backs Burton's campaign. About 3,000 of the Pacific Green Party's 8,700 registered Oregon members live in Portland, and the party says it has a donor base of about 1,000 people in the city.

Jorden Leonard, executive director of the Portland Green Party, says the party will help recruit volunteers and put the campaign in touch with donors to raise the goal of $40,000 for a full-scale signature-gathering campaign.

However, the most visible backers of last year's campaign to retain public financing as an option in city elections aren't yet supporting this move to bring it back to voters in 2012.

"The Bus loves voter-owned elections and we want to see it come back," says Henry Kraemer, political director of the Oregon Bus Project. "We still have questions about whether this is the best path forward. We want to get a better sense of what the electorate is going to look like."

Janice Thompson, executive director for Common Cause Oregon, takes a similar stance that it's not time, yet, to consider another campaign.

"The story right now is the likelihood of record fundraising in the mayor's race," Thompson says. "That could contribute to 2012 being a good time to revisit reform options. But there are many factors to consider, so it is too early to tell."

Even though Burton failed to get the 1,000 signatures required to qualify for public financing in his Council run, he and the Green Party still believe they can gather about 30,000 valid signatures from registered Portland voters.

"The last campaign seemed pretty last-minute," says Seth Woolley, secretary of the Pacific Green Party in Oregon. "We were a little dismayed, so we thought it should be on the ballot again."

FACT: The now-dead public finance program provided $150,000 in public money in the primary for council candidates—and $200,000 for mayoral candidates—who collected enough signatures and matching $5 donations.

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