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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Public Cash Re-Hash

Posted on Tue, Jun 10, 2008 at 12:46 PM

Last night the Citizen Campaign Commission, the city’s volunteer group tasked with overseeing and analyzing public financing, held its exit interviews for the three ex-candidates who received public money in the City Council race. The candidates (John Branam, Jim Middaugh and Jeff Bissonette) candidly dished the dirt about the processes’s strengths and shortcomings.

But first! Jim Middaugh said he found public understanding of what public financing actually means was “incredibly low” so below the cut there’s a quick primer on what the hell public financing entails, if you’re feeling a little fuzzy on the facts.

Actually, being unsure of the exact details of the wildly complex and specific campaign finance law was a complaint from some of the candidates, too. Jim Middaugh said the lawyer who perused the entire public financing manual reported that there’s “absolutely no way to comply with all the rules.” Working through the details of whether postcard stamps and pizza slices count as in-kind contributions and filling out thousands of forms in triplicate proved to be cumbersome hurdles.

Also, all the candidates purported to really enjoy the face-to-face contact with voters the public financing rules force on city council candidates as they raced to collect $5 contributions from 1,000 people. “Ninety percent of the effort was fun,” said John Branam. Even Jim Middaugh, whose participation in a special election meant he had under two weeks to get the 1,000 contributions, remained upbeat. “It generated a lot of conversation in the communities,” he said, “There isn’t anything else in our civic fabric that gets people talking like this … it wasn’t so much about the candidacy as it was about people connecting with one another.”

The biggest point of contention was whether the city’s $150,000 matching funds is enough to actually run a city-wide campaign. Jeff Bissonnette and Jim Middaugh felt they lacked the money to really advertise effectively, which hurt their name recognition. “I don’t think you’re going to see any incumbent defeated by a publicly-financed candidate,” said Middaugh. The commissioners replied that the public financing is meant to provide access to the political process, but not necessarily equal footing between candidates, some of whom may be better known.

John Branam, however, thought $150,000 was enough campaign cash. He explained later, “My challenge and that of my fellow candidates in terms of general name recognition had less to do with money and more to do with being at the bottom of the ballot in a year when the presidential and mayoral race dominated.”

I thought Branam would have been more critical of the process, since the questionably-legal payment of his campaign manager caused a dust up but nope, he told me later, “The rules were what they were and the auditor’s office made the decisions they did and all in all, I thought they were very fair.” While the whole system could use some “incremental improvements” in forms and training and such, the fledgling process worked: “These public dollars bought Portlanders a very competitive race.”

All involved said they appreciated the commission’s hard work and good intentions – especially since the commission is all volunteers who spent long nights plowing through public financing paperwork. As one commissioner said, “We’re paid in pizza.”

UNFUZZY FINANCING FACTS

The City of Portland has a chunk of money that it set aside, beginning in 2005, to give to candidates in city races. The goal is to make races for public office more competitive and accessible – people who may not have the private dollars to run an expensive city-wide campaign can rely on the city to foot part of the bill. To qualify for these public moneys, candidates have to abide by a specific slew of rules.
1. First, city council candidates need to collect $5 contributions from 1,000 people.
2. Then, the candidates can collect up to $15,000 in “seed money” but not more than $100 from any one person.
3. The candidate can also accept up to $9,000 of in-kind contributions, which are useful items that aren’t cash or checks (like polls, pizza or garish neon campaign shirts).
4. If these simple finance rules are met along with the avalanche of details outlined in the 104-page candidate manual, the city council candidate receives $150,000 to run his or her campaign!

posted by Sarah Mirk

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