Oregon House Speaker Jeff Merkley says he won't take campaign money for his U.S. Senate race from lobbyists and others with an interest in legislation while he presides over the Oregon House during the February session that starts Monday.
But Merkley said he would continue to raise funds from other individuals during the monthlong session, even though the House's operating rules ban its members from soliciting or receiving campaign money during legislative sessions.
The Portland Democrat said he based his decision on an opinion from the Legislature's legal office that said the fundraising ban would not apply to him in his bid for a federal office.
House Republicans and one of Merkley's opponents for the Democratic Senate nomination immediately objected, saying that, legal issues aside, Merkley is holding himself to a different standard than the other 59 House members.
"He is using a technicality to say that the rule doesn't apply to him. That's exactly the kind of thing that makes people cynical about politics," said Jake Weigler, spokesman for Portland activist Steve Novick, who is Merkley's main opponent for the Democratic nomination.
Merkley spokesman Russ Kelley said while the legal opinion would allow Merkley to accept all donations during the session, the House speaker is voluntarily limiting his fundraising "because he believes strongly in the integrity of the legislative process."
"In that spirit, he is refusing contributions from lobbyists and political action committees" registered in the state, Kelley said. "He will only accept contributions from individuals who don't have any business before the Legislature."
The latest federal campaign spending reports show Merkley has raised $913,000 to date and has $528,000 cash on hand, compared with Novick's total contributions of $541,000 and $293,000 in the bank.
Merkley's fundraising total pales in comparison to that of U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith, the Republican incumbent Merkley hopes to challenge this fall. Smith's latest report showed he has already raised $7 million and has $4.4 million cash on hand to bankroll his bid for a third Senate term.
Kelley said it's not fair to expect Merkley to suspend fundraising for the month of February while Novick and Smith continue to raise money.
"If we are going to continue to build a campaign that is strong enough to take on Gordon Smith, we can't unilaterally disarm during the month of February," Merkley's campaign spokesman said.
House Republican Leader Bruce Hanna said he can understand Merkley's desire to raise as much cash as possible in the hotly contested Senate race.
"But the appearances of this is that everybody has to live by the fundraising ban but Merkley," the Roseburg Republican said. "It puts the House speaker in a difficult position, because he is looked to as an example. He's supposed to set the gold standard."
Merkley fundraising slowed by Oregon session