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An Uneven Field

Progressive Campaigns Battle Out-of-State Conservatives

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Monday, October 2, the first round of pre-election campaign finance reports will be released by the secretary of state's office, officially revealing who is throwing money at this November's slate of ballot measures. But even before that report is released, it appears evident that progressive groups will be fighting an uphill battle.

This election cycle, as with most election cycles in recent memory, progressives are once again forced into playing defense to conservatives' blitzkrieg offense. And, once again, they'll be outspent by a hefty margin.

According to campaign observers, lefty groups in Oregon have long been relegated to spending resources to fight conservative ballot measures—rather than proposing new progressive policies of their own.

"It's a little bit mystifying," says an insider, who's working on one of the opposition campaigns this year and wished to remain unnamed. Progressive groups tried to get measures on the ballot this year (universal healthcare and corporate accountability on taxes), but dropped them in favor of putting resources into fighting measures like 41 and 48, which would drastically cut the state's revenue. The corporate accountability measure—which was even circulating on the streets gathering signatures—was abandoned in exchange for the business community's willingness to oppose M41 and M48, according to observers, although the campaign says it was simply a matter of not enough resources.

(One left-leaning measure made it through: M44, a prescription drug plan for senior citizens.)

"These were divisive issues that we were going to have to dump millions of dollars into. Progressives agreed that it was important to put as much money as possible into fighting these other bad ballot measures," the insider says. "The upshot is that they're fighting them incredibly well."

Still, lefties are faced with at least two major disadvantages: time and money. Historically, progressive opposition groups in the state have played the waiting game—hoping the conservative measures will be disqualified before forming a functioning opposition campaign. The situation is improving, observers say, but there's still evidence that some oppositional campaigns are running the clock.

The campaigns to fight M39 (a ban on eminent domain), M40 (electing judges by district), and M45 (term limits for state lawmakers) are quiet to nonexistent. But campaigns like the Defend Oregon Coalition, which is fighting M41 and 48, have been officially active since July—unofficially for much longer. Plus, they're expected to run a multimillion-dollar campaign, pulling largely from national labor organizations.

That's important, because conservative campaigns are well funded by out-of-state interest groups and wealthy individuals. In particular, a New York businessman/libertarian named Howard Rich (and his anti-tax group, Americans for Limited Government) is funneling millions of dollars into multiple campaigns, like term limits and—more notably—the M48 cap on state spending.

"Most of the money that comes flying in from out of state is ideologically right-wing," says local political consultant Kari Chisholm, co-founder of BlueOregon.com. "I wouldn't mind a more level playing field, but it's a good thing that we have to organize locally. At some point, Oregonians may start voting against [campaigns that use] out-of-state money."

Patty Wentz, the spokesperson for advocacy group Our Oregon, which is working with most of the progressive campaigns, said the left's big victory came in April when the legislature held a special one-day session. There, activists managed to convince lawmakers to pass a payday loan reform package that would otherwise have gone to this November's ballot. "We were gearing up to gather signatures and start campaign on it, but [House Speaker] Karen Minnis saw the writing on the wall and passed it through," Wentz said.

But, she added, the left was caught off guard by the deep pockets of the M48 campaign.

"When we put corporate accountability on the ballot, we had no idea Howard Rich was going to be dumping so much money into the state," she says. "We didn't expect them to have such a big sugar daddy. You don't often get a guy who says, 'Whatever it takes.'"

So the resources that would have gone toward lefty causes, Wentz says, are being redirected to fight Rich's influence on Oregon policies. It's also impacting the "third tier" campaigns—the opposition to term limits and districting of judges—by sucking away money. "If we didn't have to fight 41 and 48, these would be bigger campaigns," Wentz says. "But it's like Sophie's Choice."

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