Money Talks

Breaking down the cost of the 4J board election

As the Eugene School District 4J election wraps up, so does the campaign spending. Lawn signs are slowly being taken out of yards, and advertisements on Facebook and in local newspapers have stopped popping up, relics from a costly election. 

Collectively, the candidates running for three open 4J board positions who reported their cash flow raised nearly $100,000 to fund their campaigns and spent most of it. This may seem like a large dollar amount to compete for an unpaid position, but candidates and experts say several factors contributed to this, including lack of a voter pamphlet and the COVID-19 pandemic. Candidates received contributions from other board members, the community and unions.

 Large campaign contributions and expenditures for local school board elections bring up broader questions of how accessible it is to run for a position and if there should be campaign finance limits. 

Laural O’Rourke and Harry Sanger ran for Position 2, incumbent Judy Newman ran againstTom Di Liberto and Bryan Costa for Position 3, and Maya Rabasa ran for Position 4 against a candidate who stopped campaigning and endorsed her.

Candidates must create a committee and report their filings with OreStar, the Oregon Secretary of State’s system for disclosing campaign finances, unless they already have a committee, are their own treasurer or do not expect to receive or spend more than $750 in a single calendar year. 4J candidates Costa and Sanger do not have information available on OreStar.

Chris Wig, chair of the Democratic Party of Lane County (DPLC), says one of the main reasons campaigning was more expensive is because of the pandemic. Candidates had to find alternative ways to reach voters. 

 “I would venture that the reason that it is more expensive this year than every other year is because of COVID-19,” Wig says. “And, therefore, the main weapon in our arsenal, especially on the Democratic side, is door to door canvassing, which was not an option.”

Wig, who has served as the DPLC chair for seven years, adds that not having a pamphlet for this election also made it difficult for candidates to get out information about their platform. Lane County generally does not issue a voter’s pamphlet in a special election, unless there is an item relating to the county on the ballot. As a result, candidates spent thousands of dollars on newspaper advertising and mailers, the latter requiring money for postage. Wig says the cost of campaign managers has also gone up. 

To pay for these things, candidates receive contributions through various channels. The Eugene Education Association contributed $3,000 to Di Liberto, $3,000 to O’Rourke and $1,000 to Rabasa. 

Campaign contributions can also signify a subtle endorsement. For example, 4J board member Gordon Lafer contributed $500 to Di Liberto, $750 to O’Rourke and $500 to Rabasa. He did not contribute to incumbent Judy Newman’s campaign, though Newman received contributions from board members Jim Torrey, Mary Walston and Alicia Hays. 

Invested community members also contribute to their candidate of choice. Newman says she was surprised by how much money she brought in — about $40,000 — a majority of which she says came from individual contributions.

“There were also people I reached out to who supported me before,” Newman says. “These people were just supporting me and honestly, it was unbelievably heartwarming and overwhelming.” Newman’s opponent for the position, Di Liberto, raised about $29,000. He was unavailable for an interview to discuss his campaign finances.

“Money in politics is always a concern. But in this case I don’t think that this is indicative of inside players or special interests that are trying to get their way,” Wig says of the 4J campaign contributions. “If you look and see who has given money, it’s unions and other politicians.”

Wig says that the type of money raised in this race points to a few different themes. One part is that the community cares about this kind of race, and the other, he says, is that candidates are getting better at raising money. He says groups like the DPLC, Emerge Oregon and the Oregon Labor Candidate School are teaching candidates across the board how to be more effective at fundraising.

“If you look over the last several years, the candidates who have dropped off the board generally have been upper-middle class to wealthy.” He says there are more working class candidates running now. He says there are aspects of running a campaign that wealthy people can pay for in laying the groundwork to run, but it’s more difficult for someone in the working class to pay that much. 

 Rabasa, who was recently elected but ran unsuccessfully in 2020, says it’s uncomfortable to sit in a forum and claim that education is underfunded and at the same time, be raising money for plastic lawn signs that will end up in landfills. She says she ran this campaign differently. 

In 2020, Rabasa says she was committed to a campaign of limited finance, meaning she did not have to itemize her expenditures if she raised below a certain amount.

“I committed to staying under,” Rabasa explains. “That felt reasonable. But I also didn’t win, and that’s where it’s really troubling.” 

She says she raised more money this time, around $11,000, because there was no knocking on doors due to COVID-19. Rabasa adds she also used much of the funding to compensate those working on her campaign. 

Ideally, Rabasa says she would hope to see candidates in the future commit to raising only a certain amount of money. 

“We don’t necessarily need to wait for a state mandate,” Rabasa says. She adds expecting school board candidates to raise a lot of money feels like a gatekeeping mechanism that prevents people from running.

“I do think that would eliminate the barrier,” Rabasa says.

To search campaign finances for local and state-wide candidates, visit Secure.SOS.Or.Us/ORESTAR.