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Despite advocates' request, commissioners won't follow voter-approved rules while they are on appeal

TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - Dan Meek (left) and Jason Kafoury, leaders of the successful county charter reform effort to limit campaign contributions, shown last year outside Multnomah County headquarters.Multnomah County will join supporters of campaign contribution limits in appealing a local judge's ruling against 2016 campaign finance reforms that were approved by 89 percent of voters.

And if anything, the activists behind passage of the measure plan to step up their efforts despite an 11-page ruling that was issued by Multnomah Circuit Judge Eric Bloch calling the limits a violation of the free-speech clause of Oregon's Constitution.

The advocates say they intend to keep pressing for a similar set of reforms at Portland City Hall and are prepared to pursue a statewide measure if necessary. Currently, Oregon is one of only a handful of states that does not limit campaign contributions.

One thing the reformers don't have to worry about? Backup. County Communications Director Julie Sullivan-Springhetti said that in light of the voters' clear preference, county Chair Deborah Kafoury already has informed the county's lawyers that the county will appeal as well.

The new round of litigation should not be a shock to anyone. Supporters of the Multnomah charter reform measure, 26-184, had expected their rules to be appealed to a higher court all along — despite being hopeful that they'd win on the local level.

The rules contained in the measure were specifically crafted by advocates to be appealed all the way up to the Oregon Supreme Court and even the U.S. Supreme Court, to overturn rulings at both locations that have frustrated reformers.

"We view Judge Bloch's decision as just a preliminary ruling," said Portland lawyer Jason Kafoury, one of the lead organizers of the county campaign limits. Though he is a cousin to the county chair, he says the two have never discussed the limits.

"It's not a final ruling because he's not the final say," the lawyer added. "The Supreme Court's the final say. ... We are not going to retreat in the face of his opinion."

Bloch's March 6 decision was even worse than the activists had feared, however. It not only shot down the measure's $500 contribution limits but panned a clause requiring independent expenditure campaigns to disclose who was funding them.

"I was very surprised at that part of it," Jason Kafoury said.

But the activists are finding cause to celebrate. For one thing, in the seven months it took Bloch to issue a ruling, the county has implanted the rules called for by the reform measure.

That makes it easier for advocates to try to keep them going, and they intend to go directly to candidates to ask them to consider the lopsided outcome of the charter reform vote.

"We're going to ask candidates to continue to follow the law," Jason Kafoury said.

At least with the incumbents, that doesn't appear likely. District 3 Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson said that while she supports the county's appeal, she's only 15 months into her term and is not ready to commit to limiting her contributions. "There are benefits and drawbacks to voluntarily capping contributions," she said in an email. "My potential opponents wouldn't have to adhere to any limits given the ruling."

Commissioner Sharon Meieran, among the most vocal supporters of the measure on the county board, said that given Bloch's ruling, "I won't unilaterally subject myself to limits that could put me at a significant disadvantage in the future."

Chair Deborah Kafoury said in an email that while she supports campaign finance reform and has directed County Attorney Jenny Madkour to appeal, she won't follow the limits unless they are upheld.

"As it stands today, much of the amendment has been found unlawful," said Chair Kafoury, who is running for reelection. "As a candidate, I'll follow what is legal and Constitutional at the time."

Commissioner Lori Stegmann also said in an email she does not plan to honor the limits, saying that while she plans to seek broad-based grassroots support in any future campaign, "the reality is that it takes a certain amount of money to be a viable candidate."

Jason Kafoury says there is some good news: Bloch ruled that an outside group funded by well-known conservative activists in the Koch family, the Virginia-based Center for Competitive Politics, did not file to join the suit in time.

That means that the anti-reform group's efforts to throw out several testimonials by Oregon politicians about the insidious influence of large campaign contributions won't be honored, and the politicos' affidavit can be considered during the appeals process. Those include current and former state lawmakers Mitch Greenlick, Jo Ann Hardesty and Chip Shields, and former Multnomah County Chair Diane Linn.

Some donors "made it clear that if I took a position on an issue in which they had an interest, they would base future support on my adherence to their position," Linn wrote in her affidavit. "As public officials, we clearly spent more time with large donors and potential major givers, attempting to meet their expectations and provide deference. ... You felt you had no choice but to play the game, or lose to someone who would play it."

Calling for a replay

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 only be restricted if there was ample precedent before the Constitution was adopted in 1859.

Lawyer Dan Meek, a longtime campaign finance activist, says it's "very realistic" to think the group could persuade the current Supreme Court to redo its thinking. In part that's because historical research has advanced greatly. Not only that, but he says there are about three dozen states with either identical or nearly identical free-speech clauses — and yet those states have contribution limits.

The 1997 ruling is "a massive outlier," Meek said. "So yes, reversing that is entirely realistic."

Former Oregon Secretary of State Phil Keisling, who defended contribution limits in the case, said "I do think this is a chance for the OR Supreme Court to revisit what I did think was an unfortunate decision." He said the Vannatta ruling was the local version of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling against limits called "Citizens United," which is also targeted by the reformers.

The Oregon ruling, Keisling added, spawned similar "gushers of campaign money into Oregon races, long before the U.S. Supreme Court did the same for the rest of the country."

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