In a state with no limits on campaign cash, the candidates vying to oversee elections are rushing to set their own.
The three top Democrats running for Oregon Secretary of State next year have quietly developed an array of proposals for how they’d like to curb the influence of big money in one of 2020’s highest profile statewide races.
If they’re agreed upon by all contenders, the proposals could reshape a contest that — with Oregon laws being what they are — is certain to attract mountains of cash. But as of Thursday, any potential for an agreement was unclear, and at least one candidate was vowing to go her own direction.
The candidates, state Rep. Jennifer Williamson, D-Portland, state Sen. Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, and former congressional candidate Jamie McLeod-Skinner, have repeatedly emphasized their support for changes to the state’s permissive campaign finance laws. Two have taken pains to tout their support for a legislative resolution that will give voters the opportunity to OK contribution limits next year.
None have formally unveiled proposals for self-imposed limits, but they shared their intentions with OPB.
State Rep. Jennifer Williamson
Williamson signaled on Wednesday that she intends to set her own limits, regardless of what her opponents do.
“I believe candidates for Secretary of State have a special responsibility to set a new standard and lead the way on this issue,” Williamson said in a statement to OPB. “That’s why I have decided to voluntarily place limits on corporate contributions to my campaign.”
Williamson’s pledge is to limit donations from corporations or political action committees run by corporations to $2,000 per election, meaning she would take that amount from such groups in both the May primary and November general election. Williamson also said she’ll reject any contributions from companies that don't do business in Oregon.
State Sen. Mark Hass
Hass on Thursday said he’d be putting forth a far more stringent proposal: Asking all candidates to agree to limit donations to $250 per contributor.
The longtime lawmaker, who has seen his share of large checks from corporate and institutional supporters over the years, said he’s seeking to set an example in the current race.
“All the candidates — Democrats included, and maybe especially — have had to resort to taking these large contributions to survive in a system that has no rules,” Hass said. “Let’s set some rules.”
McLeod-Skinner, who last year challenged U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Oregon, wants the candidates to adhere to federal contribution rules. Those set a range of limits on what different entities can donate to candidates — for instance, a $2,800 limit per election from individuals and a $5,000 limit per election from many PACs and party committees.
“In absence of Oregon legislation on campaign contribution limits, my proposal is to use the federal limits,” said McLeod-Skinner. “Last year, I didn’t take corporate PAC or fossil fuel money, and my proposal is to do that as well.”
None of the three campaigns had posed their suggestions to their opponents as of Thursday morning. Hass and Williamson said they were preparing to unveil their ideas in coming days. A fourth candidate for the Democratic nomination, Ryan Wruck, has not filed a candidate committee. He said he is uncertain whether he will raise or spend enough to meet the $750 threshold for doing so.
Williamson’s proposal is similar to controls on corporate contributions in Washington state elections, which are also set at $2,000 per election. Washington also imposes limits on how much individuals, PACs and unions can give.
"It’s time to loosen the grip big corporations and their political action committees have on our politics and public policy," Williamson's statement said. "I think one significant step towards doing that is to limit the amount of money they can contribute to campaigns."
Asked whether the limits apply to nonprofit corporations, Williamson’s campaign initially said yes. But the campaign clarified Thursday that it had only meant that statement to apply to 501(c)3 organizations — not membership-supported groups such as labor unions or the Oregon Trial Lawyers Association that have been top supporters of Williamson’s in the past. Many of those groups are also registered nonprofits.
The campaign has since updated its proposal to refer to “for-profit corporations.”
“Representative Williamson believes that professional organizations, membership associations, unions and small donor political action committees play a critical role in empowering thousands of individual Oregonians who otherwise would not have a voice in our current political climate,” campaign spokesperson Ruby LaBrusciano-Carris said.
Told of Williamson’s proposal, McLeod-Skinner said it sounded like it had “a lot of loopholes."
Williamson has tapped generous donations from corporations in past races.
In her 2018 re-election bid, she accepted $4,000 from Nike. That money would theoretically fall in line with Williamson’s proposal in the current race, since the footwear giant split the money between two checks – one before the primary and another before the general election. But Williamson also accepted $1,000 from Nike in October 2017 that could count toward her 2018 campaign. Williamson did not face an opponent in either election last year.
In past races, Williamson has leaned more heavily on Nike. Records show that the company contributed nearly $10,000 to Williamson’s 2016 re-election bid, in which she faced only token opposition.
Many of Hass’ top donors have been corporations over his years in the Senate. Records show Nike, which sits just north of his district, has given Hass more than $13,000 since he won his last race in 2016.
Hass has also seen consistent support from Comcast and from grocery chains such as Safeway and Kroger. All of those companies took interest in a new "corporate activities tax" that Hass was key in crafting and which lawmakers passed this year.
Hass, who has long voiced support for stricter campaign finance rules, said such big checks are the opposite of what Oregon politics need.
“This is the Wild West,” he said. “If you’re in the Wild West, you’ve got to wrestle with rattlesnakes sometimes. This is what we’ve got to end.”
Hass had debated in past days what contribution limits would be appropriate for the secretary of state race, and wound up settling on an extremely restrictive formula for a statewide race. He argues a $250 limit on all contributions would change the tenor of the race for the better.
“I think it makes it more honest. I think it forces us to take our message to the streets, to the people,” Hass said. “That’s where these races need to go. We’ve just got too many huge contributors that are drowning out voices.”
The proposed limit would be stricter than $500-per-donor caps approved by Multnomah County and Portland voters in recent years — regulations that have yet to be approved by the courts. And Hass' proposal would go much further than a campaign finance bill that failed in this year's legislative session.
So far, Hass has not been constrained by the limits he’s now proposing. In the last month and a half, his candidate committee has reported checks of between $1,000 and $2,500 from healthcare-related groups, some of his Senate colleagues and others.
Hass acknowledged an oft-mentioned side effect that can come along with strict campaign finance rules: They can drive well-heeled interests to create their own “independent expenditure” campaigns to tout a favored candidate. The senator said Thursday he’d call on all candidates to “disavow” any such efforts if they agreed to his idea.
“It’s the one fly in the ointment here,” he said. “It’s a little bit risky.”
Hass also plans to propose a series of debates statewide, something McLeod-Skinner had previously supported.
It appeared unlikely Thursday that candidates would find common ground in their various proposals. For her part, Williamson said she would stick to her plan.
“Regardless of what the other candidates for secretary of state may choose to do, Jennifer Williamson has decided to voluntarily limit big corporate money in her campaign,” LaBrusciano-Carris wrote. She noted that Williamson “needs the resources to reach out to and engage nearly a million Democratic primary voters and 2.8 million total registered voters across our state.”
She also said the campaign was unwilling to turn down donations from PACs that steer donations from “small donors” to candidates.
Oregon's loose campaign finance regulations have long been a target for reformers, and they drew renewed criticism last year during a gubernatorial campaign that shattered fundraising records.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Oregon is one of just five states to impose no limits on the money that can be given in campaigns. The lax rules derive from a 1997 state Supreme Court opinion that found such limits would violate the state's constitutional protections on speech.
Campaign finance advocates are hoping to test that concept in a case that's scheduled to be heard by the court in coming months. No matter the outcome there, voters will have their say.
Lawmakers this year passed Senate Joint Resolution 18, which will allow voters to decide in November 2020 whether to amend the state constitution to allow campaign finance limits. If the measure passes, it would likely fall to lawmakers to decide what those limits could be.
“The real issue here is getting big money out of politics,” said Hass, a sponsor of SJR 18. “It’s not selectively raising big money from this group and not that group.”