Welcome to the Gilded City
Local referenda initiatives are outspent 30-1 as groups of unions and unemployed workers are outraised by a single landlord.
Portland, ME: The latest fundraising reports reveal a tale of two cities as the grassroots People First Portland campaign is outspent 30-1 by corporate interests, with one single landlord in Portland contributing more than the People First Portland raised to campaign for all five of the A-E referenda.
"These fundraising totals really show us where the power lies in Portland — and which side our Mayor and City Councilors are on. While people get priced out of the city, a few large landlords and big developers are making huge profit off working people's pain" says volunteer Jack O'Brien.
People First Portland raised $23,955 in total for the campaign period, with an average donation of $70, compared with $622,493 and counting from opposition groups and an average donation to Building a Better Portland coming in over $2,000. That number is likely to rise substantially as the No on E campaign’s filings were not made available to the public by the City Clerk’s office on two previous attempts. The City Clerk’s office, which still files reports on paper using handwritten and printed materials that the public can view in a single manila folder, informed People First Portland’s campaign that AirBnB’s campaign filing was “stuck under a stack of applications.”
The real question here is why our elected officials felt the need to tip the scales for a massively well- funded and coordinated opposition,” says O’Brien.
Despite its outsized fundraising disadvantage, the grassroots campaign has tremendous support on the ground and from actual residents. On Monday, the campaign released a 6-minute video, containing the testimony of dozens of Portlanders and produced, edited, and scored by volunteers entitled "Who Does Portland Belong To?"
The campaign relies on volunteers for just about everything, "We don't have a single paid staff person. This is all grit and heart — and a lot of paint and stenciling." says O'Brien. The campaign's largest donors are labor unions, and the rest of the funding for the campaign is from small-dollar donors, including 140 donations from people who are unemployed.
The donations from a single landlord and developer, Tom Watson, reveal a deeper plot. Mr. Watson contributed over $50,000 to oppose measures like tenant protections, though his contributions weren't direct; after some digging, the People First Portland campaign revealed a web of over a dozen corporations and their partners tied to Mr. Watson that all donated to the Building a Better Portland PAC. The developer has a long history of winning advantageous land deals and getting fast-tracked approvals from the City Council and the Planning Board, most recently illustrated by the speedy review of his property on 44 Hanover St. The Hanover St property used to be city-owned land that was deemed unsuitable for residential development by the City Council in 2018 and was never put out to receive bids on affordable housing. Now the development, two years later, is slated to be approved for non-affordable and market-rate housing development.
"Once you start to unravel the web of Tom Watson, you uncover the rot in the whole system. It's intentionally hard to navigate these processes, between hidden LLCs, completely inaccessible city documents, and a rubber-stamp attitude from both the Planning Board and the Council. It's no surprise that Mr. Watson's massive profits, aided and abetted by the Portland taxpayers, thanks to the City Council, are one of the largest donation sources against a people-powered campaign. Powerful people like Tom Watson, Jack Soley, and Brit Vitalius all want as little direct democracy as possible; they thrive on secrecy" says local activist and landlord Karen Snyder.
People First Portland feels optimistic about the future and about the race results. "The fact that we're outspent 30-1 and we're still in the race shows us that our ideas have already won," says volunteer Jack O'Brien.
"Whatever happens on Tuesday, we can be proud that we promoted direct democracy on the local level and gave Portland voters a chance to decide what direction we want the city to go in. Our power and our most creative solutions lie with the people" says Kate Sykes, an organizer with People First Portland.