Patrick Starnes

Money Is the Root

Running for governor as a Democrat, Patrick Starnes wants to take on campaign finance, which he says is influencing Oregon politics

The race to become the Democratic Party’s nominee to be governor has attracted a lot of money for three major candidates. But Brownsville resident Patrick Starnes is making the case that all that money will influence those candidates’ policymaking. That, he says, is the problem with Oregon politics. 

Four years ago, Starnes ran for governor as the Independent Party of Oregon’s nominee. He pulled out of the race shortly after ballots were mailed to voters to endorse Gov. Kate Brown, then saying the two would work on campaign finance reform. He’s returned to the governor’s race, but this time as a Democrat. He says tackling campaign finance reform can lead to solutions to the state’s problems, such as providing residents with universal health care. 

“We can’t have these other reforms — like carbon reform or forestry reform — unless we have campaign finance reform,” Starnes says. He references the Republican Senate walkouts in the Legislature over the cap and trade legislation. Those Republicans received campaign contributions for their walkouts from political action committees such as Timber Unity. “When they went to Idaho, the Koch brothers paid for their hotel rooms,” he says.

Oregon is one of the few states in the U.S. that doesn’t have a limit on political campaign contributions. Voters did pass Measure 107 in 2020, which allowed local and state governments to pass restrictions, but the Legislature has not passed anything yet. 

Money from special interest groups, Starnes says, will prevent the Legislature from passing meaningful laws. And one policy that Starnes would want to encourage if elected is universal health care. 

Starnes calls his universal health care program OHP For All, and he says it could be funded through a tax on junk food. Because of the U.S.’s high mortality rate from obesity, heart disease and diabetes, Starnes says it would be a sin tax, just like the state has on alcohol and tobacco. 

Critics of junk food taxes have targeted their impact on lower-income residents, but Starnes rejects that argument. “It’s a stereotype that only poor people eat junk food,” he says. The tax wouldn’t affect groceries, such as vegetables, he adds, so people with lower incomes would be encouraged to make healthier choices. 

He says he’d propose an Oregon Mental Health Fund, financed from an advertising tax. He points to ads from magazines like Cosmo that are filled with content that has damaged the public’s perception of bodies. “Same with the big TV ads with the big trucks pushing people to be macho,” he adds. That mental health-related money could address the state’s homeless population who are dealing with crises. 

Starnes says he’s not new to the Democratic Party. He was active with the Douglas County Democratic Party until the Clinton administration pushed NAFTA through Congress. He’s served on the McKenzie River School District Board and Douglas County Education Service District. Even though Starnes pulled out of the 2018 gubernatorial race, he still received 2.8 percent of the vote. Starnes works as a cabinet maker and restores homes. 

The race to become the Democratic Party’s nominee for governor has brought a lot of cash already. Three candidates — former House Speaker Tina Kotek, Oregon Treasurer Tobias Read and former New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof — have between them raised $4.5 million, most of which belongs to Kristof. 

But Starnes’ campaign money looks nothing like those campaign war chests. As he did in 2018, Starnes says he’s promised to not accept corporate or political action committee money. According to his campaign contributions, he’s raised about $40,000. Most of his donations are below $100, and the bulk of his campaign money comes from a $30,000 loan from himself. 

If elected, he says he would refuse to sign any legislation until the Legislature set campaign contribution limits — even if the Legislature passes a bill on universal health care. (The Oregon Constitution does allow the Legislature to bypass the governor’s signature. A bill passed by the Legislature becomes law whether or not the governor actually signs the bill, but if a putative Gov. Starnes decided to veto a bill, it would go back to the House and Senate, where it could become law only with a two-thirds majority vote.) 

By getting rid of the influence of campaign money in the Legislature, Starnes says, the state can address its problems, from homelesseness to climate change. “It’s the heart of the web of almost every issue,” he says.

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