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Multnomah contribution limits being considered by the Supreme Court; city version may help

PMG FILE PHOTO - Dan Meek (left) and Jason Kafoury, local leaders in the campaign finance reform effort, shown outside Multnomah County headquarters in 2017. A county measure overwhelmingly approved by voters will be scrutinized by the Oregon Supreme Court.

In 2018, Portland City Council candidate Chloe Eudaly beat incumbent Steve Novick handily, even though he outspent her by a factor of 6-1 — proving that limiting contributions won't hurt candidates' free-speech rights to educate voters about issues of concern.

That, at least, is the moral of the story as told by advocates hoping to rewrite the rules of how campaigns are financed.

In January the Oregon Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments over Multnomah County's campaign finance reform ordinance approved by voters in 2016 — sending a ripple of hope through advocates seeking to limit the influence of money in politics.

Now, in addition to arguing the county case, advocates for limits plan to ask the court to simultaneously consider another case involving a similar, but more detailed, measure approved by city of Portland voters in 2018. Justices would then receive input in the form of sworn affidavits submitted in support of that measure from past Portland city candidates like Eudaly, Jo Ann Hardesty and Jefferson Smith.

The city measure was heard last week in Multnomah Circuit Court, and Judge Eric Bloch vowed to issue a ruling — one that could be considered by the Supreme Court — in 30 days. Campaign finance advocates hope that the somewhat improved city measure will overcome concerns that the county version lacked specificity in some areas.

Jason Kafoury, the Portland lawyer who has been among those leading the charge for contribution limits, said it would make sense for the Supreme Court to consider both cases at once.

"They're such parallel issues," he said recently.

The legal machinations come amid a backdrop in which the Oregon legislature is considering whether to send a different measure to voters.

City candidates weigh in

The affidavits submitted in the city case say that large contributions have a corrupting influence on government, but go out of their way to say smaller contributions are all that's needed to get a candidate's message out.

Smith, who unsuccessfully challenged Charlie Hales for mayor in 2012, detailed his earlier experience in the Oregon Legislature in his affidavit, saying that lobbyists on multiple occasions explicitly linked campaign contributions to his votes, reflecting the "quid pro quo nature of political campaign contributions in Oregon."

He was extremely grateful for the contributions, Smith added — and that's the danger of such "reciprocal" transactions, leading to the public's perception of "soft bribery."

Eudaly, however, offered a counterpoint in her affidavit. She ran for office in 2016 and beat an incumbent, Novick, who outspent her thanks in part to large contributions of $500 or more. For Eudaly, more than 70 percent of her contributions were less than $500, and she got the word out without spending money, "by attracting volunteers, having house parties, organizing and participating in rallies, distributing lawn signs ... and by earning extensive coverage in the local press by offering substantive solutions to Portland's problems," she wrote.

Hardesty, who had earlier submitted an affidavit for the county measure's court challenge before running for the council, described her council run in a new statement for the city case, stressing that the majority of her funding came in contributions of $500 or less.

"There is no reason or need for unlimited campaign contributions," she wrote.

Advocates last week also asked Multnomah commissioners to write an ordinance to implement the measure that would counter concerns that the charter reform measure was too weak. The board had worried doing so might throw a wrench in the current case, but commissioners could refer it to voters in November to avoid that problem, Kafoury told them.

"We have tremendous momentum on campaign finance reform," he said. "I think our best solution here is kick this to the voters (and) we can get around all of these problems."

Oregon stands largely alone

The advocates' efforts to buttress their case is significant because Oregon is one of only a few states that lack limits on contributions. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court's willingness to hear the case — along with a largely new roster of justices that seems willing to overturn past precedent — has supporters of contribution limits more optimistic than they've been in years.

"I don't want to make any presumptions or predictions about what the Supreme Court might do," said Multnomah Commissioner Sharon Meieran, a lawyer who also submitted an affidavit for the litigation in support of campaign finance reform. "But I know that there is quite a different makeup from when the original campaign finance decisions were (issued) ... And I'm cautiously optimistic."

The advocates' legal push began with the November 2016 vote on a Multnomah County charter measure backed by a group calling for "clean elections," which won the support of 89% of voters.

The measure limited contributions to $500 in county elections, and also placed limits on independent expenditures. It also required that candidates disclose their five largest funding sources, and that any organizations spending money must report the original sources of the funding.

Written by the county's charter review committee with input from local activists, the measure was designed to conflict with Supreme Court rulings on both the state and federal level, giving activists a path to revive campaign contribution limits in Oregon and the entire country through the appeals process.

History is the key

The big hurdle the reformers and the county face is the 1997 Oregon Supreme Court ruling, Vannatta v. Keisling.

The ruling relied on a previous precedent saying that the Oregon Constitution's free-speech clause could be restricted only if there was ample precedent before the Constitution was adopted in 1859.

Activists like Kafoury and his ally, lawyer Dan Meek, say that question is more easily addressed because historical research has advanced greatly. Not only that, there are about three dozen states with either identical or nearly identical free-speech clauses — and yet those states have contribution limits, they say.

According to Meek, the 1997 ruling is "a massive outlier."

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