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Fill out your ballot

When my Oregon primary election ballot arrived in the mail and I unfolded it, my first thought was: This won’t take long.

My second thought was whether to bother. But that stray idea passed quickly.

My ballot, slight as it is, does matter, and even when it’s not packed with critical inflection points, the decisions on it can have real impact.

I’m in the largest plurality of Oregon voters, those registered as not affiliated with any party. Since a lot of the interest in primary elections concerns choosing party nominees, especially for major parties, I’m a non-participant in a lot of the action this season.

That’s worth noting because 1.1 million Oregonians are in my boat, considerably more than the next-largest group, the Democrats, fewer than a million. Many registrants of the smaller parties have little role this season, either. State law bars all of those people from joining in critical partisan primary contests: You have to be registered with a party to obtain a ballot with those choices.

For unaffiliated voters, a ballot looks like this: Some local government races and some judicial seats, mostly uncontested, and occasionally a ballot issue. In Oregon, the highest-profile of those may be the bond ask for the Portland zoo.

In the case of the uncontested offices featuring only a single name – the norm for most judicial and many local government offices outside the metro areas – a voter can withhold support from a candidate but realistically has little chance of affecting the outcome. For many unaffiliated voters, ballot issues are the main reason to cast a vote at all.

Oregon is one of only nine states to limit primary participation, and citizens here have brought forth a number of proposals to open its primary elections to those not registered with a party.

Still, the group All Oregon Votes, which has backed open primaries in Oregon and filed an initiative proposal for the 2024 general election, said in February, it has “paused work on 2024 Initiative Petition 26 to focus on more promising strategies to enfranchise voters in Oregon.” Those other strategies weren’t specified. The group, which has been trying since 2020 to put a measure on the ballot, has run up against conflicts with state officials over ballot titles, which the group said left the intent of the measure unclear for voters.

Meanwhile, many major party members are seeing slim ballots, too. The presidential nominating process, which often drives primary turnout in presidential years, is effectively done – long before Oregon voters got a chance to weigh in. Only one Republican, Donald Trump, is even on the ballot, and the Democratic contest is just about over as well.

Two congressional districts do have heated primary contests, those being in the 3rd and the 5th districts, both on the Democratic side. The race in the 5th District does have serious national implications, because in the fall it may be among the handful determining whether the Republicans or Democrat will control the U.S. House next term.

And legislative primary contests are sprinkled all over the state. But for many voters, there’s still little there.

So why bother, especially for unaffiliated voters??

In my case, the ballot has several unopposed judicial races and several unopposed local offices – little to debate about there. But the main reason I wasted no time filling out and turning in the ballot was the one race on it which is contested.

This is a battle, a real political knock-down, for one of the three Yamhill County Commission seats. The incumbent seeking re-election is locally controversial enough to have been the subject, a few years back, of a recall attempt. She prevailed then, but not by much, 52.5% to 47.5%, and she hasn’t won office by much more than that.

Many commission races in Yamhill County in recent years have been similarly close. And this season’s contest, in which she has two challengers, may be another. One of those contenders hasn’t been seriously active, but the other has been running a highly energetic campaign, and local conventional wisdom is split on the probable outcome. As in many Oregon counties, the seats are officially non-partisan, but they party they belong to is an open secret.

In theory, it’s a race that could go down to a single vote. I wouldn’t want it to go what I consider to be the wrong way because I failed to vote.

Local Oregon ballots have lots of individual races like that, and they all matter.  So, look closely at your ballot. It may offer more chances to make a difference than you initially think.

This column originally appeared in the Oregon Capital Chronicle.

Few common threads

Republican primary contests this year in many states – Washington and Idaho for two –  have evolved into battles between traditional conservatives and more uncompromising activist and often Trumpist groups.

Oregon is mostly an exception.

The state has no lack of Republican primary contests, five in the state Senate and 10 in the House, with about four times as many House seats are up for election. While some candidates identify themselves along the lines of former President Donald Trump, few do so very explicitly.

The reasons why aren’t clear. The state’s late presidential primary, which will feature only Trump on the Republican side, may have lowered the attention level a little in Oregon at the local level. Maybe, too, Oregon’s nature is more inclined to focus on local concerns and individual personalities.

Oregon’s Republican contests seem at least to have evolved that way.

