Portland weighs tweaking public campaign finance program to allow larger donations

By Alex Zielinski (OPB)
June 24, 2024 10:46 p.m. Updated: June 26, 2024 3:42 p.m.

City election leaders are worried the small donor program won’t provide enough for competitive campaigns.

Less than five months from a historic election, Portland may tweak campaign finance rules to stretch the city’s cash-strapped public financing program.

On Friday, city candidates were emailed a survey asking whether the city’s Small Donor Elections program should loosen its rules around the amount and type of in-kind donations nonprofits and other political organizations can give candidates.


The proposal, first reported by Willamette Week, has drawn both praise and alarm from those involved in city campaigns.

“We don’t need more money in politics,” said Marnie Glickman, a candidate running to represent Portland’s new District 2, which spans North and Northeast Portland. “The ideas being discussed are anti-democratic.”

The small donor program rewards candidates who don’t accept individual donations over $350 by matching those contributions with public funds 9-to-1. The program was created to level the playing field for candidates who may have fewer deep-pocketed supporters than others — potentially hampering their ability to fund a competitive campaign.

This year’s general election has attracted a uniquely large pool of candidates, due to voter-approved changes that scrapped primary elections and set the stage for 14 city elected offices to be open all at once. Nearly 80 candidates have applied to participate in the program so far.

Due to the large number of participants and limited amount of available funding, the Portland Elections Commission in January chose to lower the amount of total funds council candidates can receive from the city through the program to $120,000 from the previous $300,000 cap.

Through the program, candidates are limited to receiving no more than $10,000 worth of in-kind donations from political committees and non-profits. Those organizations must receive at least 90% of their annual funds from contributions of $250 or less per donor, a rule meant to exclude committees fueled by wealthy donors. Those donations are limited to paying staff to canvas or run a phone bank, sharing donor lists, and assisting with general campaign planning.

The Friday survey asked candidates if contributing organizations should be able to spend more than $10,000 on in-kind donations and to broaden the donations included — like allowing organizations to donate space to host campaign events, fundraisers, and print and distribute for campaigns. It also asked whether organizations can still participate in the small donor program if they receive 90% of their funding from contributions of $350 or less — instead of $250.

Jake Weigler, a political consultant with Praxis Political, said this would allow political committees with wealthier donors to contribute.

“If your goal was to reduce the influence of large organizations in the campaign process, this undercuts that by giving them a larger role,” said Weigler, who is working on several City Council campaigns.

Susan Mottet oversees the Small Donor Election program and distributed the survey on behalf of the Portland Elections Commission, which makes recommendations on city election rules. She said these proposed changes could help campaigns stretch limited funds a bit further.

“With no ability to increase campaign matching caps, we have to look at options,” she said. “The Portland Elections Commission is trying to figure out if there is anything they have power to do to get candidates more support without making changes that undercut the intent of the program.”

She knows the spotlight is on her office this election.

“Obviously, the program succeeds or fails based on if a campaign is viable,” Mottet said.


Weigler said the proposed changes to the program reflect this pressure.

“I get the urgency that they don’t don’t want to fumble this, during such a critical election,” he said. “But it creates inherent tension. It makes it much easier for organizations to put their thumb on the scale and elevate a class of candidates they prefer.”

Some political insiders say these changes are vital for upholding the program’s intent.

“The theory of the original program is to limit the amount of money that organizations can give, and to mitigate that shortfall with city funding,” said Laurie Wimmer, the head of NW Oregon Labor Council, who has convened a group of labor leaders to endorse council candidates this year. “But if that money wanes, like it has this year, it’s only fair that something has to give on the other side of the equation to run a credible campaign.”

Wimmer, who led an unsuccessful campaign for state representative in 2020, said that the cost of sending out one piece of campaign mail could cost over $10,000, the current in-kind limit.

Doug Moore, the former head of the Oregon League of Conservation Voters, now leads United for Portland, a political action committee that represents business and industry groups. He called the current small donor program “disingenuous” because it potentially limits candidates from running what he considers successful campaigns.

“Not being able to fully match funds — that’s bad for democracy in general,” Moore said. “I appreciate the effort to try and help candidates be a little more flexible and able to run campaigns.”

He does worry that the more complex the election’s rules are, the more at-risk candidates are for breaking them, especially if the rules change in the middle of campaign season.

“It’s like they’re trying to build the plane as they’re flying it,” Moore said.

Council candidate Glickman said her campaign hasn’t been hampered by the limited public matching caps. She agrees that the timing of the proposed change is a problem.

“We shouldn’t change rules mid-game,” said Glickman, who is one of more than 20 candidates for District 2 who are participating in the small donor program thus far.

She said that allowing wealthier organizations to support low-cost campaigns is an even bigger concern. The fact that these possible tweaks may be needed, she said, is entirely the city’s fault.

“The city of Portland needs to be more consistent in its planning its programs, funding its programs, and implementing its programs in a responsible and transparent way,” Glickman said.

Not all candidates agree. Steph Routh, a candidate in East Portland’s District 1, was one of the first candidates to qualify for the small donor program. She said she’s been impressed with the level of transparency from the city’s elections program. However, she is cautious to fully endorse the proposed funding changes to the small donor program.

“We created a budget early on assuming we would have limited resources, and we’ve made it work,” Routh said. “I think the fundamental question before us is, ‘How do we create pathways to support a grassroots-based campaign to ensure no single actor or donor creates an advantage after election?’”

The Portland Elections Commission will discuss the survey responses at its Wednesday meeting and potentially propose a policy change. Any new administration policy requires four weeks of public feedback before going into effect, but they don’t require a sign-off from the City Council.

That means the earliest any changes could come to the small donor program could be late July, less than four months from election day.

Correction: Marnie Glickman’s name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story. OPB regrets the error