When Gov. Kate Brown appeared before a legislative committee last month to push for new limits on big money in politics, large checks from donors were continuing to flow into her own campaign fund.
Although Brown was just re-elected to a four-year term and can’t run for governor again, she continues to add to her campaign war chest: She’s raised nearly $500,000 since November’s election. Nearly $310,000 of that has come in the new year as the legislative session has geared up.
Brown has urged legislators to adopt strict limits on political donations in Oregon this session, and she approvingly cited the Washington law that puts a $2,000 limit on donations to gubernatorial candidates. However, more than four-fifths of her post-election donations have exceeded that.
Oregon is currently one of a handful of states with no limits, and Thomas Wheatley, a Brown political adviser, defended the governor’s fundraising.
“She always says she plays by the rules as they are,” Wheatley said, “and works to change them in the long run.”
Wheatley said Brown wants to have the resources to “communicate directly with the public” on her legislative agenda. And she could potentially weigh in on ballot measure campaigns if some of her priority issues end up on the ballot.
“So, in some ways, this money is dry powder,” said Wheatley, drawing the analogy of a weapons stockpile prepared for future battle. Brown ended the 2018 campaign with a cash surplus and now reports having $845,000 cash on hand.
Wheatley said Brown was soliciting donations in connection with a fundraiser she conducted in advance of her inauguration on Jan. 14. She has now stopped asking for donations for the duration of the legislative session, he said, although contributions have continued to trickle in throughout February.
Much of this money is coming from donors who backed Brown’s opponent, Republican Knute Buehler, and who are now cutting post-election checks for her. Capitol insiders call such contributions “apology” money or "make-up” cash.
“It’s just, you know, part of being involved in politics in Oregon,” said Greg Remensperger, executive vice president of the Oregon Auto Dealers Association. His group gave $47,000 to Buehler’s campaign before donating $10,000 to Brown on Jan. 18.
“We want business to have a voice at the table, and supporting the governor is part of that equation,” Remensperger said.
Brown’s biggest make-up contribution came from Ken Austin, founder of Newberg-based A-dec, one of the country’s largest dental-supply companies. Austin, now retired and one of Oregon’s most prominent philanthropists, gave Buehler more than $341,000 over the course of the governor’s race.
Shortly after the election, he gave $100,000 to Brown’s campaign.
Brett Baker, who runs Austin’s investment company and works with him on political donations, said that Austin has long had a good relationship with the governor.
“Ken would not agree on every policy position she has but generally believes she is a good person and is doing the best job she can,” Baker said. “And he wanted to reward that.”
Other Buehler donors who gave post-election money to Brown include Cambia Health Solutions, Tillamook County Creamery Association and the Knife River Corporation.
John Watt, a lobbyist and former legislator from Medford, said it’s particularly common for legislators to solicit donations after the election because they are now clearly in a position to get things done.
Watt said he advises clients that if a lawmaker is “going to have influence over something that was important for my business and I had supported the opponent, then it wouldn’t hurt to send a little bit of money to the victor.”
Besides smoothing over any hard feelings from a campaign, these contributions also help ensure policy makers will be open to calls and meetings with donors.
“What’s important at the end of the day is the relationship,” said Sandra McDonough, chief executive officer of Oregon Business & Industry, one of the state’s chief corporate lobbying groups. While her group stayed out of the governor’s race, it has often tangled with Brown over tax and regulatory issues.
She said the business group decided to donate $5,000 to Brown’s inaugural fundraiser, seeing it as a “relatively small contribution, so we did it as a relationship building exercise with the governor.”
Patrick Starnes was the Independent Party of Oregon candidate for governor last year before dropping out of the race in the last few days to endorse Brown. He cited her call for campaign finance reform, and he is now regularly visiting the Capitol to lobby legislators on the issue.
He shrugged at Brown’s post-election fundraising, saying it is “just the nature of the game at this point.”
Starnes said he hopes Brown uses some of the money on a proposed ballot measure to change the Oregon Constitution to make it clear the state can limit campaign donations.
It would be “ironic justice,” he said, if the governor ends up “raising big money to get rid of big money.”