That holds true for the statewide and ideologically-oriented Republican Unity Caucus PAC, which has become involved in Republican primary contests, one of the few state organizations to do so. Its finances are not massive, with it reporting so far less than $17,000 in either contributions or spending for the primary. It describes itself as “uniting activists and legislators to empower the Freedom Movement in Oregon,” and does not get much more specific from there, freeing it to act in the primaries however seems desirable.

Its most visible activity concerns incumbent Republican Sen. David Brock Smith of Port Orford, who is facing three primary opponents for his southern coastal seat, with logger Todd Vaughn winning RUC backing. The PAC’s blasts at Brock Smith led to cease-and-desist letters from Brock Smith’s attorney with indications that he might sue over what he described as false campaign statements. The complaints against Brock Smith are hard to parse, but seem to argue that he was too supportive of Democratic initiatives and might have been helping a Chinese businessman.

Brock Smith describes himself as a staunch conservative, and RUC leader Ben Edtl said his group is “bound by America First values.” The group’s core complaint against Brock Smith remains unclear.

RUC also weighed in on the Republican primary in House District 51 in Clackamas County. With no Democrats filing, the seat will go to Christine Drazan, who represented the area before resigning when she ran for governor in 2022, or James Hieb, who was appointed to replace her and now is the incumbent. The PAC described Drazan, the Republican governor nominee two years ago, as “supported by special interest groups who want to continue their agenda of socializing housing and health care and continue to undermine election integrity and local democratic control of our school districts.” Hieb, it said, had begun his legislative term similarly but then “he began an assent to fearlessly representing his voters.” The reasons for involvement never get much more specific.

The Unity Caucus seems to be about as large a group as has become involved in the many Republican primaries.

In only one case among the 15 Republican primary contests was a significant policy difference between two candidates clearly central. That is in House District 12 in rural Lane County where incumbent Rep. Charlie Conrad of Dexter faces a challenge by Darin Harbick over Conrad’s  vote in 2023 for a Democratic-backed reproductive health care bill. Conrad went against his party on the bill, which sparked a Republican Senate walkout that lasted for six weeks. Harbick told the Capital Chronicle: “When I found out that my state representative (was) the only Republican in Oregon who voted with the rest of the Democrats on that bill, I was outraged because I do not believe that is what House District 12 represents,” Harbick said. “That was kind of a catalyst that put me into running a primary against Representative Conrad.”

Most of the candidate differences, however, relate more to approach to the job than to policy or even personality differences.

In Senate District 2, which includes Josephine and parts of Douglas and Jackson counties, incumbent Art Robinson was legally barred from running again, so his son Noah Robinson has filed to replace him. He is opposed by current Rep. Christine Goodwin of Canyon City. She told the Capital Chronicle:  “I filed because the threat of another Robinson was frightening to me.” She said the elder Robinson only opposed bills while she said she would compromise, when necessary, to find solutions. The thread of practical legislating against an uncompromising edge runs through several races. In the coastal House District 32, where incumbent Cyrus Javadi of Tillamook is rematched against Glenn Gaither of Seaside, Javadi talks about working across the aisle, while Gaither’s message does have clear echoes of a Trump-like view but in the context of being uncompromising.

At least one other House race is specifically shaped around the background of the incumbent, in this case the longest-serving House Republican, Greg Smith of Heppner in eastern Oregon. Challenger Raymond Akers drew on headlines about Smith’s extensive private-sector but government-related contracts, chronicled by Malheur Enterprise, and said on his Facebook page that “while Greg is out and about telling about all of his corporate endorsements (voters should) hold his feet to the fire (since) you may not see him again for many years.”

On the day after primary election day, Oregon Republicans – and political analysts – may have a hard time drawing any sweeping conclusions about what the party’s voters want. Whatever it is, apart from liking or disliking their incumbents, they won’t have a lot of room to express it on the ballot.

This column originally appeared in the Oregon Capital Chronicle.

What is a state treasurer?

The central campaign issue in Oregon’s Democratic primary contest for state treasurer turns out to be the nature of the job itself.

Maybe that shouldn’t be rare. Probably few voters consider the actual work a president, senator or school board member does when casting their ballots, though we should. In the case of the current Democratic treasurer primary in Oregon, quite a few voters likely will.

That’s partly because of the contrasting backgrounds of the two candidates on the ballot: state Sen. Elizabeth Steiner, a 13-year legislator from Portland, and Jeff Gudman, whose filing describes him as a “financial analyst, controller, treasurer, investor.” You can make an argument that both have parts of the background needed for the job.

