Minority groups backing Portland’s pro-fluoride measure have received $143,000 in payments from the campaign
The campaign advocating fluoridation of Portland’s drinking water has trumpeted the support it’s received from minority organizations, ranging from the Urban League of Portland to the Latino Network.
This widespread support, backers say, shows just how important fluoridation is to the constituents of these groups.
And the support flows the other way, too: in the form of big cash paid to groups who have endorsed the pro-fluoride campaign, Healthy Kids, Healthy Portland.
As first reported at wweek.com, Healthy Kids, Healthy Portland has doled out at least $143,000—about a third of what it has spent so far—to seven organizations that favor the May 21 referendum to fluoridate the city’s drinking water, Measure 26-151.
The move is highly unorthodox for a political campaign: Typically, groups that endorse a measure contribute money, not receive it.
Oregon’s free-wheeling campaign-finance laws place virtually no limits on how campaigns spend their money. But the state’s undue-influence law prohibits campaigns from paying individuals or organizations in exchange for their political support.
Dan Meek, a public-interest lawyer active in campaign-finance reform, says it is unusual for groups to endorse a campaign and then receive money from that campaign. “This is a new approach,” he says.
Healthy Kids, Healthy Portland says the payments were intended to help the organizations promote Measure 26-151, and were not given in exchange for the groups’ support of the pro-fluoride effort.
“Fluoride and dental health are really important to low-income communities and communities of color,” says Healthy Kids, Health Portland campaign manager Evyn Mitchell. “We are trying to provide capacity to the groups that will do the outreach.”
Mitchell says the groups that got money were active supporters of fluoridation for more than a year before the campaign began.
Nonetheless, the payments have raised eyebrows, including at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which endorsed a “no” vote on fluoridation and did not receive a check from the Healthy Kids campaign.
“We were scratching our heads about these so-called minority groups,” says Cliff Walker of the NAACP’s Portland chapter. “It was suggested that people were getting paid.”
Measure 26-151 requires the city of Portland to begin fluoridating its drinking water by March 2014. Currently, Portland is one of the nation’s largest cities not to add fluoride to its water supply. Health experts say fluoridated water cuts down on tooth decay, especially among children.
The City Council approved fluoridating the water supply last fall, including plans to build a $5 million fluoridation plant.
But opponents—who argue fluoridating the water is costly and unhealthy—gathered enough signatures to force a 2014 public vote on the idea. The council responded by moving up the vote to the May 21 election.
Healthy Kids, Healthy Portland has so far received about $587,000 in campaign contributions.
The biggest source of donations to the campaign is the Northwest Health Foundation, which has given $215,000. The foundation’s president and CEO, Nichole Maher, is closely involved with the pro-fluoridation campaign.
Healthy Kids, Healthy Portland turned around and paid $20,000 each to the Urban League of Portland, the Latino Network, the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon, Center for Intercultural Organizing, and the Immigrant & Refugee Community Organization. The Oregon Latino Health Coalition got $5,000. Another group, the Native American Youth and Family Center, has been paid $37,810.
Maher says the groups getting money from the Healthy Kids campaign lack the resources to educate voters and improve turnout. Providing them modest financial support, she says, is appropriate.
“We are really proud of the strategy for fluoride and for building a better electorate in Portland,” Maher says. “Let’s give these communities some credit for being part of the conversation from the beginning.”
Before Maher took the top job at the Northwest Health Foundation last year, she served as executive director of NAYA Family Center, the biggest recipient of Healthy Kids’ contributions to nonprofits.
She says the NAYA Family Center is coordinating communications to a larger coalition of groups, and that’s why it got nearly $18,000 more than the other groups. “[The center] had a strong relationship with the Northwest Health Foundation long before I got here,” Maher adds.
Matt Morton, NAYA’s executive director, says any implication that the payments his group received are a quid pro quo is “offensive.”
Morton says NAYA’s support for fluoride and better dental health long precedes payments from the campaign. He says NAYA is using the money for voter activation, engagement and education on dental health.
“Campaigns don’t often engage communities of color because we are not high-frequency voters,” Morton says. “But the strength of this campaign is that it was built from the ground up.”
The Rev. Joseph Santos-Lyons, executive director of APANO, echoes Morton. He says his group was involved in fluoridation efforts long before the campaign began.
Santos-Lyons says APANO has not received a contribution from a political-action committee before, although it has been active in a number of ballot measures. He says APANO is using the contribution to hold four fluoride forums and hire an organizer.
“I hope this sets a precedent that to win, you need to actually work with organizations like ours,” Santos-Lyons says.
Maher says spending campaign money on the various groups makes sense and is a tactic long overdue in Portland political campaigns. She says low-income and minority Portlanders would benefit most from fluoridation because they suffer more cavities and other dental problems.
But the arrangement could run into trouble with the state’s campaign-disclosure laws for a couple of reasons.
First, the law requires campaigns such as Healthy Kids, Healthy Portland to disclose what services are being provided in exchange for the money.
“If [Healthy Kids] has no contract with the organizations and the organizations aren’t required to do anything, you could construe that as a problem,” Meek says.
Filings with the State Elections Division say only that the $143,000 paid to groups will be spent on “yard signs, buttons, etc.”
But there’s a problem with that disclosure: Mitchell, manager of the Healthy Kids, Healthy Portland campaign, acknowledges to WW there is no requirement for the groups to produce such materials.
“We have partnership agreements in writing,” Mitchell says. “It’s a basic agreement that they will provide organizing support for the fluoridation issue and attend weekly check-ins.”
Mitchell declined, however, to provide copies of any of the written agreements she says Healthy Kids has with the various groups.
If the groups spend the money to campaign independently for Measure 26-151, state law could require them to disclose how they spent the money. “If the recipient groups are indeed doing ‘outreach services’ for the measure, they should each be registered as a political committee,” Meek says. None of the groups has done so yet.
Morton and Lyons say there’s no need for such filings. Both say that their organizations, which are non-profits, are allowed to engage in limited political activities, and their work on fluoride is well within such bounds.
Meek, who has filed ballot measures aimed at reforming Oregon’s campaign-finance laws, says the big checks to fluoridation supporters are a sign the system is broken.
“This illustrates another big loophole in Oregon campaign-finance laws: pushing money into the hands of agents, who are then not required to report how they spent the money,” Meek says.
Maher disagrees. She says the fluoride issue represents in part a long-overdue recognition that political campaigns need to reach out to minority voters. “Portland is changing,” Maher says, “and the electorate is changing.”
Money With Teeth
Supporters of Measure 26-151, which would require fluoridation of Portland’s drinking water, have far outraised opponents. The other side, Clean Water Portland, has seen nearly half its money come from out-of-state donors. (See related story here.)
Healthy Kids, Healthy Portland
Raised to date: $587,000
Cash on hand: $192,000
Top Five Donors:
Northwest Health Foundation: $215,000
Oregon Dental Association: $67,500
Washington Dental Service Foundation: $50,000
Clean Water Portland
Raised to date: $190,000
Cash on hand: $83,000
Source: Oregon Elections Division