by Helen Caswell

Political Action Committees (PACs) have existed in the United States since 1944, but have not come to the attention of most Americans until recently, when issues of campaign finance became central to public conversation. Here in Salem, they are a factor in local elections.

Typically representing labor, business, trade union or ideological interests, PACs raise and spend funds to elect – or defeat – candidates for public office, ballot initiatives or legislation. Each PAC is allowed to give up to $5,000 to a candidate per election (primary and general elections are counted separately) up to $5,000 annually to any other PAC and up to $15,000 annually to any national party.

A good number of local PACs invest in Salem politics: the Salem Area Chamber of Commerce’s Create Jobs PAC; The Mid-Valley Affordable Housing Coalition (MVAHC), a PAC which represents the interests of the Home Builders Association of Marion & Polk Counties; the Progressive Salem PAC, which advocates for progressive candidates; the Salem Fire PAC, associated with the Firefighters Local 314 and SalPAC, for the Salem Association of Realtors.

“Even at the local city council level here in Salem, elections are expensive propositions,” says Mike Erdmann, CEO of the Home Builders Association of Marion & Polk Counties. “It takes a fair bit of money for a candidate to get their message in front of voters through fliers, lawn signs, mailers, advertising, etc.”

PACs, Erdmann says, help candidates raise the money they need to run a campaign “by aggregating the financial support of like-minded individuals and businesses who contribute to the PAC to help elect candidates who they feel most closely align with their beliefs and issues.”

The investments made by PACs likely influence votes. The Salem Area Chamber of Commerce’s Create Jobs PAC spent $220,000 – more than $9.50 for every “no” vote – in its successful effort to defeat the November 2015 transit measure that would have taxed local businesses a small percent of payroll to fund weekend and later-night bus service.  The “yes” campaign only spent $26,000.

In the 2014 city council election, when Wards 2, 4, 6 and 8 were contested races, 3 of the 4 candidates supported financially by the Create Jobs PAC, the MVAHC and SalPAC prevailed – in races where the “PACs’ candidates” out-received opponents by more than 3 – 1 (Ward 4, Steve McCoid), 6 – 1 (Ward 6, Daniel Benjamin) and 2 – 1 (Ward 8, Jim Lewis).

It should be noted that PACs don’t need to contribute as much when candidates bring their own money to a campaign. In previous cycles city councilors Warren Bednarz (Ward 7) and Steve McCoid  (Ward 4) invested heavily in their runs for council seats. Bednarz, a sitting councilor in 2014, even contributed $1,500 directly to other hopefuls in those races, demonstrating how important money is to elections.

PACs can also donate to each other; in 2015 the MVAHC gave a contribution of more than  $14,000 to Oregonians for Affordable Housing.

The Chamber now has two PACs. “The Create Jobs PAC was created in 2008 under a different name,” says Nick Williams, Director of Public Affairs for the Salem Area Chamber of Commerce. “The Build Jobs PAC was created late in 2015 to work in concert with the Create Jobs PAC. ‘Build’ is a miscellaneous PAC, and ‘Create’ is a measures PAC. We have candidate and measure races happening this year, and from an administration standpoint – this is the most appropriate way for us to operate at this time.”

The newest and smallest PAC in town is Progressive Salem, which has been in existence for only a year and some months, and which promotes progressive hopefuls to local office. The May 2016 election will be its first election cycle. “Our PAC aggregates small contributions, averaging about $50, from many small contributors,” says Tina Calos of Progressive Salem. “Many small donors find our PAC a convenient way to contribute small amounts to progressive candidates.”

Who decides who a PAC should support? In the case of the MVAHC, Erdmann says, “The Board of Directors of the Home Builders Association of Marion & Polk Counties determines who the Home Builders Association will endorse.” Then the MVAHC PAV “determines the level of funding that will be contributed to candidates endorsed by the Home Builders Association.”

Calos says Progressive Salem’s process is somewhat less centralized. “We have a long process to recruit candidates, which involves 3 or 4 dozen people at various stages,” she says, though, “Ultimately, our elected board must approve a candidate.”

By this time last local election cycle, PACs had already donated thousands of dollars to city council candidates and had decisive impact in fliers, signs and other messaging. For those who visit Orestar, the website set up by the Oregon Secretary of State to follow election expenses, 2016 is a far quieter year so far.

“Our funding strategy has not changed from past election cycles,” Erdmann says. “[the MVAHC] will be very active in this election cycle, even though contributions have yet to be made.”

More robust PAC contributions should begin to appear on Orestar any day now; April 5 was the beginning of the 7-day filing period, which means that from then until May 17 (Election Day,) all candidates are required to report all transactions (donations and expenses) within 7 days after they occur. After May 17, the requirements will relax to a 30-day reporting period.