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Push for Portland contribution limits could impact council race
On a recent Sunday at the Hillsdale Farmers' Market in Southwest Portland, a one-man electric-guitar show produced classic rock melodies as vendors sold fresh vegetables and plants, sauces, health tonic and fresh yak and elk meat.
Greeting arrivals were volunteers gathering signatures for the latest push to limit campaign contributions, a initiative targeting the November ballot that promises "Honest Elections" for the city of Portland.
The scene shows how activists are working to get big money out of politics — a change they hope will make the city, region and state a friendlier place for more liberal candidates well into the future.
Thanks to unfavorable court rulings on the state and federal level, some political observers view the would-be campaign reformers as the local activist version of Don Quixote, pursuing ideals without hope of success.
But the activists say they intend to win — and they also hope to have an effect on the race for the pending City Council seat in which former lawmaker Jo Ann Hardesty and Multnomah County Commissioner Loretta Smith are headed for a runoff in the November general election.
"We want to keep this issue before voters, and force candidates to take a stand supporting or opposing contribution limits," said Jason Kafoury, the lawyer who is co-leading the campaign reform effort.
His group clashed earlier with Smith over a similar Multnomah County measure that passed with nearly 89 percent of the vote in November 2016, generating election complaints against her that she called groundless and unfair. Now it looks like that hostile relationship, born out of Smith's impassioned testimony against the group's goals, will carry over into the general election.
Indeed, Kafoury has contributed to Hardesty's campaign, and the Independent Party of Oregon, in which Meek is a leader, supported her as well.
Kafoury and his co-leader in the Honest Elections campaign, Dan Meek, say they are confident that their volunteer and paid operatives will gather the required 34,000 signatures to put their measure on the city ballot in November, much as they succceeded at the county level in 2016.
Throughout the campaign, they intend to keep the focus on how money is being spent in the council race, which they expect will have an unintended benefit for Hardesty, the candidate they support to replace outgoing City Commissioner Dan Saltzman.
For the May primary race, Smith raised $324,918, nearly 80 percent of it in chunks that would not meet the proposed city measure's $500 campaign limits, according to a new analysis by the Honest Elections group.
Hardesty, meanwhile, raised $194,246, of which 31 percent would not meet the proposed limits.
The difference in fundraising reflects different philosophies on the issue.
Two years ago Smith testified that limits at the county level were discriminatory, arguing they would hurt her and other minority candidates' ability to forge relationships with monied donors and interests who could assist in seeking higher office.
Last week, her campaign manager, Jake Weigler, said in an email that Smith's views haven't changed, and she has no plans to adopt voluntary limits as some candidates have done in the past.
"Like the Oregon courts, the commissioner has real questions about whether campaign finance limits violate the state and federal constitutions," he wrote.
Indeed, the Multnomah County measure is tied up in court, as a judge's ruling calling limits an unconstitutional violation of free speech awaits appeal.
While Hardesty has submitted an affidavit in support of the county measure in court, she has not adopted voluntary limits as the reformers have generally encouraged.
"I am not in a position to set limits on the amount of money people are willing to give to my campaign because ... my opponent will have a significant financial advantage," she wrote in an email.
The campaign reformers note that Portland voters supported the county limits, and they hope the November election increases the pressure on future candidates to endorse and support reforms — potentially including a public campaign finance system.
But considering the group already has one measure that has been challenged successfully on free-speech grounds, and remains tied up in court, are they just wasting time and public funds in what could be a repeat?
"We're just doing it to aggravate people," Meek quipped, when asked if the push would be a waste. In reality, he said, the city measure will go into more detail than the county one and will have other benefits as well. And he expects both to win at the Oregon Supreme Court level.
"When we win in court and everything is validated, then we will have the limits in place in both Multnomah County and city of Portland races," he said, noting they also plan a statewide measure in 2020.
He likened the push to the court battle that successfully overturned former U.S. Supreme Court rulings supporting segregation.
"If you give up, you lose," he said. "If you don't give up, you win. And we are going to win."
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