The winner will face Republican Brian Boquist, a state senator who cannot serve another term because he participated in a six-week Republican Senate walkout. He’s running unopposed for his party’s nomination.

Treasurer may be the most technical of Oregon’s statewide elected posts, with core tasks that involve investment and bookkeeping. The treasurer oversees $100 billion in state investment, including in the Public Employee Retirement System, PERS.  The job also includes smaller responsibilities, including serving on the state Land Board, managing unclaimed property and some estates. But the essence is in managing that bankroll and  investing it. The more the investment yields, the less needed from taxpayers.

That technical side to the job is candidate Gudman’s calling card. He was a city councilor for Lake Oswego for eight years. But his emphasis on qualification concerns his education and professional background, a finance and management MBA from the Wharton School of Business, and work as a financial analyst for Hyster Company, which makes forklifts and lift trucks, and treasurer for divisions of Northwest Natural Gas. He has also helped run several nonprofits and been an investor for about 30 years.

He has a highly detailed platform relating to how the state invests money, calling for finding ways to invest to help local economic development and shift the entities where the state places money. The link between Gudman’s background and the treasurer’s work is clear.

At the same time, the treasurer’s office is not just money management: It also is political, and legally it is a partisan office. It is second in line of succession to the governor, after the secretary of state, a reasonable factor for voters to bear in mind. And questions of political philosophy do come into play even in finances. Gudman, for example, has said he would scale back the state’s policy of disinvesting in fossil fuel businesses, a shift from the current practice.

Politics is a problem for Gudman. His run for treasurer this year is his third. He lost twice to Democrat Tobias Read, who’s retiring as treasurer, while running as a Republican. He has said that he left the Republican Party, or that it left him, because of philosophical differences. His political background still may make a difference with Democratic primary voters, and it might matter as well in dealings with other Democratic elected officials.

The other candidate and apparent frontrunner, Elizabeth Steiner, doesn’t have that problem. She is well-established within the state’s Democratic Party, and her endorsement list offers an ample demonstration, with backing from many of the leading Democratic state officials, all the Democrats in the congressional delegation and Read, plus many of the usual Democratic support groups.

She is not a finance professional: By occupation, Steiner is a physician. She does have experience as a legislative budget writer and co-chairs the legislative audits committee, but her statements on state money management and investment have been thinner — aside from a general view on smart investing — than Gudman’s.

The counter would be that the treasurer’s office is extensively, and some would argue expensively as well, staffed, with officers who are professionals in finance and investment. The treasurer’s job is more in the area of policy direction and relations with outside organizations, including the Legislature.

In its editorial endorsing Gudman, The Oregonian/OregonLive argued, “We disagree on the importance of political experience for this position. In fact, deep political alliances can be problematic for a treasurer who has a legally binding responsibility to make decisions in the best financial interest of the beneficiaries whose funds are under management.”

Neither perspective should be absolute. Read is actually a mix of the two roles. He has an MBA from the University of Washington and worked as an assistant to the federal Department of the Treasury from 1999 to 2001, though his main private sector experience was mid-level corporate. He also served in the Oregon Legislature for years, developing close political relationships on the way. He’s now a candidate for secretary of state.

Voters in this primary will be faced with an unusually straight-ahead choice: What set of qualifications is most important? That direct consideration of personal backgrounds makes this possibly the most unusual election on the ballot in Oregon this season.

The column originally appeared in the Oregon Capital Chronicle.

 

An official first spouse?

For her own sake as well as the state’s, Gov.Tina Kotek ought to propose the Legislature write into state law rules governing what a governor’s spouse can and must not do.

She could even write the policy as a temporary executive order until the Legislature acts –and pledge to abide by its terms.

She seemed to indicate the need for some structure when on April 3 she asked for guidance from the Oregon Government Ethics Commission. That may yield some useful advice, but it’s likely to be thin since Oregon law and rule barely touch the subject.

Headlines in the last couple of months of turmoil in Kotek’s office, including on Friday, are enough of a warning that guard rails are needed on the role of the first spouse. The experience of her predecessor once removed, John Kitzhaber, different though in key ways, also made that plain.

We give governors leeway in deciding who their advisors will be, and spouses sometimes have a role. It can often be unofficial, but spousal involvement can become uncomfortable, disconcerting and disruptive for staff at times, even when the top executive makes a serious effort to avoid problems. A spouse active in policymaking often can easily outmaneuver even experienced and highly capable staff, including people who may have more valuable expertise.

