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City dollars give voters real choice

TwoViews • Is Portland's public campaign financing system worth it? Debate lands on November ballot
by: L.E. BASKOW, Mary Volm (left), shaking hands with Eugene Gray, owner of Eugenio’s Cafe on Southeast Division, unsuccessfully raced to gather 1,000 donations of $5 in January to qualify for public financing to gain a competitive edge against Commissioner Dan Saltzman in the May primary election.

The League of Women Voters has long supported campaign finance reform as a critical element in achieving the goals of open and representative government.

Campaign finance reform is essential to combat even the perception of corruption and prevent special interests from exerting undue influence. Reform is necessary to enhance equitable competition for office and increase citizen participation in the political process.

The League of Women Voters of Portland wholeheartedly supports Voter-Owned Elections for all these reasons. We applaud our city's leadership in pointing the way for the political reform needed in Salem and Washington, D.C.

The Voter-Owned Elections system addresses the troubling history of Portland campaigns dominated by contributions of $1,000, $5,000 and up, including donations by individuals and groups who do business with the city. These contributions are much larger than a typical Portland resident can afford.

Our support for Voter-Owned Elections reflects our concern for the future of Portland's civic life. The reform gave us the seventh woman to serve on the City Council in its 160-year history, a step forward. However, to date there have been only two African-American council members and no representatives from the many other underrepresented constituencies. This is a dismal record.

The distressing report recently released by the Coalition of Communities of Color about economic and other disparities facing these community members requires a comprehensive response. In the political arena, however, it seems no coincidence that those with the fewest resources are least represented in the ranks of elected officials. As a city that values diversity and equity, we must continue to provide the Voter-Owned Elections option as an important avenue for full participation in Portland's civic life.

Under Voter-Owned Elections, a candidate collects a large number of $5 contributions (1,000 for city commissioner, 1,500 for mayor) to qualify for public funds for a restricted set of campaign uses. After meeting this rigorous qualifying threshold, candidates do no more fundraising and cannot receive any private donations. Instead, they can focus on talking with voters about community concerns.

Talking with voters about the community is the purpose of campaigns. City elections have typically fallen into two categories: open seat contests that would be best characterized as fundraising battles and races where incumbents faced nominal opposition and ran minimal campaigns funded primarily by political insiders. The Voter-Owned Elections option has already improved both situations.

In the 2008 open seat race won by Commissioner Amanda Fritz, voters benefited from increased dialogue due to having six candidates while overall campaign spending was reduced. This is in stark contrast to the record private-money fundraising of the last open seat contest prior to adoption of Voter-Owned Elections; there were only two viable candidates in that 2004 election.

The reform option is not about defeating incumbents. Races with incumbents have benefited voters because there is more dialogue and discussion of city concerns. Indeed, we applaud those incumbents who have capped their campaign spending and size of contributions, even if they did not opt into the reform option. Even the perception of special interest influence is reduced when campaign donations are below $500.

Voter-Owned Elections will continue to improve our city's campaigns by encouraging grassroots candidates who can win based on their experience, values, and ideas, rather than access to wealthy contributors.

The Portland City Council adopted Voter-Owned Elections in 2005 with a commitment to refer the reform program to voters after five years. This gave Portlanders firsthand experience with the program as well as provided opportunities for improvements suggested by a hardworking volunteer Citizen Campaign Commission and adopted by the City Council.

Now the City Council is preparing its referral to the voters on what essentially will be a retention election. We applaud the hard work done by City Auditor LaVonne Griffin-Valade and her co-sponsors of the referral, Commissioners Amanda Fritz and Nick Fish, in preparing an evenhanded and informative ballot title for the November 2010 vote.

We look forward to the opportunity for voters to judge the reform program. We believe the citizens of Portland will retain Voter-Owned Elections because everybody benefits from the option. Under the program, campaigns run more on people power than dollar power, overall campaign spending is reduced, the perception of special interests calling the shots in City Hall is diminished, dialogue increases and candidates can operate on a more even playing field.

Carol Cushman is the campaign finance reform chair of the League of Women Voters of Portland.