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The Opinions of The Oregonian Editorial Board

$13 a vote adds up to a black eye for Nike

June 21, 2006

It's comforting to know there are still a few things money can't buy -- things like trust, love, honor, loyalty or a seat on the city council.

Nike and its billionaire chairman, Phil Knight, spent nearly $62,000 on a failed attempt to oust a city councilor in Beaverton. That's not even pocket change for the man Forbes magazine lists as the 70th wealthiest person in the world, but it's an eye-popping sum in a town where no one had ever spent more than $6,400 to run for a council seat.

Knight and his giant shoe and sportswear company gave the pile of cash to Bob Burke, a mortgage loan officer who says he has no direct ties to Nike. It's pretty clear he became a vehicle for the company and its co-founder to send a stern message to City Hall: "Mess with us and we'll come after you in the next election."

Beaverton and Nike have been embroiled in a yearlong feud about public records. The company demanded documents related to possible forced annexation of the sprawling Nike campus, and the city has resisted in pathetic ways.

We've solidly backed Nike in that fight but were sorry to see it unleash the gusher of campaign contributions. That kind of money has no place in Beaverton-scale elections. It fuels cynicism, eroding faith and participation in the democratic system.

Fortunately, if Knight & Co. had hoped to accomplish more than making their brash statement, they came up big losers. Burke got clobbered. Incumbent Betty Bode whipped him by an 18 percentage point margin, even though she spent less than one-fourth of what he did.

The $62,000 from Nike and Knight, divided by Burke's 4,943 votes, pencils out to more than $13 a vote. That puts them in a league with Loren Parks, the eccentric entrepreneur and self-proclaimed sex therapist who spent $713,000 trying unsuccessfully to buy the office of governor for Republican Kevin Mannix.

And not even Parks spent as much per vote on Mannix's failed gubernatorial campaigns.

Nike and Knight should dial down their heavy spending on local elections. It's bound to backfire on their public image and probably did to some degree in the Burke-Bode contest. Bode's lopsided victory came mostly through her incumbency and strong support from community leaders, but she surely benefited as well from some anti-Nike sentiment generated by all that cash.

The great businessman and his company have every right to throw their money around. Oregon is one of only five states with no limits on political campaign contributions.

Their big spending on the little city council election, however, will surely add fuel to a grass-roots movement now under way for campaign finance reform in Oregon.

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