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Joey Brunelle, on Kellogg Street. Photo by Emma Egan.

Let’s reverse the trend of mega-fundraising from wealthy donors in city council elections.

Campaign spending in Portland City Council races is out of control. It’s up to candidates to fix it.

Joey Brunelle
Jul 24, 2018 · 3 min read

Until 2016 the record for city council campaign fundraising was roughly $15,000. In 2016, one at-large candidate broke that record by using a national email list controlled by a professional political strategist to fundraise over $25,000. The following year another at large candidate used their connections to wealthy contributors to raise over $50,000.

This kind of spending ensures that only those people with access to national networks or wealthy contributors have a chance at local office — it locks out everyone else.

Money is more important than ever before, and as a result the large contributors and bundlers have more influence over local campaigns and candidates than ever before.

Enough is enough. Local elections should be local. They should be funded by locals — not by companies, not by out-of-staters on email lists, and not by those who seek to reap large profits from City Council decisions.

Unfortunately, we don’t have a local system in Portland to publicly fund campaigns, like the Clean Elections system that candidates for State Legislature can use. If elected, I will push for such a system on the local level.

But in the meantime, it’s up to candidates like us to be responsible with our fundraising. That’s why I am recommitting to my three fundraising pledges:

Only people vote, and only people should be able to donate to campaigns. Companies — even local ones — should not contribute to City Council campaigns, especially when their owners and employees can contribute a second time as individuals. This gives business interests the ability to contribute twice — it’s unfair and undemocratic.

Recent Portland City Council elections have seen a increase in candidates drawing from national fundraising networks and email lists, in some cases enlisting the help of professional political strategists. This puts local candidates without national networks at an unfair disadvantage.

Real estate development has become big business in Portland. City Councilors often have to make decisions that will affect the profits of these developers, so they should be free from the temptation to give those developers (who may be large campaign contributors) any form of special treatment.

Who’s a real estate developer? I choose to define it as, “anyone who makes a majority of their household income from the investment in residential, commercial or industrial building projects.”

This year I’m calling on all candidates in all other municipal races — Councilors Spencer Thibodeau and Belinda Ray, who are running for re-election, as well as my opponent Councilor Nicholas Mavodones and challengers Matt Coffey and Jon Torsch — to join me in these pledges, or to make their own fundraising pledges in the same spirit.

As local leaders, we can set the standard and make it clear that we will not accept the influence of big money in small, local races. It’s not too late to reverse the trend, but it has to start with us.

UPDATE: I am pleased to report that Councilor Belinda Ray has pledged to not accept money from PACs and corporations, and has set an overall fundraising cap for her campaign at $6,500.

UPDATE 2: Jon Torsch, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America who is challenging Councilor Spencer Thibodeau in District 2, has agreed to all three pledges: no PACs, no corporations, no out-of-state donors and no real-estate developers.

Joey Brunelle for Portland

A democratic socialist activist in Portland, Maine.

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