Mayor 2012: Some questions as the horse-race heats up

Kyle Curtis Facebook

[A]s the 2012 mayor’s race will be the first one held after the recently-rejected VOE, the outcome of this race will have effects beyond simply policy. How the eventual winner balances a well-funded campaign with a message that speaks to a plurality of voters may very well set the model for mayoral elections in Portland’s foreseeable future.

A year-and-a-half from now, Portland may have a new mayor.

With the recent announcements by Charlie Hales and Eileen Brady to challenge Sam Adams for Portland’s leadership, the upcoming year should provide an interesting and engaging debate about the city’s future. Certainly, as The Oregonian’s Anna Griffin pointed out, more candidates in the mayor’s race will lead to a better debate. And considering that Portland is a town where you can’t throw a rock without hitting a civically engaged urban planner, each of the declared candidates- including the incumbent- are going to have to work very hard to earn the votes they need.

The 2012 mayor’s election will also have reverberations beyond the policy debate. The strategy and tactics used by the eventual winner will create the model to be used by successful mayoral candidates in future elections. Portland has changed since 2004, when Tom Potter defeated Jim Francesconi. In fact, it could even be said that this isn’t the same Portland from four years ago, when Adams easily defeated Sho Dozono. Publically financed campaigns- aka "voter owned elections"- no longer play a factor, and a candidate will need to prove they have the muster to raise funds if they want to be taken seriously. At the same time, a review of recent elections indicates that such fund-raising acumen could possibly alienate voters. Considering the current circumstances, there are a few questions to consider as the political horse-race unfolds over the upcoming months.

First, however, a brief history of recent Portland electoral politics for the unfamiliar:

2004- Former police chief Tom Potter succeeds in the mayor’s race against sitting city Commissioner Jim Francesconi. Potter limited his campaign contribution to $100 during the general election. This self-imposed campaign limitation resonated with the voters. Francesconi set a record by raising a million dollars for his campaign, and was viewed by skeptical voters as being in the pockets of the city’s well-heeled corporate set. Despite his impressive fund-raising skills, Francesconi was unable to come out on top of Potter’s grandfatherly image. Once in office, Potter preceded to act even more as a grandfather, pretty much sleeping for four straight years and occasionally waking up to grow a beard. (Seriously, can anyone tell meet what Potter did for Portland besides the whole “VisionPDX” thing, whatever the heck that was?)

2005- The Portland City Council votes to pass Voter Owned Elections (VOE), setting aside a minute amount from the city’s general fund to be available for the political campaigns of members of the public who qualify. To satisfy critics who claimed that the council pushed VOE “down the throats” of the voters without any public buy-in, the Council determined that voters would have a chance to vote on VOE in 2010. This created a five-year window to see if VOE would expand the field for nontraditional candidates who would be able to run on the strength of their ideas and not the amount of money they raised. While the VOE process had some obvious mistakes- ahem Emilie Boyles ahem- it also resulted in some VOE-funded success stories, such as current city Commissioner Amanda Fritz.

2008- Once Tom Potter announced in late 2007 that he would not seek re-election as mayor, the ’08 mayoral race became Sam Adams’s to lose. Commissioner Adams clearly had an eye on the job he spent eleven years as the Chief of Staff for, and while there were a number of fringe candidates who sought the open mayor seat, the only real opposition was provided by Sho Dozono, recruited by the city’s business and civic leaders to provide a challenge to Adams. The challenge was ultimately futile, however, as Adams rolled to nearly 60% of the vote in the May 2008 primary, avoiding a November run-off. Adams avoided using public funds for his campaign, stating that he did not want to benefit from a program that he had voted to help pass. At the same time, Adams learned from the million-dollar mistake of Jim Francesconi while slightly altering a page from Tom Potter’s book, limiting campaign contributions to $500 from individuals. Although Dozono initially sought public funds, a court’s ruling denied him the amount he had been awarded, and as a result Dozono kept to a similar $500 individual campaign limit.

2010- With the five-year window over, Portland voters had a chance to give their say on VOE. Swayed by a disingenuous campaign that voter-owned elections are “an unnecessary waste of the public's money,” VOE was overturned at the ballot’s box. As a result, the possibility of a publicly-funded and supported candidate being able to mount a serious challenge to a well-funded candidate supported by private interests no longer exists. Running a political campaign- especially a successful one- requires yard signs, campaign ads, get out the vote efforts, etc. Somehow those bills have to be paid, and if public funds aren’t available then the only option are to seek checks from donors instead.

This brings us to the present. 2012 will be the first mayor’s race of Portland’s post-VOE era. Considering the lessons learned- or perhaps ignored- from recent Portland elections, the following questions raise some key issues for the next mayoral election:

Will Sam Adams benefit from the power of incumbency? There are certainly advantages of being an incumbent. Like him or not, he is the only one in this race who has a record as mayor to run on. Critics might say that Adams’ record is the reason why opponents have declared their candidacy, but Adams can take credit for anything good that has happened in Portland the past four years. His opponents can’t. Adams better hope the power of incumbency provides an advantage, because otherwise he will be starting at the same point as his opponents. Limiting himself to $500 individual contributions four years ago has resulted in a barren campaign chest now. He will have to resort to fundraising as well. The question is: will his record as mayor result in the needed campaign cash?

How will Charlie Hales and Eileen Brady’s connections with the private sector help or hurt their campaign? Although he was a former city commissioner, Charlie Hales has spent most of the past decade in the private sector, selling streetcars to cities looking to re-develop their inner urban core. As jobs will probably be once again a key issue in the 2012 election, Hales will be able to point to his successful record in the private sector. Of course, Eileen Brady will be able to point to a similar successful record as well, and her experience co-founding New Seasons markets could certainly add to her mayoral cache, especially at a time when Portland’s food scene is getting international acclaim. With their connections to the private sector, both Hales and Brady could be prolific fund raisers, and as such would be formidable opponents to an incumbent Mayor Adams. At the same time, if there is a lesson learned from the million-dollar loss by Jim Francesconi in 2004, the candidate who raises the most funds may not necessarily get the public support and the votes needed to become mayor.

Speaking of Franesconi, are we certain that the 2012 mayoral race will be limited to these three front-runners? Will others throw their name into the ring, and become a dark horse challenger to not just Mayor Adams, but his well-connected and well-known challengers as well? Francesconi is rumored to express an interest in another possible mayoral run, along with former Senate candidate Steve Novick. Other names that have been mentioned- who knows how much is based in reality and how much based in wishful thinking- include County Commission Chair Jeff Cogen and current City Commissioner Dan Saltzman. If either of them decide to enter the race, how would it affect the political calculus for all of the current candidates?

Certainly, with the potential for a wide selection of mayoral candidates, the discussions about Portland’s future could be very interesting and provide for a captivating mayoral race. But clearly, as the 2012 mayor’s race will be the first one held after the recently-rejected VOE, the outcome of this race will have effects beyond simply policy. How the eventual winner balances a well-funded campaign with a message that speaks to a plurality of voters may very well set the model for mayoral elections in Portland’s foreseeable future.

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