Potter Turns Pol

Dan Petegorsky

One of Portland Mayor Tom Potter’s most admirable qualities has been his refusal to act like a politician. His principled stands on key issues have won him praise in many quarters, even if they’ve frustrated allies who wish he’d sometimes show more political savvy or flex more political muscle.

It’s highly disappointing, then, to see him finally acting like a politician – but in a manner that will actually undermine rather than further a cause for which he has until now been a staunch champion: voter owned elections.

Today, Potter will bring forward an objection to the action the Council took just last week, when it approved treating the July 15th special runoff election for the position being vacated by Erik Sten as a general election. Earlier, the Council had decided, wisely, not to change the rules for candidates to qualify for public financing to accommodate the much shorter timeline that resulted from Sten’s sudden resignation. Their logic at the time was that making ad hoc decisions in the middle of an election wasn’t a smart way to make policy.

But now they want to change all that. The twisted logic, best “explained” by Randy Leonard, is that providing the $200,000 in general election funding for publicly financed candidates in the runoff would put the privately financed candidates who chose not to opt into the system at a disadvantage, since they’d have to spend all their time raising money and wouldn’t then be able to get out and talk to voters. So Potter and Leonard want to cut that amount to $67,000.

It’s not hard to figure out what’s going on here: When the Council earlier chose not to make it easier for other candidates to qualify, the only well known candidate who had stepped forward for the seat was Nick Fish. That decision was sound, and it also benefited a candidate several on the Council favored. At the time, no one considered it likely that a candidate could raise the necessary qualifying contributions in such a short period of time.

To everyone’s surprise, Jim Middaugh – Sten’s chief of staff - jumped in and managed that feat. (Disclosure: I was one of more than 1,000 people who made a $5 contribution to Middaugh’s effort.). So now Nick Fish has a real race on his hands – and apparently no longer relishes the prospect of having to roll up his sleeves and start dialing for dollars. And amazingly, Potter seems willing to go to great lengths to relieve him of that burden, to the point of changing the rules in the middle of the game.

Pro-rating the allocation of general election funding based on the number of days in the election makes no sense at all. The dollar figures in the voter owned elections ordinance were based on what it costs to reach the number of voters necessary in a general election – and that number hasn’t changed. What’s more, it will be harder, not easier, to turn people out in a July special election.

There’s just no way to defend this decision on principle. It’s a patently ad hoc move to advantage one candidate in a race that’s already underway. And that candidate had just the same opportunity to opt into the new system as his opponent and chose not too. Jim Middaugh should not be penalized for Fish’s decision, and it’s unseemly for the Mayor and other commissioners, who were firm in their earlier desire not to alter the system midstream, to do so now because a favored candidate is suddenly sweating.

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    Don't you think it is a little suspicious that Erik Sten resigned in such a fashion that it would be almost impossible for anyone to qualify for public financing?

    Middaugh seemed to have his signatures lined up awfully quickly, as if he knew Sten was resigning before anyone else did.

    I find the whole thing a bit unseemly. The election should have been held in November, when everyone could have competed on a level playing field.

    This feels an awful lot like an attempt to hand off Sten's seat to his designated successor.

  • joel (unverified)

    Apparently Potter has been taking lessons from none other than Scamway Tramway Sam Adams in how to move goalposts.

  • BCM (unverified)

    That's a good point, Paul. Sten's resignation gave little time to prepare, unless you were prepared beforehand...

  • Insider (unverified)

    Boy, how can you possibly believe what you just wrote, Dan?!

    Potter is NOT playing politics; he is correcting the politics that have been played. He is doing his job. You are conveniently forgetting that, if a non-VOE candidate raises more money than the VOE amount, the VOE candidate(s) will receive an equalizing amount.

    As it stands, with Middaugh getting $200K for a two month-long race, he gets a financial advantage over Fish right out of the starting gate. VOE was not designed to pave the way for a VOE victory; it was designed as a method to equalize the playing field between candidates with a lot of people support that may come without much money and the candidates with access to big money backers.

    This is not politics; this is Potter’s fiduciary responsibility. You should be ashamed of yourself for playing politics by making the claim you have made here.

    The $200K amount decided upon for a typical general race was an amount generated with the idea that the campaign period would be from May to November (that’s 5.5 months). This special election will only last from mid-May until mid-July (that’s only 2 months). Just look at the numbers!

    At this point Potter hasn’t decided which candidate he will support in this race. But, I can tell you, it has helped me decide who I won’t support.

