Governor hopeful still sees campaign finance as key issue
Patrick Starnes is running for governor this year under a different party banner — but his top priority is unchanged.
Starnes, one of 15 Democratic candidates so far, still wants to curb the influence of big money in Oregon politics.
He bowed out as the Independent Party nominee in 2018 and endorsed Democratic incumbent Kate Brown, who won with 50.1%. (Starnes, whose name remained on the ballot, still won 2.9%.) Now he is running for the Democratic nomination in the May 17 primary; Brown cannot run again because of term limits.
Brown and Republican nominee Knute Buehler of Bend together raised and spent just under $40 million, a record for a governor's race.
"The ugly ads proved a wash," Starnes said of the negative advertising by the major-party candidates.
Two years after that race, Oregon voters approved a legislative referral (Measure 107) that excludes regulation of political campaign finances from the constitutional guarantee of free expression, which the Oregon Supreme Court had held for more than two decades. (The court had reversed course earlier in 2020 and upheld limits in Multnomah County.)
Oregon is among a handful of states with no campaign contribution or spending limits.
But the Legislature did not advance a proposal in its 2021 session. After Secretary of State Shemia Fagan blocked three proposed initiative measures from advancing to the initial stages of signature gathering, legislative committees heard some proposals.
"The good-government groups, including me, are open to whatever limits the Legislature is comfortable with. Everyone realizes there needs to be some sort of limits, even if they were super high," Starnes said in an interview.
"The voters made that clear with a 78% vote for Measure 107. A lot of people I've met throughout the state thought we set limits when we passed it."
After Starnes spoke, the way was cleared for a legal challenge to Fagan's denials by initiative sponsors — under the banner of Honest Elections Oregon — in the Oregon Supreme Court.
Starnes said legislation in the 2022 session would have the advantage of taking effect in time for the general election. Some pending proposals, and any proposed initiatives that qualify for a statewide vote in 2022, would not take effect until the 2024 election cycle.
Starnes said if it were up to him, individuals would be limited to contributions of $1,000 per candidate — primary and general elections are separate — and the law would ban money from businesses and political action committees.
Oregon did operate for one election cycle under limits imposed by a 1994 ballot initiative, which set a maximum contribution of $100 to a legislative candidate and $500 to a statewide candidate. But in 1997, just after the 1996 election, the Supreme Court overturned those limits as a violation of the free-expression guarantee.
Legislation proposed in 2019, but which failed to advance, would have excluded the political parties, and the political arms of the legislative party caucuses, from any limits.
"That is not a 'limits' bill," Starnes said. "That is my only litmus test."
Echoing a declaration years ago by columnist Molly Ivins, Starnes said that campaign finance reform is the one issue whose resolution would allow lawmakers to break gridlock on other issues.
Starnes said a national case in point is the development of the Affordable Care Act, which President Barack Obama signed in 2010. The law has survived Republican attempts to repeal or weaken it, but Starnes is among those who favor a single-payer system under which the government pays all medical bills, akin to the federal Medicare program for people 65 and older. Congress never debated such a proposal, and a public option for health insurance was dropped before the 2010 bill became law.
"When Obamacare was discussed, guess who was at the table? Health care companies," he said.
A single-payer system has been proposed in Oregon, but it has not advanced to a vote of either house, and voters rejected a ballot initiative in 2002. Vermont shelved its 2011 attempt to create such a system — largely because of its cost — and the California Assembly just killed a bill to do so.
But Starnes said Oregon still has 300,000 uncovered adults, equal to the populations of four southwest Oregon counties, excluding Jackson County. The 2021 Legislature did pass legislation (House Bill 2164) to enable the Oregon Health Authority to set up a program to cover more adults below specified household income levels, known as Cover All People.
Starnes turns 60 the month of the primary. He and his wife live in Brownsville, where they moved in 2017. He lists his occupation as home repairer; he has experience in carpentry and furniture making. He completed Umpqua Community College in 1990 and earned a bachelor's degree in 1996 from the University of Oregon.
He has been on the boards of the Douglas Education Service District and the McKenzie School District. He also was on the Umpqua Basin Watershed Council.
Given that 40% of the state budget from tax collections and lottery proceeds goes to support of public schools, Starnes said half-jokingly, "school-board service should be required for everyone who gets to Salem."
Compared with the campaigns of former House Speaker Tina Kotek and state Treasurer Tobias Read, Starnes has raised little money. His biggest contribution is a $30,000 loan to himself.
"But I'm for real," he said. "I'm not raising the millions of dollars that TV stations really like. But I've run before and I'm working hard. I stand far apart from what I call the establishment Democrats."
"As a red-county Democrat, I feel I provide more experience than the metro-county Democrats in working on natural resource issues and working side by side along conservative farmers and ranchers and the timber industry."
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