Friday, March 14, 2008


The Oregonian can barely conceal its delight, headlining its front-page piece this morning Era of public-funded elections may be short :

Without a doubt, Portland's 2-year-old public financing program has opened up city elections to a cadre of unknown candidates who wouldn't have run without help.

But the program -- the only kind in the state -- also has created a string of unintended consequences and bureaucratic mix-ups that has all five City Council members concerned about the future of the program.

As election season unfolds, city leaders find themselves still dealing with the question of whether Sho Dozono can run for mayor using taxpayer cash and whether it's fair for a candidate in a six-week special election to receive the same amount of money as those in a six-month runoff.

All this is happening as the city prepares to spend more than $1 million on races that don't seem that different in tone or substance from the bad old days of big money.

For good measure, they throw in an op-ed piece by Dave Lister arguing that public financing for Portland city council elections is already "a failure."

Okay, once again, let's review.

Yes, two candidates so far (not counting Dozono) and a fundraiser got busted trying to game the system. Surely the Oregonian's point isn't that we should rescind any law that people actually try to break or end-run. In that alternate quantum universe, Kevin Mannix would be a yurt salesman. Or perhaps a legal marijuana dealer.

Voter-owned elections don't guarantee that candidates won't try to game the system. They do increase the odds that, for better or worse, there will be less money on the table, and that candidates who honestly make it through the system may have different governing priorities.

We might also add that even as we speak the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, who made his dodgy "straight talk" reputation in large part by his erstwhile support of campaign finance reform at the federal level, is busy gaming that system harder, and for much more money, than any Portlanders have imagined in their most avaricious dreams--a fact in which the Oregonian has shown surprisingly little interest.

More to the point, the advantage of publicly-financed elections has very little to do with changing the way campaigning is done. It might have that effect--not least by putting some limit on the advertising arms race that private-corporate funding encourages, to the advantage of local media, mainly television and radio, but also the Oregonian. But that's not its chief purpose. Its primary advantage is that it raises the likelihood of candidates and elected officials who aren't wholly owned by a short list of usual-suspect donors.

Campaigns will always be as bare-knuckled as they have to be, regardless of who funds them. The question is, what happens once the candidate gets elected? To whom will they be indebted?

(Cross-posted at Loaded Orygun.)

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