  • Brian (unverified)

    I think that it makes sense to prorate the general election amount since the runoff election is less than two months from the date of the primary election. It is simply not fair to give $200K to Middaugh when his opponent in the runoff has very little time to fundraise before ballots are mailed out in mid-June. VOE was supposed to level the playing field, not stack the odds in favor of the VOE candidate over everyone else.

  • Jo Ann Bowman (unverified)

    Dear Insider:

    Voter owned elections was won by a large segment of the Portland Community because they wanted to take the "politics" out of electing our leaders. We want candidates that are not beholden to big money special interest. The community values every person having and using their own voice to determine who best represents our interest and who should be elected to serve us.

    Recent public policy decisions ( like the Auditor who decided to change when a candidate really is a candidate for public office), require us to reflect on why over 12,000 portlanders signed post cards to support this clean money system and filled City hall in support of this system.

    I am really disappointed with Portland City Council's attempt to "fix" the system to favor a privately funded candidate. The values that drive public funded candidates is the desire to talk with Portlanders to determine how best to represent their issues.

    Let's get the politics out of the Voter Owned Election system, and let the races began. Its the candidates job to convince the public they are the right candidate, not the City Council's to change the rules to benefit any individual.

  • Brian (unverified)

    "Let's get the politics out of the Voter Owned Election system"

    Jo Ann, come on, were you giggling while you wrote this? I support VOE but let's all be honest. VOE is infused with politics, from the phony outrage over the Sho Dozono poll to the current effort to stack the odds in favor of Middaugh. The primary election is May 20th. If the runoff election is July 15th the ballots will have to be mailed out June 20th. That is one month time for the runoff candidate to raise $200K to match the funds given to the VOE candidate if the council does not inject some fairness and prorate the amount.

  • joel (unverified)

    Voter owned elections was won by a large segment of the Portland Community because they wanted to take the "politics" out of electing our leaders. We want candidates that are not beholden to big money special interest. The community values every person having and using their own voice to determine who best represents our interest and who should be elected to serve us.

    What is the world does Jo Ann Bowman mean here? The VOE system was set up by the Portland city council, and tinkered with by the auditor, without the voters ever having been asked to approve it!!! The argument has been that the system has to be taken out for a trial run, a test drive, before voters have the data to make an informed decision. Gotta say that, as someone who once favored the system, I am now very skeptical: we had the Boyles/Golovan etc. frauds, and now the dinking around with the rules (or perhaps I should write "rules", as the auditor seems to make them up on the fly). It all feels like the old Ted Mack Amateur Hour.

    Let's get the politics out of the Voter Owned Election system.

    That statement is an oxymoron.

  • insider (unverified)

    Jo Ann,

    I agree with almost everything you stated, except that part about "fixing" the system to favor a privately funded candidate. The mayor is doing nothing of the sort. You are responding to voices other than the mayor's. Shouldn't you hear from him first, before you try to second guess his motives? I know his motives, and I know you are wrong.

    "Let's get the politics out of the Voter Owned Election system, and let the races began."

    I could't agree with you more. So let's not expect the City Council to "fix" the race for a City Hall insider. Let's have an even playing field and let the races begin!

  • Dave Lister (unverified)

    Jo Ann, How can you say that the campaign finance system was "won" by a large segment of the community when we've yet to cast a vote on the matter? Having council enact an ordinance brought forth by an energized advocacy group is not the same as a win at the polls. The 2010 vote is a recommendation at best; the council adopting VOE had no power to bind a future council to bring it to a vote.

  • petrichor (unverified)

    hm, i take issue with your post:

    "[Tom Potter's] principled stands on key issues have won him praise in many quarters, even if they’ve frustrated allies who wish he’d sometimes show more political savvy or flex more political muscle."

    principled stands?? really?


    seriously, though, i don't see a huge problem with pro-rating the VOE amount, though doing it strictly on per-day basis doesn't seem right. let's say they pro-rate it to $67k, as randy leonard suggests, if middaugh's opponent(s) raise more than that, wouldn't additional funding still kick in?

    i haven't paid a ton of attention to the VOE issue, but as long as funding parity is maintained for the voe candidate, doesn't that satisfy the goals of the program?

  • Ed Garren (unverified)

    I think an important fact is being omitted here, any candidate who wanted to qualify for VOE in this race had 20 days to get 1,000+ $5 contributions.

    I've been in "grass roots" organization for three decades. So have my campaign manger (labor) and one of my Steering Committee members (environmental justice) and we all agree that 20 days is a short window to get that sort of task completed, a very short window.

    To add insult to injury, Mr. Middaugh has been telling people in endorsement interviews and candidate forums that his "grass roots" organization collected 1,700 contributions in TEN (10) days.

