Of free passes and goal posts
The verdict is in -- Emilie Boyles is guilty, guilty, guilty and has to pay the City of Portland back nearly $150,000 for breaking the rules in the city's wonderful "clean money" system, whereby taxpayer dollars pay for politicians' campaigns (and trailer rent and back cell phone bills).
I'd be surprised if she had $150 left to pay back.
But why face that fact when it's so easy to kid ourselves? I'm sure there'll be a bunch of "case closed -- great work, Opie and Blackmer" stories circulating in the morning. The city's mainstream media seem to have lost hold of their critical faculties on this subject. For example, this morning the O's City Hall reporters give us their expert "analysis" of the "voter-owned" (but never voted upon) system. The piece has got a spin on it that's sure to please the city commissioners on whom the reporters will be relying for their livelihoods over the next four years: "Clean money" is successful because it reduced overall campaign spending in its first election. Its only failing, apparently, is bad, bad Emilie.
No further mention of Lucinda Tate, who, like Boyles, turned in signatures and certified supposed grassroots donations that appear to have been dummied up. All that's forgotten now. Tate's free pass is apparently universal and permanent. And the fact that the system obviously invites fraud is not worthy of much serious consideration, either.
Let's see. The grand new giveaway spent around $450,000, plus who knows how many hours' worth of bureaucrat time. (Now that the city's only elections officer is resigning, I'm sure there will be two people hired to replace her -- one to do nothing but screw around with the "clean money" system.) The end result: Sten and Saltzman were handily re-elected. Four candidates turned in signatures. Two of those turned in signatures that apparently were faked. One of the two legitimate recipients of the public money was the incumbent who pushed the system into law.
The original promise of "clean money" was that it would bring many new faces into politics. But with three races eligible for funding his time around, it clearly didn't do that. And as the O story itself acknowledges, it will probably provide even less of an incentive for new faces to appear in the future.
Why? Well, as Amanda Fritz learned, you can't beat an incumbent without outspending him or her. And under the new system, you will never be able to do that.
If a challenger takes the public money, as Fritz did, the best the challenger will ever do is to match the incumbent in the money department. The incumbent will have no problem raising enough privately to match the taxpayer handout that the challenger is getting; alternatively, the sitting commissioner can just go for public money himself or herself, thus assuring equal war chests.
And if the challenger doesn't take public money, the incumbent can and probably will do so, as Sten did. The incumbent can get his or her $5 donations to qualify for the taxpayer handout with just a few phone calls to some union buds. And so again, the best the challenger can do is match the incumbent in the money department, because the system guarantees that the public-financed candidate always gets as least as much as the candidate who doesn't take the tax dollars.
So now, as the story indicates toward the end, "clean money" is going to make a positive difference only when there's a vacancy on the City Council. It guarantees victory for incumbents in perpetuity.
Still, it's wonderful. The goal posts are moved. The evildoer has been caught and punished. A Vietnam victory. Classic Portland City Hall.