The red white and blue yard signs are ubiquitous, multiplying like dandelions in spring across the landscape. Election season is definitely upon us. There are just days to go before the ballots will be counted in the May primary, then a calm before the November storm.In one sense, it’s democracy at work. Candidates square off in debates in grange halls and library conference rooms; they pound the pavement, knocking on doors to drum up support. But increasingly they fundraise.
That’s because it takes money and lots of it to win an election, particularly here in Oregon where special interest groups, wealthy individuals, business coalitions, and, yes, public employee unions are exerting more and more influence. Oregon, once called a laboratory for democracy because of our willingness to swim against the tide with citizen-driven initiatives is now one of the worst offenders.
Our politicians are seemingly being bought and sold like fish at an open-air market thanks to the state’s failure to develop campaign finance regulation that turns down the special interest spigot.
A recent ranking by the not-for profit and non-partisan, Center for Public Integrity, gave Oregon a “D-minus” for its campaign finance regulations. If people want to know what the post-Citizen’s United world looks like, just take a look at Oregon, one of just four states with no campaign spending limits for elections.
Special interests have taken notice. Look no further than the Republican primary race for Deschutes County’s senate seat where former house majority leader and Builders Association President Tim Knopp has raised nearly $150,000 in his bid to unseat fellow Republican Chris Telfer.
That kind of money was once unheard of, especially in a primary campaign, but now it’s becoming the norm, thanks in large part to Oregon’s lax campaign finance laws that let out-of-state interests, deep-pocketed corporations and other special interests line the proverbial pockets of local candidates.
Knopp, a prolific fundraiser, who also manages a pair of PACs, has taken money from Reynolds tobacco and the Koch Brothers among others. His biggest backer, though is Loren Parks, the former Oregon resident and right wing nut job who long bankrolled Bill Sizemore, Oregon’s disgraced and criminally convicted initiative backer. Parks alone has dumped $25,000 into Knopp’s campaign.
Of course, Knopp isn’t the only one taking money from big business and other special interests. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the now high-profile interstate lobbying group that has pushed its anti-union, anti-tax and anti-regulation agenda through statehouses around the country has dumped nearly $19 million either directly or indirectly into Oregon politics in the last five years. On the other side of the aisle are the public employee unions, including the Oregon Education Association, that use their perpetual stream of member dollars to fund the campaigns of pro-union candidates.
We don’t expect individual candidates to stop fundraising or exert much discretion about their donor list, as long as the current campaign finance system rewards seats to the highest bidder. Nor do we expect the legislature to craft a reasonable campaign finance reform bill anytime soon. That leaves you, the voter, to follow the money and figure out to whom your elected officials are beholden. We would submit it’s the one task worth doing before you fill out your ballot.