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Scott Bruun: Oregon Should Not Limit Campaign Contributions

Wednesday, April 01, 2015


Tom Steyer is one of the most influential people in Oregon. Yet unlike, say, Nike’s Phil Knight or OHSU’s Dr. Brian Druker, most Oregonians have never heard of Steyer. Steyer’s relative obscurity in Oregon is understandable. He’s not, after all, an Oregonian. 

Tom Steyer is in fact a Californian. He is a hedge-fund billionaire from San Francisco who’s made environmental and “green energy” issues his cause celeb. And while most Oregonians have not heard of him, they will certainly soon feel him in the form of higher gas prices at the pump.

Steyer built his influence in Oregon by doing something many of us have also done. He spent his own money on candidates whom he believes best represent the ideas he supports. He invested in candidates that affirm his world view. But where most of us might contribute $50 or $100 to our favorite Oregon candidates, Steyer pumped in around a million dollars toward his.  

And boy did Steyer’s investment pay off. At least for him. Following the election last year, the Oregon Senate went from a 16-14 Democrat majority to what is now an 18-12 super-majority. No need to find compromise on environmental legislation now. Just pass ‘em all, and let Oregonians sort it out. 

For Steyer, Oregon’s senate may yet prove to be the best money can buy.

That’s why it was fascinating to read a recent opinion piece in GoLocalPDX which lamented the “big money” spent in campaigns and the “wealthy individuals” who “dominate the conversation.” Fascinating, and more than a tad ironic, given that the piece was co-authored by seven Democrat legislators from Oregon, including three state senators whose caucus benefited greatly from Tom Steyer’s “big money” generosity.

The co-authored piece, “Oregon Needs to Limit Campaign Contributions,” nevertheless suggests what many of us feel. Namely, that too much money is spent on political campaigns in Oregon and that those who write the biggest checks often drown out the voices of the rest of us. The authors correctly note that Oregon has one of the most permissive campaign contribution systems in the country. They go on to write that “(t)he lack of contribution limits gives far more power and influence to those who can write massive campaign checks— businesses and wealthy individuals who don’t necessarily represent the needs of Oregon’s working families.”

Heady stuff. Yet one wonders how the authors would reconcile their statement with a) the massive checks written for Oregon Democrats by Tom Steyer in 2014; b) the influence toward specific “green energy” policies that those checks purchased; and c) how the resulting policies once implemented, namely increased fuel costs, will affect Oregon’s working families?

Perhaps the only reconciliation those legislators might offer is to acknowledge that politics and public service are about orchestrating a brighter future. And that ‘Steyer’ thing was, well, so ‘last year.’

Oregon does have one of the most “liberal” (if that’s the right word) campaign contribution systems in the nation. In that, it matches almost perfectly the protections for free speech guaranteed by Oregon’s constitution – protections considered even stronger, even more liberal, than those guaranteed under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. This alignment between campaign contributions and freedom of speech is important. After all as our Founding Fathers and more recently the Supreme Court have affirmed, political speech is the most important form of speech to protect.

Could it be that it’s not the money so much, but the message the money buys that some people find objectionable? Apple, Victoria’s Secret and Toyota spend far more to advertise than most political campaigns will ever spend, yet few people complain. It could be that people just don’t like political ads. Sure, they work.  But they are annoying and generally leave a viewer less informed - perhaps even less intelligent - for having seen them.

Or could it simply be, at least for some advocates of contribution limits, cognitive dissonance? A genuine notion that some contributions, like Steyer’s, are the necessary application of money toward free speech in the democratic process; whereas the source of other contributions, say from the Koch brothers, represent undue and undemocratic influence?

In any event, the real question must get back to protecting freedom of speech. And there, putting aside comfort and taste, the real issue gets back to protecting political speech; even when we don’t like what’s being said. Especially when we don’t like what’s being said. No less an advocate for free speech than Winston Churchill once remarked that “where there is a great deal of free speech there is always a certain amount of foolish speech.”

In other words, speech is the price we pay for speech. It can be a steep price, especially when you find yourself on the losing end. But the risks posed to an open society by managing speech or limiting debate are too great. Said differently, I don’t like the results that Tom Steyer’s free speech rights paid for. I would like it even less if he and others, including me, were restricted in the free exercise of those rights.


Scott Bruun is a fifth-generation Oregonian and recovering politician. He lives with his family in the 'burbs', yet dutifully commutes to Portland every day where he earns his living in public affairs with Hubbell Communications


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