The same often goes for political campaigns. Political campaign managers who have uneasy relationships with candidate spouses can throw campaigns off balance.

These situations tend to be more the exception than the rule, however. Many spouses, even in the families of many presidents, have little interest in government or elective office and stay clear of them. In a recent collection of Oregon officials’ comments on the subject assembled by Willamette Week, U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden noted that his wife operates her own business and spends much of her time working on it. The other senator, Jeff Merkley, indicated that while he and his wife often  talk about Senate business, she keeps her involvement away from the office.

The spouse story isn’t always negative. State Sen. James Manning of Eugene, now a candidate for secretary of state, recalled that, “When my wife was here – she passed away almost three years ago – she served as my chief of staff in the Senate. I conferred with her all the time. People would stop by to see her and not me.”

In the case of two other recent governors, Kate Brown and Ted Kulongoski, first spouses were active in limited areas – a few environmental and cultural projects, respectively – but not as central actors in the office.

But personnel and budget considerations, among other things, make the meshing of family roles and executive office management a complex subject. The case of Kitzhaber and his fiancée make for a standing red flag and a marker of how those relationships can destroy a governorship that in many other respects would have been considered sound.

That case involved Kitzhaber’s partner, Cylvia Hayes, who, many news reports said, used not only her position as first lady but also state resources and personnel to build her consulting business while maintaining an occasional role in the governor’s office.The combination of those factors, and Kitzhaber’s defense of her, eventually led to both federal and state investigations (though no criminal charges) and the governor’s resignation.

That offers a clear rule: Do not mix state activity with outside interests, especially any of a financial or personally beneficial nature.

The Kotek case differs in that, to this point, no outside involvement or personal enrichment is alleged. At the same time, Aimee Kotek Wilson is clearly more involved in the office. She isn’t paid and doesn’t hold an official state title. But the departure of three senior staffers in the governor’s office has been linked in news reports to Kotek Wilson’s role in the office. And news surfaced last week that her communications director is also leaving.

Is there a way to structure first spouse involvement to minimize those issues while taking advantage of the assets that can bring?

Other states offer limited guidance. Most have no official or formal role at all for the first spouse, even when, as in Florida, North Dakota and elsewhere, they are independently active on issues.

A few provide formal organizational structures.

The California governor’s office publishes an office organization chart, and one side of it falls under the “first partner.” The organization under her includes six state staffers. At least two other states, Pennsylvania and Georgia, list chiefs of staff for first spouses on their websites. Washington state may have something generally similar, on a smaller scale, with one state employee detailed to help with the first lady’s schedule.

Those states all are larger than Oregon, and if Kotek tries to launch a full-scale office for the first spouse, there’ll be blowback – and it could be fierce. A small amount of support from a staffer or two might be more supportable.

What’s more clearly needed is a set of rules around the authority and role a first spouse might assume without becoming a state employee. Given the recent rush of headlines, Kotek might be wise to address that soon.

This column first appeared in the Oregon Capital Chronicle.

Those questionable comparison surveys

You may receive, as I do, emails and reports from online organizations about research purporting to show how Oregon stacks up to other states in various ways.

Don’t trust them.

One recent report said that among the 50 states, Oregon has the fifth highest rate of religious discrimination – a topic that’s emerged in presidential politics.

Republicans have appealed to conservative Christians by alleging religious victimization, and presidential candidate Donald Trump even offered to declare a Christian visibility day if elected. Democrats say much of the victimization argument is thinly supported, while the Biden administration has categorized some regulatory changes in social services as designed to protect religious freedom.

The report listed five states atop the list – Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Washington and Oregon – all are Democratic-leaning.

Could this be another instance of skewed data in support of an ideology?

An online publication, New American, headlined the results with this point: “States Biden Won in 2020 Lead – in Religious Discrimination Complaints.” The article added, “Of the 15 states with the most religious discrimination complaints, 11 are among the 15 most atheistic states.” It failed to mention that deep-red Idaho immediately follows Oregon in sixth place.

But what does this ranking even mean? The core data comes from credible sources. The state rankings were developed by the Boston law firm Duddy, Goodwin and Pollard, which specializes in employment law, based on underlying data from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In Oregon, those cases are overseen by the Bureau of Labor and Industries, and Oregon has its own rules on religious discrimination.

However.

As the EEOC reference suggests, we’re talking here strictly about employment discrimination –- hiring, firing, job conditions and harassment and similar subjects. Other areas where religious discrimination might be alleged – in housing, education, health and other areas – weren’t part of the analysis.

