By Jeb Bladine • President / Publisher • 

Whatchamacolumn: System tries to ID political influencers

Campaign finance databases reveal much about cultural values, political influence and interesting trends. We found that, and more, in a recent News-Register investigation into local political fundraising.

One clear trend is that the major political parties have become bit players in the world of campaign finance. Instead, donors are giving the big money to individual candidate campaigns and special interest political action committees, which in turn provide most of the funds collected by the Democratic and Republican parties.

For example, in 2022, the Democratic Party of Oregon received $4.9 million in cash contributions, mostly from PACs and Gov. Tina Kotek’s campaign. By comparison, the Oregon Republican Party gathered $1.7 million in cash contributions, again mostly from PACs and including $800,000 from the national Republican Governors Association.

By comparison, the Kotek campaign snagged $5.3 million in just the last few weeks before the 2022 general election, and The Oregonian has reported that her campaigns raised $30.1 million in 2021-22.

Meanwhile, PACs have become the great obfuscator of Oregon politics. Large sums of money donated to PACs by individuals and companies often are moved to other PACs before reaching intended candidate or ballot measure campaigns. That dark money process serves to shield the identity of donors, and it takes a degree in data analysis to ferret out the real money paths.

Occasionally, the process involves outright deceit, as happened last year with a $500,000 donation to the Democratic Party of Oregon from cryptocurrency executive Nishad Singh. By all accounts, as reported by The Oregonian, the party initially hid Singh’s identity by reporting the donation from his now-disgraced firm, FTX. Some suggested criminal prosecution, but it appears the party will escape with a $15,000 fine.

Another way to hide the identity of political persuaders involves “in-kind contributions” of advertising and other services to candidates and causes. An Oregon law requires stringent reporting on the existence and source of in-kind contributions, but it appears there are many secrecy-creating loopholes in the process.

Oregon maintains a vast, extremely detailed database of campaign finance activities intended to shine a light on the money trails driving local, regional and state politics. Yet we maintain legal policies allowing a dark money shell game that can shade and even extinguish that light.

All that said — and there’s much more to say — we’re fortunate to have a system that at least tries to identify the special interests seeking social, cultural, economic and political influence over our lives.

News-Register Publisher Jeb Bladine can be reached at jbladine@newsregister.com or 503-687-1223.

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