Aug 30 2006

Coordinated campaign

Published by at 4:49 pm under Oregon

Sometimes political campaigns aren’t altogether what they’re supposedly about. Sometimes you have to makes connections and pull pieces together.

In Oregon, for example, there’s Measure 48, and then there’s a set of ads that have begun appearing on another, apparently unrelated subject. We’re betting they’re closely related.

Go back to our post yesterday on 48 – the TABOR-derived spending cap – and the quotes from its Oregon petitioner, Don McIntire. Who does he see as his opponent in the battle over the ballot issue? Not someone most Oregonians probably would cite: “the real leader of the government class in Oregon – Tim Nesbitt, recent President of the Oregon AFL-CIO. I will debate Mr. Nesbitt as many times as he would like between now and election day.”

All of that was largely in response to Governor Ted Kulongoski’s offer to debate the man most responsible for underwriting the Measure 48 campaign, New York businessman Howard Rich. Kulongoski’s move drew fresh attention to the non-indigenous nature of the initiative, that it’s a clone of brethern circulating in a bunch of states, all funded by Rich and associations he’s closely linked to.

McIntire’s comments sounded like an attempt to swing the spotlight in another direction. In Oregon, unions had been peripheral in the discussion about Measure 48 up to that point, but McIntire went well out of his way to make them central.

But in a bigger context, his comments look in no way accidental.

In the last couple of weeks, Oregonians have been seeing print (in the Portland Oregonian and Eugene Register-Guard) and broadcast ads blasting unions, especially government-based unions, but in a generic way.

The ads came from the Center for Union Facts, which runs a web site which includes a fair amount of useful neutral information about unions alongside questionable or discredited material plus its opinion material, which includes audio, video and text items which focus on union corruption and (in the video segments) take direct shots at the character of union members. (The video now on display certainly does, taking aim two female workers designed to push your infuriate buttons; it concludes, “your tax dollars are funding outrageous benefit backages and poor service.”) The site proclaims the organization as not anti-union, only anti-corruption, but the opinion material available there belies that. The union-critical ads running in Oregon are just the latest generation; earlier versions were rolled out in February in larger metro areas.

What is the Center for Union Facts? The Center told the Oregonian that it does not disclosure its donors; and here as in the initiative world, a great deal of the money picture has a furtive and secretive sense to it. It has disclosed its executive director is Rick Berman, a Washington attorney and lobbyist. Researchers at Sourcewatch describe it as “a secretive front group for individuals and industries opposed to union activities. It is part of lobbyist Rick Berman’s family of front groups including the Employment Policies Institute. The domain name www.unionfacts.com was registered to Berman & Co. in May 2005.”

Okay, so who is Berman and his company? Sourcewatch again: “Berman & Co., a Washington, DC public affairs firm owned by lobbyist Rick Berman, represents the tobacco industry as well as hotels, beer distributors, taverns, and restaurant chains. Berman & Co. lobbies for companies such as Cracker Barrel, Hooters, International House of Pancakes, Olive Garden, Outback Steakhouse, Red Lobster, Steak & Ale, TGI Friday’s, Uno’s Restaurants, and Wendy’s. It also operates a network of several front groups, web sites, and think tanks that work to keep wages low for restaurants and to block legislation on food safety, secondhand cigarette smoke, and drunk driving.”

Remember the discussion around Oregon about smoking regulation, lottery profits and the minimum wage? Suddenly, all these pieces start rolling into focus, on top of the whole matter of reduced government regulation of business – inevitably a key fallout of Measure 48, if it passes.

Are there other possible connections to Oregon business-related activities? About about the struggles Wal-Mart has been facing in the state as it tries to plant additional stores, especially in the Portland area?

Look on the Union Facts press release page and you’ll see headlines of five releases, two of them about Wal-Mart (“State should spurn anti-Wal-Mart bill,” “Beating up on Wal-Mart”). Wal-Mart’s heavy resistance to union organizing gives it a logical place in this world, certainly. The company has denied being part of Berman’s efforts, but the ties and connections are too numerous and obvious to miss. A number of top Wal-Mart executives Berman worked closely together for years. And the Detroit Free Press on May 24 reported that money may not have been exchanged, “Wal-Mart said it has a relationship in which it exchanges union information with Berman, the group’s head.”

Wal-Mart, you’ll recall, has some links to the ballot-issue-pushing Americans for Limited Government, too.

This isn’t, of course, about Wal-Mart, or any one of these people or groups or issues. It’s broader. Consider the question: Why is all this stuff being pushed, so hard, on a national level (attempts at disguise notwithstanding), now?

Writing at the TPM Cafe blog, labor activist Frank Joyce could be on to something.

There’s something happening here and it’s not just about Wal Mart. My theory is that what Berman’s telling these guys is that workers and citizens are getting restless. His story must be that they are getting so restless that the attack better be kicked up a notch lest unions start to look good to workers in spite of all their flaws and weaknesses. I think Berman is absolutely right about the restless part.

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