In Our View: Follow the Money

Port commissioner race shows voters need to know who’s funding campaigns

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The campaign for a spot on the Port of Vancouver Board of Commissioners has passed a milestone, with the two candidates combining to receive more than $1 million in contributions. As milestones go, this is a dubious one, and it calls for diligence on the part of voters.T

As big money flows into a race that traditionally would fly under the radar of voters and donors, that money has altered the very nature of the election. Campaigns for port commissioner typically would have members of the public scrambling for the Voters’ Pamphlet when they go to fill out their ballots, trying to distinguish between two candidates who likely carry little name recognition. But with Don Orange and Kris Greene running high-profile campaigns complete with mass mailers and ubiquitous TV ads, anonymity is not a concern this time around.

In some ways this is beneficial for voters; port commissioners serve an important role in overseeing a budget of about $68 million, including roughly $10 million from taxes. But in other ways, it calls for an examination of the electoral process.

Under state law, candidates in port districts with more than 200,000 registered voters are subject to limits on campaign contributions. This applies only to the ports of Seattle and Tacoma, where candidates are limited to contributions of $1 per registered voter. State Reps. Sharon Wylie and Monica Stonier, both Vancouver Democrats, have said they will introduce legislation applying the cap to smaller port districts, as well. “Essentially there is no reason I know of to not have the same rules for all port races,” Wylie told The Columbian.

Lawmakers should pursue such legislation next year, but that would not necessarily prevent the exorbitant spending witnessed in this year’s race. The cap would not apply to spending by independent groups that are not officially linked to a campaign.

Regardless of action by the Legislature, the onus now and in the future is upon voters to become informed and to understand who is paying for the attack ads they see. In that regard, newspapers remain essential as the primary source of local news; CNN is not going to cover a race for Port of Vancouver commissioner, but The Columbian has provided extensive coverage (http://tinyurl.com/y8odpfga).

Readers know that, as of last week, Greene had received $591,157 in contributions, including $370,000 from companies hoping to bring an oil terminal to the port. They also know that Orange had received $410,599, including $290,000 worth of in-kind contributions from a political action committee associated with the Washington Conservation Voters. Information regarding donations also is available from the state Public Disclosure Commission (https://www.pdc.wa.gov/).

The impetus for this year’s contributions is the oil terminal proposal, which is undergoing state review but could be halted by a vote of the commissioners. Orange has said he would vote to terminate the lease with Andeavor (formerly Tesoro Corp.) and Savage Cos., and by teaming with Commissioner Eric LaBrant, he could form a majority on the three-member board of commissioners. Greene has said he is waiting for final reports from state regulators regarding the proposal, but his acceptance of vast donations and campaign assistance from the oil companies sheds doubt upon that professed neutrality.

Meanwhile, big money and big expenditures create an unusual race for port commissioner. Legislators can take steps to return some normalcy to future elections, but the bulk of the responsibility rests upon an informed electorate.