Second, the rates in the study didn’t relate to how many cases of religious discrimination were alleged based on population, but rather they were based on a percentage of all kinds of employment discrimination charges. So if, for example, Mississippi, which had the lowest religion-based percentage, had a higher percentage of other forms of discrimination, that would lower the religious percentage, even if the number happened to be higher than Oregon’s.

The New American article even suggested another concern about the lack of data on religious complaints.

“To what extent is today’s fashionable Christophobia at issue and to what degree are these politically correct complaints (e.g., allegations of anti-Muslim bias)? And how does this vary state by state?”

A September 2020 analysis from the University of Washington, the fourth ranking state, said “Muslims and atheists in the United States are more likely than those of Christian faiths to experience religious discrimination, according to new research led by the University of Washington.”

On top of that, the causes of religious discrimination cited in the data were scrambled, with data thrown together from during and after the pandemic, when debates roared over who would be required to take protective actions, such as getting a vaccine or the temporary closure of churches –  issues that cut widely across cultural and political lines.

None of that means, of course, that discrimination on the basis of religion is irrelevant to Oregon. In fact, there have been a few recent cases where discrimination was alleged. For example, in May 2023, state Sen. Cedric Hayden, R-Fall Creek, complained to state and legislative employment offices that the Senate president had violated his right to an excused absence when he wanted to attend a Saturday church service during a stretch when Senate Republicans had departed the Legislature to bring it to a halt. That case appears to be still pending.

And another instance has been cited by the Portland firm Meyer Employment Law, which  posted a list of top discrimination cases in the state in recent years. The top three involved age, race and gender discrimination but the fourth involved religion. A Portland city employee was awarded $14,080 in that latter case. The city was found to have allowed a hostile work environment, with her lawsuit against the city quoting a fellow employee as saying: “I am tired of your Christian attitude … I’m going to file a complaint against you the next time I sneeze and you say ‘bless you.’”

There was also a religious discrimination case in Brookings involving zoning law and St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church. It routinely provided meals for homeless people in the area as part of its religious mission, leaders said. But in 2022, the city passed an ordinance requiring a permit for meal services. The  church fought back in court, claiming religious discrimination, and won.

So does that mean that Oregon has among the highest instances of religious discrimination in the country?

Hardly. The data doesn’t stack up. But this case does show that it’s good to be skeptical of comparisons during high-stakes election campaigns.

This column originally appeared in the Oregon Capital Chronicle.

 

Next steps on campaign finance

They said it couldn’t be done, but Oregon will finally more closely resemble most other states in how it regulates campaign finance. Thanks to a bill passed during the just-wrapped legislative session, contributions to state candidates will no longer be able to stretch to infinity.

House Bill 4024, which Gov. Tina Kotek signed, takes effect in 2027. That is cause for celebration.

But Oregonians should keep their expectations in line and take personal responsibility for tracking campaign funding – data available online – for holding candidates accountable for what they receive and what they do with that money.

And policymakers should start focusing on steps Oregon can take to actively move the state toward the top ranks among finance regulators.

The weakness of Oregon’s current campaign finance rules was underscored by a Feb. 15 contribution of $2 million by Nike co-founder  – and Oregon’s wealthiest person – Phil Knight to the Bring Balance to Salem PAC, which aims to elect Republicans. The contribution was only the latest million-dollar donation from the billionaire, less than a third of the total he has given to the Balance group atop major contributions in the 2022 governor’s race.

And yet even those amounts are swamped by the biggest political contribution Oregon has ever seen, which also is relatively recent. That was the $11.4 million donation in 2022 to a political action committee backing the District 6 U.S. House campaign of Carrick Flynn, who ran unsuccessfully in the Democratic primary. That PAC was backed by  the recently sentenced cryptocurrency fraudster Sam Bankman-Fried and stands as the largest in Oregon state history, though it might not have retained that record forever if Oregon had not approved new limits.

Oregon can take some relief from the idea most of these mass donations went to campaigns that failed, which might not have been the case forever. At the same time, these mega contributions all have been legal under Oregon law.

House Bill 4024 sets limits for individual contributions to candidates at $3,300 in a single election, with the primary and general considered separately, and $5,000 during a two-year cycle to political committees. Committee spending on candidates would be limited as well, among other provisions regulating finance and reporting.

This law, however, still only lifts Oregon from the low ranks of the states to lower-middle in the area of campaign finance.

Most states have campaign donation limits lower than the Oregon law. Colorado’s limit is $625 for statewide candidates and $200 for legislative, for example. Many states – Arizona, Connecticut, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, Ohio and Wisconsin among them – simply prohibit corporate and union contributions.

Oregon’s new limits for contributions by political committees to candidates also is higher than in many states. Some limit those donations to no more than those of an individual person’s contribution.

Donations Contributions from individuals outside the U.S. nited States are limited or banned in 23 states,  (and from foreign corporations as well in about half of those), but not in Oregon. A 2018 ballot issue in North Dakota passed by voters there banned foreign contributions, and California, Illinois, Alaska and other states and localities have passed campaign finance restrictions from out-of-country sources. A modest proposed restriction in Oregon died in the 2023 legislative session.

Portland’s experience with public financing of city candidate campaigns left people with mixed reactions, but a number of states have been experimenting with the approach in certain specialized areas, especially in judicial races (in – New Mexico and West Virginia – ) where any campaign donations can be problematic. A dozen other states allow state funding for governor and legislative races.

Oregon’s finance experience with the world of cryptocurrency should raise a red flag in that area, and many state legislatures have begun to address it. None ban crypto contributions entirely, but 14 states regulate it in some way. Washington and Colorado, for instance, limit crypto donations contributions to no more than $100, while Montana and Georgia require those contributions be converted immediately into dollars to comply with amount limits. Oregon could use some guidelines in this area.

Campaign finance is an ever-evolving system, often evolving in reaction to how it is regulated. FThe federal law changes half a century ago in the wake of Watergate were intended to solve the corruption problem, but they led to new workarounds and evasions, with the creation (the of super-PACs, for one example). Solutions, however well thought out, won’t last forever.

A good question for legislative candidates this year would be:  A voter question for Oregon legislative candidates this year: What will you do to improve, and tighten, Oregon’s campaign finance law in the next couple of sessions, now that the door has been kicked open. was kicked open in 2024?

 

For a few Dollars less

Dollar stores have become a big deal in Oregon, a central retail business in dozens of smaller communities.

They also are a major national business model and industry which has grown with lightning speed over the last decade, potentially contributing to the hollowing out of many small-town economies and a dependence on owners from far away. That  may be one of the reasons for a shift in rural areas toward political extremes.

But now they may be facing an economic pivot.

One of the smaller inflection points, which may be indicative of others to come, could show up at a Wallowa County public hearing on March 26.

It comes in the context of what is likely an industry-wide change. Dollar Tree, which operates 16,774 locations, and has the largest share of the ubiquitous dollar stores nationally, said this month in its generally optimistic quarterly financial report that it will close about 1,000 of those stores nationwide within about a year. Those closures are expected to include 970 under the name Family Dollar and 30 Dollar Trees.

The corporation didn’t say where those shutdowns would be, but a significant number of Oregon stores are likely to be among them since Oregon has a lot of dollar stores. There are 70 Dollar Tree and six Family Dollar outlets in Oregon, the company said. A competing company, Dollar General, reports operating even more stores, with 78 in Oregon.

These stores may be barely noticed by residents in larger cities around the state, where their footprint is light, but they have become central to commerce in many smaller communities, especially those economically struggling. Most of the communities where they’re  planted have populations well under 10,000, and in contrast to most public-facing businesses, growth has not been an issue for these stores.

Pilot Rock, with a population of 1,328 and declining in the last census by 11%, now has two of them. The East Oregonian reported it “is the hottest market for dollar stores in Umatilla County.”

Soon after, the long-operating Pilot Rock Market announced it was closing. Its owner explained, “you can’t fight corporate America. They sell things a lot cheaper than I can sell things. So, people go there.”

The Umatilla and Morrow marketing area also has seen intense dollar store development in Boardman, Umatilla, Heppner, Milton-Freewater and Irrigon.

That’s not unusual. Others among the many small communities in Oregon with dollar stores include Creswell, Drain, Winston, Cave Junction, Lakeside, Sutherlin, Hines, Culver and Christmas Valley.

Many of those communities have welcomed them. But, just as national difficulties may be starting to hit the industry, some smaller cities have begun pushing back.

This brings us to Wallowa in Wallowa County, population around 800, where one day last November residents were surprised to see a banner declaring that a new Dollar General store was being slated for construction at 70970 Frontage Road.

In contrast to the welcome from some small towns, a group in Wallowa declared “No Dollar General,” launched a website and a petition drive and offered a string of reasons for their opposition to its launch there. They said local businesses were likely to be damaged by the national chain, that employee wages and opportunities would be limited, that it might label their community as struggling and the food options offered there could impair public health. They also had concerns about the specific location, including effects on traffic safety and a nearby stream.

The group’s website added, “Dollar General’s have become a symbol of a community in crisis. Their presence sends the message to other businesses that a community lacks the wealth to be worthy of investment. The generic design of Dollar General with its bright yellow illuminated signage negatively impacts the aesthetics and character of our community.  The tax revenue generated by Dollar General stores may not be sufficient to cover the costs of services they require, putting pressure on local budgets.”

The group has been fundraising, and its petition against the store – circulated in a small-population area – gathered 750 signatures.

Wallowa County has a tradition of resisting national chain businesses and encouraging its own, as it demonstrated in 2015 when a local group bought, and has since operated, the Wallowa Lake Lodge near Joseph, so a national business wouldn’t.

The Dollar General development effort at Wallowa has nonetheless proceeded apace, so far. The next local government action on the development, by the Wallowa County Planning Commission, is expected on March 26. Local critics of the store have indicated they may not stop with that hearing, possibly to the point of organizing a boycott.

The largest local impact of dollar stores in many communities has been the loss of local businesses and community organizations. It could be that the reaction to the stores may help some local communities find that resource, and voice, once again. Other Oregon communities might find it useful paying attention to developments in Wallowa.

This column originally appeared in the Oregon Capital Chronicle.

 

A hot spot: Secretary of State?

In 2022, Oregon had an intense contest to decide who would be the next governor. The hot statewide contest this year could be for secretary of state, not ordinarily a top attraction.

Still, enthusiasts of horse-race contests should enjoy this year’s Democratic primary for that post, the second-ranking in state government: featuring State Treasurer Tobias Read against State Sen. James Manning Jr., with no incumbent seeking re-election.

The contest does not start evenly.

The current secretary is Democrat LaVonne Griffin-Valade, appointed after the last elected secretary of state, Shemia Fagan, resigned over ethical issues concerning moonlighting for a cannabis company. Griffin-Valade is not running for a full term, so it is an open race.

That office, which also oversees election filings, reports four current candidates. More could possibly file, though well-known names would be unlikely at this point.)

The other two are Republicans: Robert Neumann of Greenhorn reports that he is “not employed” and has not raised nor spent any campaign funds. The other, Brent Barker of Aloha, is a small business owner and real estate broker whose current reported cash balance is $3,841. He has the added advantage over Neumann of having run statewide before, in 2022 for labor commissioner; but he came in a distant fourth out of seven candidates in the May primary election. Assuming a better-organized and better-known Republican doesn’t enter before filing ends, Barker likely will progress to the November election, but with slim odds of success there.

That leaves the two Democrats, Read and Manning, each of whom brings serious advantages to the contest.

Both are well known in Oregon political circles, with substantial personal and campaign background and organizational and fundraising networks. Both are keynoting “integrity” in their campaigns, logical after the Fagan uproar. Both have been in the race since September, and appear to have been actively working at it since.

Manning’s political background runs to 2016, when he lost a race for the state House in the Democratic primary (with 39.1% of the vote) to Julie Fahey. Just as well: That December he was appointed to replace Sen. Chris Edwards, who resigned. Manning was elected unopposed in 2018 and prevailed easily over a Republican, in a strongly Democratic district, in 2022.

He has a distinctive background which could provide some extra appeal: Service in the U.S. Army – from which he retired – and experience before that in various areas of law enforcement and even as a private investigator. He’s been an active legislator and picked up quick support from plenty of fellow legislators.

Read’s background is simpler. A former Nike designer, he, too, spent years in the Legislature – in the House from 2007-16 – then was elected state treasurer in 2016 (narrowly) and 2020 (against the same Republican candidate but by a much larger margin). Those statewide races could be considered successful, a partial template for this new one. They also have given him more of a statewide profile than Manning has at the start.

Another campaign that may affect this one even more than those, however, was Read’s 2022 run in the Democratic primary for governor – against the current governor, Tina Kotek. He lost that contest decisively – Kotek’s 56% to Read’s 31.7% – in a race in which he was, in effect, the outsider running against the establishment contender.

Some of that dynamic may appear this time, but it’s less clear cut.

