Tobias Read has reason to feel good about his reelection chances this year.
Read, the Democratic Oregon state treasurer, faces opposition from a Republican whom he beat narrowly in 2016, in a Democrat-dominated state where voters will be primed to vote against President Donald Trump.
And then there are the checks.
To get out his campaign pitch, Read will have help in the form of tens of thousands of dollars from out-of-state law firms. As of early December, more than 40% of the money the treasurer reported raising in 2019 came from big-time firms headquartered in places like New York City, Washington, D.C., and Wilmington, Delaware.
That in itself is notable, but the donations come with a further wrinkle: Nearly all are being made by lawyers who seek work from the state of Oregon — work that Read’s office can help provide. A 12-year-old state law gave firms a chance to make millions of dollars if they are picked to work one of the potentially lucrative lawsuits that Oregon files against powerful corporations.
The result is a torrent of outside money to state candidates, much of it solicited by Oregon treasurers and attorneys general — the same elected officials whose offices decide which firms get the work.
Read’s just one recipient of the largesse, albeit a dramatic one. Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum and an array of past treasurers and attorneys general have been helped by the same lawyers.
Legal experts and campaign finance watchdogs say this is a system that smacks of self-dealing, giving influential politicians a stable of moneyed and motivated campaign supporters while law firms get a shot at making millions.
“It has a terrible odor, doesn’t it?” said James Cox, a professor at Duke University School of Law who has studied the issue extensively and helped bring changes in North Carolina. “Whether this corrupts their decision or not, they ought to be sensitive to the fact that it stinks.”