Union-backed group turning America’s West blue

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by Dustin Hurst and Shelby Sebens  | Watchdog.org

Examining the Portland, Ore.-based Bus Project, one could use plenty of adjectives to describe the operation’s tactics and activities: aggressive, unique and innovative.

The one descriptor that group, a 501(c)3 nonprofit, wants you to believe, though, is the least-fitting: nonpartisan.

Sure, the group holds a banner that professes to soar above partisan politics. “Not left. Not right. But Forward,” preaches the site of The Bus Project’s Montana affiliate, Forward Montana.

DIRTY LAUNDRY: The original Portland-based group created the ‘Vote F*cker’ campaign to let young voters know that casting ballots isn’t just for the elderly.

A look under the hood reveals something far less innocuous: a hyper-partisan structure dedicated solely to turning America’s West blue.

And these buses, rolling in Oregon, Montana, Idaho, Colorado and Washington, are gassed up thanks to labor unions and left-wing foundations.

BUS PASS: Jefferson Smith founded the project as a way to engage younger voters

Oregon Democrat Jefferson Smith founded The Bus Project in 2001 to mobilize and register young voters, who often bypass the polls in large numbers. That’s where the innovative and unique approach came into play. The groups often use oddball tactics to persuade young voters, who tend to vote for more liberal and progressive candidates, to the polls.

The Colorado branch, New Era Coloradoproduced this Youtube video encouraging voters in that state to cast their ballots naked. The original Portland-based group created the “Vote, F*cker” campaign to send a message that casting ballots isn’t solely for the elderly.

The group was wildly successful, so much so that its legend crossed borders.

“Further proof of the organization’s success was the change in majority party of the Oregon House of Representatives in 2006,” wrote Democrats in Idaho, who hosted Smith at a banquet in late October.

The Idaho Democrats, though, failed to mention which party held the Oregon House after the Bus Project’s furious registration push in 2006.

It was the Democrats.

That should come as no surprise, though, considering the project’s funding and union-linked board members.

Much of the group’s funding comes from liberal foundations bent on pushing America toward a progressive utopia.

In 2010, the project received $257,000 from the Tides Foundation, a piggy bank of sorts for all things liberal. Tides gave the project another $193,000 in 2012, according to the foundation’s documents. The Tides cash made up nearly 50 percent of the group’s budget last year.

Tides also funneled $10,000 last year to Forward Montana’s 501(c)4 arm.

The Oregon Education Association, the state’s public teachers union, also picked up some of the tab for the group’s work. According to the project’s 2012 financial report, the labor union donated an undisclosed amount.

But the ties between left-wing causes and the project hardly end with money. Boards for the groups are full of Democratic and union operatives.

Three of the nine politicos who sit on the Oregon chapter’s board are affiliated with labor unions, including the Joe Baessler, the political director for American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees 75. Forward Montana boasts a uniquely accomplished bunch of Democratic players, including John Bacino, chief of strategy for his state’s Democratic Party. The Montana board also features two members who operative Hilltop Public Solutions, a ruthless political consulting firm with ties to dark money based in Billings.

Research did turn up one obvious connection to a politico who isn’t a union member or Democrat — former Montana state Rep. John Brueggeman.

Watchdog.org couldn’t find any other ties to Republicans or conservatives.

SHHH: Bus Project Director Tara Sulzen declined to answer questions about her group’s partisan ties.

The group isn’t interested in answering questions about its façade of nonpartisan work.

“I don’t care to comment at this time,” said Tara Sulzen, executive director of the Oregon chapter.

Calls and emails to the affiliated groups in Montana, Colorado and Washington were not returned.

Greg Leo, who has served as executive director and communications director for the Oregon Republican Party, said his party believes the Bus Project is hardly the nonpartisan outfit the project professes to be.

“We do not perceive them as nonpartisan,” he said. “We think it’s hard for them to say that with a straight face. I mean, like, who are you kidding? It’s fair to say they are Democrat Party-oriented and that they really are a subsidiary of the Democratic Party of Oregon.”

Leo said voter registration is integral to election victory.

“Voter registration is one of the most important things that political parties can do,” he said. “It’s really the determining factor for victory in so many seats.”

Leo’s comments, though, may have been tinged with a hint of jealousy. He suggested this his party is developing its own voter registration tactics.

“We look at the Bus Project as kind of what the folks on the other side of the aisle have done,” he said. “This is not a frivolous matter. This is a serious matter in that serious activities and money and attention needs to be directed at voter registration activities.”

Contact Dustin Hurst at [email protected]
Contact Shelby Sebens at [email protected]

Northwest Watchdog is a project of the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity