Report finds small-dollar donors in Portland achieved new influence in local elections
The dust has long settled on the 2020 Portland City Hall elections.
But city officials with the Open and Accountable Elections program haven’t stopped scrutinizing the four local races that took place last year. City rules dictate that, after every election, an oversight group for the program must produce a report evaluating how the city’s system of public campaign financing panned out.
The report, released Friday, found that during its debut election cycle, the program fundamentally changed the dynamics of campaign fundraising in Portland: small-dollar donors were now the main focus of most campaigns.
“They are now the center of how city candidates raise money,” said Susan Mottet, the director of the program. “They’ve absolutely displaced large donors from the center of how citywide campaigns are fundraised for.”
The program aims to reduce the influence of money in Portland politics. Participating candidates receive a 6-to-1 match on the first $50 they receive. That means a donation of $50 could be turned into $350 ($300 from the city plus the original $50 donation). In return, the candidates agree to several restrictions, including capping the maximum amount they can take from an individual donor at $250. For the 2020 election cycle, the program saw two-thirds of competitive candidates opt in to the program, according to the report.
This meant a majority of candidates running robust campaigns were not relying on deep-pocketed donors to fuel them but on average Portlanders willing to chip in.
According to the report, the median contribution dropped from $100 in 2016 to $35 in 2020 for publicly financed candidates.
That dramatic dip can be credited, in large part, to one candidate.
Mottet said nearly half of all contributions made to the publicly funded candidates in the three regularly scheduled races went to mayoral candidate Sarah Iannarone. (The breakdown does not include data from the special election for the seat left open by the death of city commissioner Nick Fish).
Mottet said, when she crunched the numbers for the regularly scheduled election without Iannarone’s donations, the median contribution rose from $35 to $50.
Staff steering the program through its inaugural year were met with their share of hurdles. There was COVID-19, which made door-knocking impossible and grassroots fundraising more difficult. There was an unexpected special election after Fish’s death, which put financial and administrative strains on the fledgling program.
And, according to the report, there was at least one instance of attempted fraud.
Mottet said the alleged fraud was committed by volunteers for Ronault “Polo” Catalani, a former city employee and civil rights attorney who ran for Fish’s seat. Catalani had previously worked as the city’s immigrant and refugee community coordinator.
Under the city rules, if a donor makes a cash contribution, they must also sign a form to go with it. According to Mottet, donors to Catalani’s campaign told city officials that the campaign told them all they had to do to contribute was sign the form and the campaign would supply the money to be matched by the city. Mottet said the city had also received multiple donor forms from the campaign that looked like they’d been signed by the same person.
The city hired a handwriting expert, who Mottet said agreed that the signatures looked like they’d been forged. Mottet said the city believed one of the volunteers for the Catalani campaign was responsible. She said she did not know if Catalani had been aware of the alleged fraud at the time.
Mottet consulted with the city attorney and was told the only penalty she had at her disposal was to refuse to allow the campaign to participate in the public financing program. The Catalani campaign was never certified, and Mottet said no public money was ever distributed.
Catalani vehemently denied both allegations and called the investigation into his donors “startlingly incompetent.” Catalani told OPB that his support base drew heavily from Portland’s immigrant and refugee communities and believed the city’s finding of fraud was a result of cultural barriers between the city aides cold-calling donors to verify his contributions and his supporters.
While the city began financing campaigns to get a more diverse group engaged in city politics, Catalani said he believed the office had the opposite effect, barring people who were new to the political process from getting involved. He said his supporters who had been identified by name as giving fraudulent contributions were from Portland’s Tongan and Bhutanese immigrant communities.
“To new Americans, this is just shaming them and shutting them down,” said Catalani. “Calling what people did ‘fraud’ is just brutal.”
Catalani said he had considered petitioning the Multnomah County Circuit Court to try to get his funding reinstated, but had been told by attorneys that the court would be unable to hear his case before the city’s deadline to get certified.
“We simply got outmaneuvered,” he said.
The report includes nearly 60 recommendations on how to improve the program made by the Open and Accountable Elections Commission, a nine-person oversight group.
Among the most significant recommendations: an ask for the city to lower the match-cap. The commission wants the city to change the 6-to-1 match on the first $50 to a 9-to-1 match on the first $20.
Mottet said she hopes the change will bring a more geographically diverse group of donors into the political process.
While the report found donors were spread more evenly across the city during the 2020 election season than in 2016, there is still a clear disparity between the amount donated by Portlanders living in the central city and those living in lower-income neighborhoods in East, Northeast and North Portland. The report found donors in zip codes in the central city “still gave a disproportionate share of the contributions.”
Mottet said election data from New York indicated donors who give between $10-$25 to a campaign tend to be a more geographically and racially diverse group than those who cut larger checks.
“It immediately starts skewing male, affluent, white, home-owning, fancy neighborhoods. ... By the time you get to a $100 contribution, you are talking about a small slice of the population who is giving that,” Mottet said. “So what we’re doing by matching anything over $20 or $25 is we’re actually amplifying a really skewed, small portion of donors.”
Mottet said the commission hopes for the recommendations made in the report to be turned into amendments to the city code that will be voted on by the council.
Mottet said she expects the votes to take place this month.
Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting