Writings and observations

Musing: You have to wonder if the impact is all it might be. But it might be. Could it be that a 10-year-old civil case could cost a half-million dollars now, so much more than the $20,000 back then?

Karen MinnisThe subject is a sad incident dating from 1995, just now unearthed (the process and timing of which would be interesting to know, and isn’t entirely clear yet). The political principals are Karen Minnis, now speaker of the Oregon House, and her husband John, who in 1995 was both a state legislator (she worked for him then as an aide) and a police officer. Briefly, the story is this:

The Minnises in 1995 opened a pizza parlor at Hillsboro. Both otherwise employed, they hired John Minnis’ brother Tuck to manage it. It was an unfortunate choice. According to court records, Tuck Minnis soon began sexually harassing the help – the descriptions in court records put his actions well beyond the pale of ambiguity – culminating in an attack on a 17-year-old girl who worked there, at the restaurant, the point of “attempting to tear off plaintiff’s clothing in an apparent attempt to rape her.” She told her mother, who in turn called John Minnis (at the statehouse) to complain.

The eventual lawsuit (another female employee also eventually sued) said the Minnises “retaliated against plaintiff [the girl] for resisiting and reporting the sexual harassment conduct, as alleged above, by engaging in a course of intentional conduct designed to traumatize plaintiff and force her to quit, including but not limited to excusing defendant Tuck Minnis’ conduct toward plaintiff, assigning plaintiff to undesirable later night shifts, ordering her to change or wardrobe on and off work, setting rules for women employees that were not applied to men, reducing plaintiff’s work hours, changing her job description from hostess to cook, punitively treating her in a rude and angry manner, and writing her up for alleged insubordination on the job.” (She was at the time, remember, age 17.) She stopped working at the restaurant soon after, and then sued. The Minnises paid $20,000 to settle the civil suit. John and Karen Minnis removed Tuck Minnis as manager of the business, but kept him on as an employee there until November, when he apparently left voluntarily.

All of which has been quietly lurking in the Washington County court files, until Friday. As of now, the details are available on a web site called The Minnis File, paid for and authorized by FuturePAC, which is the Oregon House Democrats. The site includes a summary of the situation, a legal analysis by attorney Marc Blackman (which suggests some violations of crominal law as well as civil violations), and a clutch of relevant legal documents. Don’t let it be said those guys can’t smack hard.

And don’t imagine they don’t understand exactly what linkage to make. A new video ad, also out Friday (this was closely worked out – the video was from the campaign of Rob Brading, Minnis’ Democratic opponent): “In Washington, D.C. they covered up for one of their own. Anything to protect their power. In Oregon, Karen Minnis and her husband did the same” – a direct analogy to the Speaker Dennis Hastert mishandling of the Mark Foley revelations.

Back to the opening question: What impact on the high-wire race between Minnis and Brading – which may be the top legislative race in Oregon?

Day before yesterday, we heard from a Democrat a bit discouraged about Brading’s prospects. The reason was money. Although Brading has raised an extraordinary campaign treasury for the state House – around a half-million dollars – Minnis has blown past that into the realm of the incredible, raising a million dollars for a state House race. (How you could even spend that much in a useful way raises questions.) It’s a hot race where the edge still has seemed to be with Minnis.

And now?

Neither the Minnis nor the Brading web site have acknowledged the development – yet.

The story’s key playout will happen in the next three to four days, as it hits mainstream (which it seems likely to do) and as the district processes it. We’ll revisit this for another evaluation, but our first guess is that this relevation has leveled the field. That $20,000 back then may have cost $500,000 now.

UPDATE The Oregonian reports this morning – note that the story now has hit mainstream media – that John Minnis is planning to file a libel suit next week against the Brading campaign over this. Karen Minnis, who noted that she was not named in the original lawsuit, called the disclosures “a new low.”

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The winding down of this year’s campaign means time is coming not only to vote but also to consider how this process can be improved next time. Do we really want a 2008 campaign season that becomes simply a bigger and badder version of this one? Thought not (for most of us, that is).

Here’s one such suggestion (we will have more soon).

Consider the Thursday ruling by the Supreme Court in Montana (Montanans for Justice v. State) throwing out (more precisely, declaring void) three ballot issues which actually will appear on the state’s ballot. These issues were backed by some of the same outfits which sent their tentacles into Washington, Oregon and Idaho this season. Here’s a piece of what the court said happened:

Proponents began collecting signatures throughout the state of Montana in March 2006 and collected them until June 23, 2006, the date on which all gathered signatures had to be submitted to county election administrators for certification. Proponents utilized some Montana citizens to collect signatures but relied primarily on paid out-of-state signature gatherers to obtain the overwhelming majority of the signatures submitted. The uncontradicted evidence established that Proponents paid over $633,000.00 to out-of-state signature gatherers who collected signatures for these three initiatives. Individual signature gatherers were paid between fifty-cents and $2.50 per signature per initiative.

Proponents submitted their signed petitions to the county election administrators, who in turn certified them . . . On August 16, 2006, Opponents filed their Complaint alleging that Proponents’ signature gatherers violated the statutory requirements governing ballot issue petitions by obtaining signatures in a deceptive manner and by falsely swearing to the contents on the signature gatherers’ form affidavits.

The district and supreme court agreed the deception and false affidavits were not just present, but pervasive. And took the noteworthy step of killing the issues even though they could not (because of ballot printing schedules) be removed from the ballot.

No similar legal challenges have been filed in the northwestern states, maybe in part because courts in this region have strong precedent in place to allow ballot issues to go forth to election, on grounds they’re not ripe for review until then. But what are the odds that such extensive problems as cropped up in Montana but are absent here?

True, Oregon has a (useful) law banning payment of signature gatherers by signature, which was part of the Montana problem. But the influx of money and the message behind it – get that thing on the ballot – inevitably will lead to similar problems.

Our suggestion: Prohibit payment of people for gathering signatures for ballot issue petititions.

This would impinge on no one’s personal freedom of speech or political activity. You and your allies want an issue on the ballot? Great: Volunteer your time. And persuade other people to volunteer theirs.

But it would restore – we could call this the Initiative Restoration Act – the emergence of ballot issues from the grass roots. It would help return initiatives to their original intended purpose: A safety valve for the people at large when they feel their interests are not being met by state legislatures. It would not take the money out of campaigns to pass or defeat (that being another subject). But it would undercut the ability of narrowed moneyed interests to hijack the politics and political discussions of states around the country, turning those states and their people into the playtoys of millionaires – something that has happened altogether too much this year.

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