Oregon public employee unions are finding creative ways to both support Democrats in the May 19 primary and punish a few of them.
It’s a novel approach for the powerful political alliances and requires a delicate balance: They must heed the desire of their members to make lawmakers who voted to trim pensions last year pay a price — but avoid endangering Democrats’ supermajorities and powerful longtime allies.
In many Democratic legislative primaries, the upshot is zero public employee union spending.
“They have been eerily quiet for sure,” said Rep. Andrea Salinas, a Democrat from Lake Oswego who previously worked as a contract lobbyist for a trio of public employee and private sector unions. Salinas, who has advocated for some of the union’s top priorities as a lawmaker and is running unopposed in the primary, said some of that might be due to the coronavirus pandemic.
But she heard the same thing from union officials as other lawmakers who voted for the pension changes: “They could not support me in a primary run, at least financially.”
In some other races pitting Democrats against Democrats, meanwhile, the unions have gone into overdrive to try to make sure their favored candidate wins – and that even once-favored incumbents who supported a pension-trimming compromise don’t.
Since the Legislature passed those pension reforms last year as part of a deal to secure the biggest corporate tax increase in state history, the state’s largest public employee unions all decided not to endorse, campaign for or give money to lawmakers who voted for the pension reforms. Strikingly, that was the case even when it meant opposing powerful longtime incumbents with histories of supporting unions’ priorities in the Capitol.
Public employee powerhouse SEIU Local 503, the statewide and local teachers unions, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the Oregon School Employees Association and the Oregon AFL-CIO all landed on that as their favored strategy.
Early in the election cycle, it appeared that might lead the unions to step up and give new candidates for the Legislature a fighting chance in the primary against Democrats who voted for the pension law. That largely failed to happen, with the exception of Tigard-Tualatin School Board member Ben Bowman running against Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick and military veteran and activist Paige Kreisman running against Rep. Rob Nosse.
That does not mean the public employee unions are sitting out the election.
A huge amount of their spending is focused on the three-candidate Democratic primary for secretary of state, in which the largest public employee unions have all lined up behind late entrant Sen. Shemia Fagan of Portland. Her campaign had reported raising the most of the three candidates by Friday afternoon, with nearly $560,000 in contributions. More than 80 percent of her money comes from public employee unions.
Democrats are keen to retake the secretary of state’s office after losing it to Republican Dennis Richardson in 2016. That year, Democratic nominee Brad Avakian also emerged from a three-way primary in which total fundraising hovered close to $2 million, according to state campaign finance records. In Oregon, the office is considered an ideal stepping-stone to run for governor and as Oregonians were reminded in 2015 when it happened to Kate Brown, the secretary of state takes over if the governor resigns.
The other two Democrats in this year’s secretary of state primary are former 2nd Congressional District candidate Jamie McLeod-Skinner and Sen. Mark Hass of Beaverton. Hass says the unions are supporting Fagan over him because of his 2019 vote for the pension reform bill, which he and others say was a package deal with the $1 billion-a-year business tax he championed to boost education spending. Senate Bill 1049 redirected 0.75% to 2.5% of employees’ retirement contributions from their 401(k)-like savings plan to the state pension fund to help address a deficit that stood around $25 billion before the coronavirus crisis.
“It all has to do with the (Public Employees Retirement System reform) vote that I made in 2019, which is how I sort of lost support from the public sector unions,” Hass, who received public sector union contributions in previous elections, said during an endorsement interview with Willamette Week that was posted online. At the Oregon Education Association endorsement convention, “I looked them in the eye and I said, ‘Here’s why we had to do this, we wouldn’t have had the Student Success Act without it. And I know that you’re not going to support me because of that.’ But I told them the truth.”
Fagan responded in the Willamette Week interview that public sector unions have supported her throughout her political career, “not because of one vote that took place in 2019,” but rather because of her overall voting record.
Not all the unions’ political spending this year has been easy to track. A political action committee with the mysterious name Oregonians for Ballot Access this week launched a website that appears to be independent of the three Democrats but exists solely to help elect Fagan. Funded by public employee unions and Planned Parenthood, whose volunteers are also working to elect Fagan, the political action committee drew a rebuke for its shadowy tactics from longtime lawmaker and McLeod-Skinner ally Rep. Alissa Keny-Guyer, as Willamette Week reported Thursday.
Public employee unions are also behind the No Fake Democrats political action committee, which was formed to attack House District 36 candidate Lisa Reynolds, a pediatrician and gun safety activist. Her opponents are Portland State University IT specialist Rob Fullmer, a union leader who has the endorsement of SEIU Local 503, and longtime Oregon teachers union lobbyist Laurie Wimmer, who has the support of education unions.
Marc Abrams, the committee’s treasurer and an assistant attorney general at the Oregon Department of Justice, said it was established to “support the idea that Democrats support unions, support workers,” and voters should reject Reynolds because she supported former Republican secretary of state and gubernatorial candidate Knute Buehler both financially and in an op-ed. Oregon campaign finance records show Reynolds gave Buehler $8,500, most of it when he was running for secretary of state in 2012.
“Our concern is more making sure someone who’s a true democrat wins,” Abrams said Friday.
The committee, which has not reported spending any money, has paid for an online ad against Reynolds, and Abrams suggested it might support or attack candidates in other races in the remaining days before the May 19 election deadline.
“I do believe we will branch out,” Abrams said. With many undecided voters waiting until the final days, “You still can have an influence.”
Reynolds, whose support for Buehler has been previously reported, explained again Friday evening that she’s been close friends with his wife Patty since the first day of kindergarten.
“I grew up with Patty Buehler,” Reynolds said. “I was at her wedding. I was at the birth of her son. And I’m an incredibly loyal friend.”
Reynolds said her campaign has already responded with its own ad and she listed her Democratic bonafides. “I’ve been an activist with Moms Demand Action, I was a cofounder of Indivisible Oregon whose whole purpose of existing is to fight the Trump agenda.”
The unions have also focused on other strategies to shape Oregon politics this year: providing the majority of funding for an effort to recall Hood River Republican Sen. Chuck Thomsen, support for a ballot measure referred by the Legislature that would raise money for Medicaid via tobacco taxes and an initiative to decriminalize the personal possession of most drugs that still has a chance to make the ballot.
Unions were funding two ballot initiatives in response to multiple Republican walkouts in the last year that would punish missing lawmakers, either financially or by disqualifying them from holding office in the future. It’s unclear whether those will move ahead since coronavirus has made it difficult to gather signatures.
Finally, there are legislative races in which unions have provided typical direct donations to Democratic incumbents who voted “no” on the pension reform bill, such as Rep. Brian Clem, Rep. Paul Evans, Rep. Diego Hernandez, Rep. Rachel Prusak and Sen. Kathleen Taylor. In the northwest corner of the state, they are playing a major role supporting candidate Debbie Boothe-Schmidt who is running for an open seat.
In the case of Salinas, the Lake Oswego lawmaker and former labor union lobbyist, she is working to maintain her relationship with the unions and says she’s proud of her record of successfully advocating for legislation public employees want, such as a 2019 law that allowed government workers to maintain the ability to double up on health insurance. The benefit was slated to end under a 2017 cost saving plan.
As for the pension law, on which Salinas initially voted “no” but changed to “yes” after meeting with House Speaker Tina Kotek, “it was and still is something that I think about,” she said. “It did not really comport with my own values and how I think about PERS … But I feel things could have started to unravel in terms of the agreement with the Senate in terms of funding the Student Success bill.”
— Hillary Borrud: email@example.com; @hborrud
— to www.oregonlive.com