Friday, February 1, 2008

Voter-owned elections: Two years on

Willamette Week has a glass-is-half-empty story this week on the state of public financing for Portland elections.

On one hand:

At least six Portland City Council candidates, plus mayoral hopeful Sho Dozono, appear poised to split more than $1 million in public campaign financing between them.

That fact, on the eve of the Jan. 31 qualifying deadline, shows how much the system has grown since two years ago, when only two council candidates had the wherewithal to gather the necessary signatures and $5 contributions (without cheating).

On the other hand--well, as it turns out, there are two other hands:

First, there's the question of dollars. The apparent success of voter-owned elections means that a larger number of qualified candidates could more quickly drain the available pool of public money.

Now, the city may be committed to spending $1.2 million to fund seven candidates through the May 20 primary election. That will leave the campaign finance fund with a cushion of about $700,000 through the primaries, says city financial planner Casey Short.

The city’s new fiscal year comes before the general election in November (which may cost up taypayers [sic] up to $850,000 more in campaign funds), so the campaign finance fund will be replenished before then.

This time, at least, Voter-Owned Elections won’t break the bank. Next time?

"This is not a sustainable program when the economy goes into the tank," says [city commissioner and voter-owned elections opponent Randy] Leonard.

The article also quotes Commissioner Erik Sten, who floats the idea that the current system, which makes financing available to anyone who submits the necessary number of signatures and $5 checks, may require tweaking--"raising the bar," as the article puts it--in the future, although it's not clear from the article how he would raise the bar or what the aim would be in raising it. See if you can decipher this:

Sten, who helped design the program, is delighted to see participation from bigger "name" candidates who aren’t incumbents, such as Dozono and Middaugh. But Sten says the bar to qualify may need to be raised in the future. This time around, he says, "anybody who ought to have qualified—not to be rude to anybody—has. Those that shouldn’t have, have not."

"Delighted" with participation, confident that "anybody who ought to have qualified" did so--hard to see why that cries out for more stringent qualifying rules.


The second sticking point is that the big dogs are starting to get in the game:

But something is different this time: The pros are moving in. More recognizable names who could’ve run on private dollars are instead seeking public funds, which impart grassroots cred, deserved or not.

Council candidates must gather 1,000 valid signatures and matching $5 contributions to qualify for $150,000; mayoral candidates must collect 1,500 valid signatures and $5 donations to qualify for $200,000. (More money is awarded to candidates who make it to a runoff election.)

Two of this year’s candidates—Dozono and council candidate Jim Middaugh—were able, with the help of volunteers, to collect hundreds of signatures with stunning speed.

Neither is an outsider to politics.

Dozono is a well-known businessman and civic booster with extensive political contacts, and his "brain trust" includes powerful lobbyists and seasoned campaign consultants. Middaugh, who cut his political teeth working for U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) and now works as chief of staff to Commissioner Erik Sten, wants his boss’s job now that Sten is resigning.

With the help of more than 350 volunteers, Dozono gathered some 3,000 signatures and contributions in less than a month. When Sten ran in 2006, it took him two months to get enough signatures to qualify. ("We weren’t in any rush," Sten says.) Middaugh and his 175-plus foot soldiers pulled it off in little more than a week.

"Jim has, I think, taught us all how to do it," says Brendan Finn, Saltzman’s chief of staff.


The article cites an objection to this state of affairs, that public financing was intended to widen the candidate pool by making it possible to run a viable campaign without a pocketful of big-dollar investors/contributors. If "mainstream" candidates, who would be able to raise the necessary cash the old-fashioned way, start availing themselves of public financing--so goes this argument--what's the point?

Howard Weiner, a skate-shop owner who dropped out of the council race to endorse Middaugh, worries that “Voter-Owned Elections” could be repossessed by the political class. "To me, it was to promote folks who would otherwise be unable to run, because of financial constraints," Weiner says.

But this mistakes a useful byproduct of public financing for its main benefit: Public financing of elections is important not because poor campaigns need a welfare program, but because it makes a difference who "owns" the election process--the people, or a short list of corporations and wealthy contributors.

It's important to open the process up to a wider range of candidacies; but it's no less important to make sure that even the candidates who could tap enough nonpublic money to run a campaign aren't required to do so in order to run. Voter-owned elections have to cover both David and Goliath to be effective.

Elections are like sewers: They're a public good, they're worth the investment of public money, and things are healthier when everyone uses the system.

1 comment:

Kevin said...

The money paragraph:

But this mistakes a useful byproduct of public financing for its main benefit: Public financing of elections is important not because poor campaigns need a welfare program, but because it makes a difference who "owns" the election process--the people, or a short list of corporations and wealthy contributors.

Bingo!!