Portland mayoral candidate Charlie Hales is breaking one of the biggest campaign promises he's made to the city since finishing first in the May primary race.

In June, Hales said he would voluntarily limit the campaign contributions he accepted for the fall election, and he urged his opponent in the runoff, state Rep. Jefferson Smith (D-East Portland), to do the same.

"From now on, this campaign will only accept contributions up to $600 and all from within the state of Oregon. And I call on Jefferson Smith to join me," Hales said in a statement. "This is one pledge in one race. It won't cure all the ills of big money in politics. But it is a good start. And there is never a wrong time to do the right thing."

That pledge turned out to be pure gamesmanship. Hales stole Smith's thunder on campaign limitations—an issue that appeared to be Smith's to own—and made himself appear that he, and not Smith, was the true good-government candidate. 

Hales raised $798,000 in the primary, about a quarter of it from development interests; a voluntary campaign finance limit would help back off his image as the favorite of the downtown business crowd.

Hales' announcement had another strategic advantage: He was trying to cut off Smith's two biggest sources of contributions, public employee unions and generous out-of-state donors. Smith did eventually limit contributions to $1,000 but not for another month and a half.

Those limits created a surprising dynamic—Smith has actually raised more money than Hales since the primary.

But Smith's campaign has now gone sideways. He has mishandled revelations about his his driving record and 1993 misdemeanor assault charge for punching a woman at an off-campus party at the University of Oregon. Smith has admitted publicly he may not be able to win.

It appeared all Hales needed to do was keep his head down and mouth shut until Election Day, Nov. 6.

But instead Hales has decided to break his campaign-finance promise.

On Oct. 15, as first the Portland Mercury first reported, Hales wrote to Smith suggesting that they both break their earlier pledges and accept in-kind contributions from unions of $50 per member.

The benefit for Hales, who has been endorsed by Service Employees International Union, is that he could take tens of thousands of dollars in contributions directly from the union at a time when he's low on cash.

"We both have been endorsed and supported by these types of organizations, so this move does not afford either of our campaigns a particular advantage," Hales wrote to Smith on Oct. 15. "Accepting in-kind contributions valued at no more than $50 per member, however, give [sic] both of us the opportunity to stand for the progressive principle of empowering people of modest means to have meaningful participation in the political process through collective action."

Hales is moving to break his promise as the city's police and fire unions last week withdrew their endorsements of Smith, followed this week by Laborers 483. Hales acknowledges Smith is losing support but says members of the Portland Association of Teachers and AFSCME, both of whom endorsed Smith, continued to canvass for Smith last weekend.

Hales' flip-flop comes as his campaign is short of money. He has a modest $78,000 on hand right now—a clear indication that his $600 pledge handcuffed him. By breaking his pledge, Hales is trying to clear a path for a big donation from SEIU.

Hales claims he doesn't know how much SEIU will give him. But he denies that he is accepting the union contribution out of necessity.

"It's mostly that these folks want to participate," Hales tells WW. "It's not fair to those people who want to participate to exclude them."

Hales argues allowing a big donation from a union—representing lots of individual donations from members—ignores the fact that he could collect as many small checks directly from union members and still keep his campaign-finance pledge.

The more plausible scenario is that Hales blundered when he limited his contributions back in June. He then found himself in the last month of the race low on money.

The decision to break his campaign-finance pledge is not Hales' first major flip-flop in the race.

As WW has reported earlier, Hales talked in the primary about a moratorium on system development charges, a move that would save developers serious money. But in the general election, where he was vulnerable to being painted as a tool of downtown interests, he jettisoned that idea. More recently, he's walked back on his earlier strong support for apartment complexes that do not include parking.

Hales, who started his political career as a Republican lobbyist for suburban homebuilders morphed into a commanding officer in Portland's light rail army. People can evolve and maybe, over the course of a decade or two, Hales did.

Hales has also been called out for making false statements. In 2011, Hales lied to WW when he said he never claimed Washington state as his residence for tax purposes when lived there from 2002 to 2008. His move to Washington allowed him to avoid tens of thousands of dollars in Oregon income taxes—and yet he kept voting in Oregon.

In April, Hales pulled a television ad that erroneously claimed he'd been part of a short-term financial rescue of schools in 2003. In fact, he quit the city council in June 2002. And in June, he landed in hot water when The Oregonian accused him of plagiarizing material in a letter Hales' submitted to the St. John's Review under his name.

Hales insists that this latest decision isn't a violation of the campaign pledge he made in June.

"We didn't have every detail of the campaign worked out then," Hales says. "We are doing this voluntarily and figuring it out as we go along."