Voter-Owned Redux

Amanda Fritz bankrolled her own re-election. Now she wants to resurrect public campaign financing.

City Commissioner Amanda Fritz spent her nest egg last year—more than $375,000 of her own money—to buy four more years in Portland City Hall.

"Most people could not and would not do what I did," Fritz says. "Which was to go to my husband of 30 years and say, 'Do you mind if I sink our entire life savings in this campaign, because it means a lot to me?'"

Her costly victory in November over former state Rep. Mary Nolan (D-Portland) was a mordant twist in Fritz's political career. She was one  of the first candidates to use Portland's short-lived public campaign finance system—and the only challenger to reach City Council with it, in 2008. (Former Commissioner Erik Sten, who first championed a city fund for campaigns, was re-elected with public money in 2006.)

Now Fritz, who earlier this month pledged never to run for office again, is determined to revive voter-funded campaigns.

At her "reaffirming ceremony" Jan. 5, Fritz announced she would launch a campaign to bring back public campaign financing, three years after voters scrapped the system. She tells WW she intends to seek a ballot initiative for May 2014.

Fritz remains furious that Nolan tried to spend her out of office, funded by $594,000 in donations, including big gifts from public employee unions.

"I don't think the ability to ask affluent entities for money should be a prerequisite to getting elected to the Portland City Council," Fritz says. "Fundraising isn't democracy in action."

November's election, the first since voters rejected public financing by just 1,277 votes (0.6 percent) in 2010, was dominated by big political contributions.

The three major mayoral candidates spent a total of $3.89 million. After Eileen Brady finished third in the May mayoral primary despite record spending of more than $1.4 million, both Charlie Hales and former state Rep. Jefferson Smith (D-East Portland) acknowledged the uneasiness Portlanders feel about big-money campaigns. Both men implemented contribution limits for the general election.

The original argument for public financing was twofold: that Oregon's lack of contribution limits provided donors an opportunity to buy lots of influence and that incumbents outraised challengers and nearly always won.

City Council adopted public funding for city races in 2005 without a vote of the people, inflaming critics. The system, funded with money from all city bureaus, provided council candidates $150,000 in the primary and another $200,000 in the general election. To qualify, a candidate first had to collect a thousand $5 donations and foreswear private contributions.

Almost immediately, a candidate cheated: In 2006, City Council candidate Emilie Boyles gathered signatures and faked donations, then spent more than $96,000 of taxpayer money on items like Internet marketing services from her 16-year-old daughter before fleeing to Montana.

Other candidates who qualified for public money, such as Jesse Cornett and John Branam, spent strongly but performed poorly at the polls.

The 2010 political campaign that defeated public financing—backed chiefly by the Portland Business Alliance—used Boyles as its poster woman for fraud.

Fritz says the recession played a major role in voters rejecting a system proponents said would cost them less than $1 per year.

"People were cranky and they were hurting in 2010," Fritz says. "And they said, '68 cents a year? I need that 68 cents. Give it back to me.' So I don't think it was a resounding defeat of Portlanders' belief in public campaign financing. I think it was, 'Not now.'"

Megan Doern, a spokeswoman for the Portland Business Alliance, says her group will continue to oppose public campaign funding.

"It's safe to say, given that Mayor Hales is looking at 10 percent budget cuts across the board, that we would not support public dollars for campaign spending," Doern says.

Fritz is still taking donations to pay herself back for bankrolling her own re-election. She's raised just $2,855 in cash since Nov. 6. She says her victory—and the fact that she won't be running for another term—gives public financing a success story it can sell.

“If I had gone away,” she says, “that would have been the end of public financing.”