On finances, Read has a significant advantage, with $139,104 in cash on hand compared to Manning’s $25,077.

Both have demonstrated strong backing. Read reports among his endorsers former Govs. Ted Kulongoski and Barbara Roberts and former Secretary of State Jeanne Atkins, U.S. Rep. Andrea Salinas, several legislators including House Speaker Dan Rayfield and local officials and Operating Engineers Local 701. Manning has a strong roster too, including a long list of legislators including Senate President Rob Wagner, a collection of city and county officials, including a number from Multnomah County, and former U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio.

Overall, Read seems to have the opening advantages: a statewide profile, a statewide network and probably a better starting fundraising base. In the next couple of months, more of Manning’s time may be taken by his legislative duties, while Read may be freer to travel.

Still, both candidates are close enough to blank slates statewide that they have considerable room to define themselves and, if they choose, each other.

There’s an opening tilt, but this looks like a race whose story has yet to be written.

This column originally appeared in the Oregon Capital Chronicle.

Finding AI solutions

There’s a growing and widespread consensus that artificial intelligence technology needs legal guardrails, and political ads and communications are one of the prime places lawmakers are looking to place them.

As Kathy Wai of the Oregon Secretary of State’s Office put it in recent legislative testimony: “Campaigns can easily create high-quality, convincing AI generated content in the form of images, voices, deepfakes and other forms of (AI). AI is an evolving threat in our highly charged mis, dis and mal-information environment.”

Effective solutions, though, will not come easily. Getting the details right, and finding aggressive solutions, can be tricky, and it will take a persistent, ongoing effort.

In Oregon, Senate Bill 1571 would require disclosure of the use of AI to create a false impression In campaigns in ads or other materials. It came from Sen. Aaron Woods, D-Wilsonville, but also has backing from 27 other legislators in both parties and across the philosophical spectrum. It passed the Senate on Monday, and goes to the House for consideration.

The bill would carry teeth: Campaigns caught using AI and not disclosing it could face a fine up to $10,000 for each violation. It would exempt news media and some satirical publications from the requirements, and would allow the secretary of state to draft rules to put enforcement into effect.

But even if campaigns disclose the use of AI in any campaign material, any ad, flyer or other message still could easily lead to false impressions – usually about the subject of an attack. And with AI technology becoming so commonplace nationally, it’s likely to start showing up in small and local political activities before long.

Oregon isn’t the first state to consider regulating the use of AI in campaigns. Quite a few states already have entered the fray: Half of all the states considered AI-related legislation in last year’s session, and they’ve adopted varying approaches.

A law passed in Texas in 2019 bans deepfakes within 30 days of an election if the purpose is “to injure a candidate or influence the result of an election.” California that year – and again in 2022 – passed a roughly similar measure with a 60-day period. Washington state last year added a law banning AI messages with an “appearance, speech or conduct that has been intentionally manipulated with the use of generative adversarial network techniques or other digital technology” that give a false impression of a candidate or issue.

The Oregon bill defines a false impression as, “A fundamentally different understanding or impression than a reasonable person would have from the unaltered, original version of the image, audio recording or video recording.” That still might afford significant wiggle room in specific cases if one got to court.

There’s also a reasonable question in most of these efforts about how effective those rules would be. The required disclosure in the Oregon bill, for example, might translate into a small-print notice that would be ignored by viewers or readers emotionally swept away by powerful images.

In the Senate Rules Committee hearing, almost all the testimony on SB 1571 was favorable. However, a major exception was Emily Hawley from the American Civil Liberties Union who said, “We appreciate the scale of these potential electoral risks but believe this bill as written would likely be challenged and overturned.”

Oregon law already has long-standing limits on speech in areas such as libel, fraud in some cases, soliciting, perjury and conspiracy, and but Hawley said that while the new bill covers some of that territory, it doesn’t “proscribe the speech only when it actually or necessarily produces the harm.”

AI is evolving so fast – as are its uses  – that it has become hard to define. That doesn’t mean Oregon legislators should wait to address it, but it means they ought to set up an ongoing review – probably a persistent interim committee – to monitor its evolution and track the ways laws might usefully address it. They should anticipate this will be an ongoing work area for years to come.

In arguing for the current Oregon bill, Woods, the sponsor, said “The bill will build awareness.” That it may do, whether it passes or even if it doesn’t, since more voters may be locally alerted to some of the new ways some candidates or causes may try to deceive them. And that would be a significant plus all by itself, whatever the legal challenge emerging down the road.