Contending with strict campaign finance limits and a dwindling haul of donations, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler will rely on his own money to finance his reelection effort.
The mayor has loaned his campaign $150,000. Without that money, his account would have about $19,000 in it, according to the most recent campaign finance records.
An incumbent mayor pouring his own money into his campaign just two weeks before ballots go out would likely raise eyebrows during any election cycle. But with Portland’s campaign finance limits now in effect, the donation caused an outcry among the mayor’s critics, who charged that Wheeler was circumventing the will of his constituents.
Wheeler’s opponent, Sarah Iannarone, framed the loan as an illegal overstep by a wealthy mayor with a flailing reelection bid.
“Wheeler’s loan to his own campaign is a blatant violation of the City Charter and election laws that over 87% of Portlanders voted to adopt,” she said in a statement. “He’s trying to buy this election with his inheritance.”
The vast majority of voters approved strict campaign finance limits back in 2018, limiting individual donations to $500 and capping the amount a candidate could give themselves at $5,000.
These limits were in legal limbo for much of the campaign amid court challenges. But after the Oregon Supreme Court’s ruled in favor of a similar Multnomah County law this spring, the city auditor said she could start enforcing Portland’s rules. Since then, the mayor has been hit with a number of campaign violations related to the new rules.
But it doesn’t look like the city auditor will be giving the mayor a hard time about this loan.
In late April, the city auditor’s office told candidates that while the recent court decision meant the city would start penalizing people for violating campaign contribution limits, they would not be enforcing the part of the measure that limits how much a candidate can fund their campaign.
This means, while the mayor’s $150,000 gift to his campaign goes against the rules in the city charter, there will not be a violation forthcoming as the city believes that part of the charter won’t hold up in court. The email sent to candidates in April said the auditor will not enforce the rule until “authorized to do so by a court decision.”
Jason Kafoury, a Portland attorney who helped craft Portland’s campaign finance limits, said he is arguing a case in front of Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Eric Bloch that could act as this court decision, giving a final green light to Portland’s campaign finance measure. The case deals with the county’s campaign finance limits, but he said it will directly affect how Portland’s limits are enforced.
Kafoury said he believed that, despite legal challenges, the measure remains in effect — and the Wheeler campaign is taking a big gamble betting he won’t one day be penalized.
“We believe it’s in effect,” Kafoury said. “The mayor has arguments about why it’s unconstitutional, but no court has deemed it unconstitutional.”
It’s a murky legal area the mayor’s own campaign aides had questions about. They consulted their lawyer with Markowitz Herbold PC, asking if Wheeler could contribute to the campaign more than the $5,000 limit imposed by the charter. In an emailed response, the attorney said yes, citing U.S. Supreme Court precedent that held limits on spending personal funds were unconstitutional and noting that the City Auditor would not be enforcing the code.
In a statement, Wheeler’s campaign manager, Danny O’Halloran, defended the mayor’s loan, saying self-funding was a way to save time and tax money. The mayor declined to take part in the city’s publicly funded election program, in which small-dollar donations are matched by city money 6-1.
“Mayor Wheeler chose early in his campaign not to take taxpayer dollars to finance his re-election. He understood that this put him at a competitive disadvantage when it came to fundraising,” wrote O’Halloran. “As the incumbent mayor, this decision regarding his campaign ensures that his time is spent addressing the needs of the city and continuing to work every day putting the interests of Portlanders first.”
Iannarone’s campaign had a different take. Within a day of the loan showing up on the state campaign finance database, Iannraone’s campaign sent out a fundraising email asking voters to donate today and “stand against corruption.”
Iannarone, who has taken part in the city’s public campaign financing system, has out-raised the mayor this year with a haul of $617,032. She’s spent $513,913, according to state records. The mayor has taken in $449,277 — including the donation to himself — and spent $319,514.