Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The O's Editors Toot Their Broken, Tuneless Horn

I'm still having trouble figuring this one out, two days after I first read it. The second editorial in Monday's O seems to be an attempt to puff their chest about how they called out Portland's "clean candidate" public finance policy for the scandal-ridden scheme it was, and tooted Anna Griffin's* horn for "dilligent"-ly finding out that Ukranian immigrants said they knew nyet about it when a reporter came to ask about signing papers.

The O had two ways to go with this piece, spurred by recent meetings of the oversight commission set up to watch the process in action and then work to improve it. They could have applauded the commission for addressing the most egregious concerns raised by the paper's reporting, being alert enough to hold the process accountable, and keeping tabs on the money being spent. Or, the editors could have used the meetings as a prop to talk about how great it was that they busted the story WIDE open, and that for the love of God, why won't City Council just put it up for a vote? Guess which tack the editors chose.

Only it's as if they asked some new guy to write about a story that happened before he came on staff. The curiosity starts immediately with the first few words: "Several years ago?" Mates, the policy was adopted in 2004 and used once, for the 2006 elections. It's charitable to take it back to 2005, but less than 'two' years will never be 'several.' What we're really talking about all happened in spring of 2006, so let's not pretend we'll need an archaeologist to discuss it.

Then they act as if the entire program was simply rife with pitfalls, asking "how did they know where to start?" and claiming "so many" problems to pick from. Of course, they only come up with one--the one now apparently being recommended for a fix by the commission. The proof-of-support process for collecting signatures and money was indeed flawed, as Council hoped to allow as much participation as possible on the grounds that residents are affected by politics even if they don't vote. However, allowing non-registrations to sign and contribute made residence verification extremely difficult. There's no doubt about that, and a simple shift to registered voters as the only eligible signers solves the large majority of the problem.

But that's not The O's angle. Like their in-the-tank endorsee Ginny Burdick, the paper hated the idea from the start, calling it "half baked" and worse in their endorsement editorial and beforehand. Now that the program just might be improving for the next go-round, the editors just can't resist taking another swipe, since Burdick has long been thrashed at the polls and returned to a safer job in Salem, leaving them to hold the flag aloft.

The flag has the words "let the people vote" on it, and the editors refuse to stop waving it. It's an ironic whine to make, because it ignores an awful lot of information--information that, as I said, must be unknown to whoever wrote this, because otherwise it'd be a lame distortion of events and selective memory used to boost a weak argument. And they'd never do that at The O.

I've pointed out that Burdick was their candidate, and that's no surprise, since the primary thing Burdick said during the campaign was that public financing was bad, and anyway the people should vote on it, and while they're at it they should vote to make her commissioner, too. The election for that seat became almost entirely a proxy affair on public finance against Erik Sten, with Burdick fronting the establishment agenda of the popular business alliance, teamed with The O to try and bring Sten's uppity Portland career down.

But what The O conveniently fails to recall is that Team Burdick also ran a side game, trying to get a repeal question on the ballot, all while candidates were using the program for the first time. The signature effort failed to qualify for the ballot, a victim of too many duplicate entries. In other words, a group of very powerful and wealthy people tried to rally interest in striking down a public financing scheme...and couldn't even get enough signatures to make the ballot.

So let's review: the candidate The O backed a candidate who made public finance the centerpiece of her campaign. The O railed against the idea regularly, and endorsed her specifically in part because her opponent was the program's co-architect and main proponent, as well as the first incumbent to avail himself of its benefits. At the same time, the same people also tried to have the policy repealed by the voters. The O's candidate lost, badly, and the repeal effort failed, badly.

Now, in whose rational mind would this sequence of events lead to the conclusion that more appeals to the electorate were needed? What other signals were they looking for? The guy who helped create it and used it to be re-elected, got re-elected. The woman who hated it and tried to stop it, failed. How many ways would Ginny and The O like to hear vox popular? I'd offer the board kudos for not being afraid to return to a subject which so thoroughly caused them embarassment, but my suspicion is they don't actually see it that way, through their Bog-colored glasses.

*I'm not trying to knock Anna here; I just think her bosses went overboard on her behalf. Still, it seems like the whole discussion about why individuals signed for several people (apparently in Ukranian culture the husband does that routinely, and not necessarily with the explicit permission of family members) got mentioned once and then disappeared. It doesn't change the flaws in the system, but what sounds like a cultural norm that was politically exploited, in the media quickly became an active plot to defraud the system. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn't--we never really got the chance to find out.