I agree that it's important for people to know who's funding local campaigns. That's why in 2018 I introduced a charter amendment to add an additional campaign finance reporting period for municipal candidates in Portland.
But back to those "Who Funded Your Candidate?" posts. Like I said, I think they're a great idea, and for the most part, they're very well done. But I do have a small problem with them...which is actually kind of a big problem.
In these posts, the intent is wonderful, as is the layout. The intent is to inform the public. That's always a good thing. And the layout is intuitive and easy to read. Bonus! (And kudos to Joey for his data and design skills.) But the labels? Like most labels, they're misleading. Here are a few examples.
Example #1: Victoria Morales
My good friend Victoria, who I met playing ultimate frisbee about a bajillion years ago, has been labeled as a "Real Estate Developer." The fine print at the bottom of the blog post indicates why she's earned this label:
"Victoria Morales is the Executive Director of the Quality Housing Coalition, a 501c3 non-profit and private housing industry advocacy organization funded by Tom Watson (owner of Port Property Management) and Brit Vitalius (owner of Vitalius Reality and head of the Southern Maine Landlords Association)."
First, I want to point out that this explanation misses the mark in terms of what Quality Housing Coalition does. QHC is all about providing affordable housing for folks who have trouble obtaining it. On their Facebook page, you'll find the following information:
QHC is "dedicated to creating and supporting quality housing opportunities through philanthropy, education, and policy work in Portland, Maine."
The primary aim of QHC's Project HOME is "to house families and individuals who formerly experienced homelessness."
QHC partners with Greater Portland Family Promise, McAuley Residence, Hope Acts, and the City of Portland Family Shelter.
QHC works "to promote housing policy that results in the creation of more workforce and low income housing."
But let's admit it. "Real Estate Developer" has a certain connotation these days, and QHC—and Victoria—don't exactly fit with that.
Especially since Victoria is also a:
- State Representative for South Portland;
- co-founder of Maine Youth Court;
- coach of multiple youth sports teams;
- regular volunteer in her community;
- person who cares deeply about equity and justice and has worked for both for her entire life...
The Watson-Vitalius Connection
There's a second problem with Victoria's label. It seems the real reason Victoria was given the label is her association with Tom Watson and Brit Vitalius. Both Watson and Vitalius—people who really do make their money developing real estate—are among the philanthropists funding QHC's work. And because their names are associated with QHC, certain assumptions have been made. About QHC. About Victoria. And about Watson and Vitalius.
This is highly problematic. Because in making assumptions about the nonprofit based on its two major funders, a double disservice has been done. The nonprofit has been misunderstood, and two people involved with the nonprofit (Watson and Vitalius) have been minimized for their real estate development backgrounds instead of acknowledged for their philanthropy.
The footnote about Victoria misses the real story here: Watson and Vitalius, who are as aware as anyone of Portland's affordability challenges, have chosen to become part of the solution. They are helping to fund a nonprofit that works to provide quality housing for folks who are having difficulty finding it.
So, the labels? As I said before: they're misleading.
Here's another example.
Example #2: Kim Cook
Kim Cook, a.k.a., Councilor Cook, is labeled as a lobbyist—which is indeed what she does for a living. But there are two problems with the label.
First, it's prejudicial. To simply call Kim a lobbyist without context invokes all of the worst connotations of the word without providing a fuller picture of Kim and her work.
The second problem with Kim being labeled as a lobbyist relative to my 2018 re-election campaign is that she doesn't lobby me. Kim's work as a lobbyist happens in Augusta where she advocates for her clients. Not here in Portland. So...lobbyist, shmobbyist. It isn't any more relevant than the fact that my mom is retired.
That's a danger we face anytime we choose to neatly package a person into categories, whether the category has to do with gender, race, religion, occupation, or any number of identifying factors that serve, yes, to define people, but also to limit them. And as Sidin Vadukut writes so eloquently, labels of this sort, "have a tendency to contaminate conversations even before they have taken place."
And that, my friends, is one of the biggest problems facing our democracy today: too many labels, too much finger-pointing, and not enough civil civic dialogue.
By the way, you can find the complete campaign finance reports for all municipal candidates on the City's website, here. (Joey's presentation and graphics are better, but the city's reports include loans, in-kind donations, and expenditures in addition to contributions.)