    Since he works for the incumbent who resigned suddenly with no "public" warning, one cannot help but question the situation, and if he may have had prior knowledge of the resignation, and had his organization waiting in the wings.

    All we really know is that someone who has worked in City Hall for years was able to get the taxpayers to pay for his campaign, including $200,000 for a five week run off.

    More information about this, and other issues, including Rent Stabilization, can be found on my web site, www.edforportland.com

  • Ted (unverified)

    Must agree with Lister on this one. Bowman is off the mark. I think any time you propose something that is a major change from precedent, like VOE, it should go to a vote of the people and be hashed out through the election process. THEN you craft policy, IF it is approved.

    I agree completely with the goal of VOE, but the policy itself was extremely half-baked. The sad thing is that VOE probably would have won if put on the ballot and, shaped by concerns among many voters that would have come out in the process, we would have ended up with a more efficient system. Ironically, you eschewed democracy in the name of democracy. Bush and Cheney would be proud. What we have here is just a prototype VOE policy that was quickly designed, assembled, and shoved into practice. Naturally it is now experiencing severe quality control problems. The people who shoved VOE through City Council are ultimately to blame for the boondoggle it has become. This latest skit is just another consequence of poorly designed policy. Go back to the root cause instead of blaming others for playing politics with a horribly ambiguous and poorly controlled program.

    VOE is a good concept and its purpose is badly needed, but the people behind it probably have done more damage than good. The financial-political elite in Portland must be having a good laugh. They didn't have to spend a dime, just sit back and watch it destroy itself at taxpayer expense.

  • Jonathan Radmacher (unverified)

    I'm still not sure whether I like VOE or not (being in the "let's give it a few cycles" camp), but I would sure hope that the seeming inside-job by Mr. Middaugh could be as effective as Potter's "no big donation" theory was against Mr. Francesconi. I voted for Nick Fish before (and how many of you are now saying, "boy, I wish I had"?), and think that if he wins, he'll be a great member of City Council.

  • Miles (unverified)

    One key question: Why is the City Council making decisions on VOE in the first place? With one member using VOE in the past and others endorsing candidates in current races (some who are using VOE and some who aren't) there is an inherent conflict of interest for each of them. In today's debate, Leonard accused Sten of pulling a fast one in favor of Jim Middaugh. Sten accused Leonard of trying to change the rules to benefit Nick Fish, who Leonard has endorsed. Meanwhile the Mayor is supposedly pushing this out of "fairness", yet his Chief of Staff Austin Raglione has also endorsed Nick Fish. And according to Sten, Raglione was orchestrating this whole thing over the weekend.

    Stop it already! No elected official will ever be able to make a fair decision when it comes to their own elections. The decision power for VOE should be placed in the hands of an independent board, something akin to the PDC. Maybe Council can have the final say -- maybe -- but they should not be involved in the details at all.

    For those who support VOE, that may be the only way to save it, because given how the city has f***ed it up, there's no way it would pass right now if it went to the voters.

  • edison (unverified)

    Actually ... I'd personally prefer that all candidates were required to use VOE only. :-)

  • Cindy (unverified)

    I personally collected signatures for Jim Middaugh. We got the call at our home late on a Friday night and started calling friends Saturday morning. I really don't like calling friends and asking for money, but I believe in Jim Middaugh and also believe in the VOE process.

    To suggest that it was all planned out and Jim "had the signatures in the bag" is outrageous.

    Whenever we dropped off the forms you could see a daly tally on a simple piece of cardboard leaning against the wall. Those numbers weren't very big the first week. I remember thinking he really had a challenge, but knowing Jim, he'd accomplish it. I would return to my car with some more blank forms and drive home thinking of who else I could call. I started carrying the forms around in my purse and asked almost anyone I spoke to.

    The last week, my husband and I were still calling friends and collecting signatures right up until the last minute.

    Many of the folks who signed the form read a brief description of Jim's background and the VOE process. Some may have signed the form before they absolutely made up their mind to vote for Jim. However, they liked what he stood for and appreciated that he wanted to run via VOE. They were willing to sign the form and invest $5 in that process.

    Everyone who signed their name to the form and invested $5 expected the system to live up to it's promises. To change it after 1600 people pledged their support, would be unjust.

  • Doug (unverified)

    Potter's attempt to hijack this election is appalling. The amount of money allocated for a campaign has nothing to do with how many days are in the election. A candidate has to reach the same number of voters as in the normal cycle. And to change the rules in mid-campaign is just astonishing.

    <h2>This is quite a path of scorched earth the Mayor is leaving behind.</h2>

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