Wheeler promises to comply with campaign contribution limits
Mayor Ted Wheeler's reelection campaign will now comply with the Multnomah County campaign contribution limit upheld by the Oregon Supreme Court, even though it does not yet legally apply to Portland races.
In an early Friday evening statement, Wheeler said his campaign will no longer accept contributions of more than $500, the limit in the measure approved by county voters in 2016 that was upheld by the court in a ruling issued Thursday, April 23.
"The City of Portland Elections Office has stated that they do not believe campaigns for
City offices are bound by this ruling, which technically would allow my campaign to
continue soliciting larger donations," Wheeler said in a statement issued late Friday, April 24.
"However, to avoid even more confusion, and to make it clear to voters that we agree contribution limits are now state law, we are going to adopt the voter approved limits without exception."
A case concerning the legality of a similar measure approved by Portland voters in 2018 currently is before the Oregon Court of Appeals. Portland elections officials have said it is not yet in effect, although they are now determining the steps necessary to enact it.
The court ruling prompted Portland lawyer and campaign reform activist Dan Meek to demand the City Auditor's Office immediately enforce the limit on candidates running for the City Council.
"The limits are in effect," said Meek, who is active with Honest Elections, the advocacy group that wrote both measures.
But Portland Elections Officer Deborah Scroggin said the ruling will not immediately be enforced in city races.
"It will not be changing how we administer anything in the short term," Scroggin said shortly after the ruling was released.
Before Wheeler issued his statement, Scroggin said Friday that the city supports the measure approved by Portland voters, and will enact it after figuring out the necessary legal steps. That could require action by the Oregon Court of Appeals, which is not meeting because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Because the city wasn't a party to the Multnomah County case, however, there are steps that the city needs to take before it can begin enforcing its campaign contribution limits, and we are working with the City Attorney's Office to determine what legal steps are necessary to begin enforcement going forward," Scroggin said on April 24.
The ruling was issued less than a month before the May 19 primary election.
Some city candidates have received contributions of more than $500 during the primary, including Wheeler, mayoral challenger Ozzie Gonzalez, council contenders Jack Kerfoot, Keith Wilson and others. Meek said they all are subject to fines between two and 20 times the amount of each contribution over $500.
But the lawyer who challenged the measure before the Oregon Supreme Court argues that even the county limits are not yet in effect. Among other things, Gregory Chaimov noted the ruling remands the measure back to the trial court to determine whether the limit violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and whether the amounts are reasonable.
"The Supreme Court's decision won't be final for at least three weeks while the parties have an opportunity to ask the court to reconsider the decision, and even then, the trial court needs to decide if the amounts of the county's limits are valid," Chaimov said.
Meek said the ruling should apply equally to the city measure because both measures are so similar and were both heard by the same judge. Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Eric Bloch conducted validation hearings on both of the measures, and he ruled both violated the free speech provisions of the Oregon Constitution.
The case concerning the Multnomah County measure, which was heard first, was appealed directly to the Oregon Supreme Court. The Portland case, which was heard later, was sent to the Oregon Court of Appeals, where no action has yet been taken on it.
The Portland Business Alliance, which challenged the county measure along with Oregon Business and Industry, said enforcement should wait until Oregon voters consider a similar statewide measure at the Nov. 3 general election.
"In November, Oregon voters will be asked to approve a constitutional amendment to allow campaign contribution limits. Passage of that measure should initiate the start of a bipartisan, collaborative conversation about how limits will be set to ensure a fair and even playing field for all involved," said the statement in part.
"The solution, I believe, is for the state Legislature to take this up immediately in the
2021 session and establish uniform rules, similar to nearly all other states that have
adopted contribution limits. Every candidate should be held accountable to the same
standards," Wheeler said Friday.
The ruling was issued after Scroggin's office determined on Tuesday, April 21, that Wheeler's campaign violated another provision of the Portland measure that Bloch had upheld. The office warned the campaign for not listing the top five contributors above $1,000 on its campaign advertising.
The office gave the campaign until May 5 to come into compliance with the requirement, which it noted was new and complex.
"I strongly encourage the campaign to familiarize itself with these campaign regulations and correct the violations on all campaign communications as quickly as possible," Scroggin said in an April 21 letter to the campaign.
You can read the Oregon Supreme Court ruling here.
You can read Scroggin's letter to Wheeler's campaign here.
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