Who Rules Oregon? The Political Education of Nicholas Kristof

By Jim Pasero
This article provided by Oregon Transformation Newsletter.

Over the past several years, people from around the country – friends, colleagues and even New York Times reporters – have asked a question about Oregon politics that’s very hard to answer: How exactly does Oregon politics work? What’s hard to explain, or hard for non-Oregonians to comprehend, is just how dominant the public employee unions are in Oregon politics compared to the other 49 states.

The public employee unions in Oregon are so dominant that they, not the Democratic Party, run Oregon.

Yes, it is true that the Democratic Party has won 10 gubernatorial elections in a row. That streak began in 1986 when Neil Goldschmidt defeated Secretary of State Norma Paulus. But the total dominance of Oregon politics by the public employee unions didn’t really begin until after the turn of the century.

The turning point – when the unions really seized control of the Democratic Party and essentially the state of Oregon – came in the 2008 election. In that election, the Oregon Education Association and the other two major public employee unions banded together to defeat a record number of statewide ballot measures. Oregon public employees spent over $9 million dollars defeating ballot measures that would have limited their control of public education and Oregon politics.

The average Oregon public employee spent well over $300 of their union dues on the 2008 election – making Oregon public employees the leaders in the nation in political spending. The second highest U.S. states’ average public employee political spending in the country in that election was $35 per employee, almost 10 times lower than Oregon’s historic public employee spending number. Get the picture? The 2008 election was also when U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith lost his bid for a third term to Jeff Merkley.

The public employee unions’ total dominance of Oregon politics and of the Oregon Democratic party is so unique to our nation that it makes it almost impossible to explain to outsiders, even if those outsiders happen to both hold Pulitzer Prize awards and work for the The New York Times.

Case in point:

Two years ago at the beginning of the pandemic, March 2020, the Oregon Transformation newsletter sat down for a lengthy interview with New York Times national correspondent and former Moscow bureau chief Neil MacFarquhar to discuss Oregon politics. MacFarquhar and his editors wanted to probe whether the Oregon GOP was being taken over by right wing extremists, particularly QAnon types. We countered that QAnon GOP types were not the problem – they weren’t the ones making Oregon politics dysfunctional. The problem was the complete and total domination of our politics by the public employee unions. That was the root of all evil in Oregon, or political dysfunction if you want to be polite about it.

Our comments didn’t make it into the printed pages of The New York Times. Still, MacFarquhar would have served Nicholas Kristof well if he had passed our teachings on to his colleague. Could have saved him a lot of trouble. Lesson not learned: No matter how good a national or international reporter you may be, understanding the corruption of the public employee unions in Oregon is something that only sinks in when you are forced to live under their regime. Nicholas Kristof just learned this lesson in a very hard and humiliating way. Welcome to Oregon.

Two weeks ago on February 17, more than a few Oregonians believe that the Oregon State Supreme Court did the public employee unions’ bidding, no surprise, by reaffirming the ruling of Secretary of State Shemia Fagan that Nicholas Kristof was not eligible to run for governor of Oregon, clearing the way for union favorite and former House Speaker Tina Kotek to become the Democratic Party nominee for governor in May.

In a fine analysis of the political education of Nicholas Kristof by Willamette Week reporters, Rachel Monahan and Nigel Jaquiss, the headline said it all: “Secretary of State Shemia Fagan Extends No Olive Branch to Former Candidate Nicholas Kristof: Meanwhile, a subdued Kristof muted his criticism of Oregon’s political class.”

When Fagan first ruled on January 6 that Kristof was not eligible to run for governor, Kristof fired back that this was an attack on him by Oregon’s “political class” and was based on “politics.” English translation: It was an attack on him by Oregon’s public employee unions and executed by one of their key leaders, Secretary of State Fagan.

When you run an autocracy rather than a democracy, as the unions do in Oregon, your skin gets a little thin when you are criticized. You can’t stand the stuff, criticism that is. Fagan’s overreaction to Kristof’s somewhat mild criticism of the heavy hand of the public employee unions ruling making him ineligible was predictable but revealing.

Here’s Fagan’s response to what the Willamette Week described as a “thinly veiled shot at the labor unions” by Kristof, as she took him to the woodshed:

Unfortunately, some did cross a line here … This decision was about treating everyone equally under the rules … Baseless attacks that the decision was corrupt, politically motivated or biased are wrong. Increasing harassment in attacks on election workers here in Oregon and across the country often begin with empty allegations of bias or corruption. We’re seeing an increase of harassment targeting election workers, and even death threats toward county clerks right here in Oregon … I just want to urge candidates and elected officials and members of the media to carefully consider the impact of your words.

You think calculated political investments don’t pay off in the future. Think again.

Oregon’s public employee unions know better. The unions invested heavily in the 2020 election in the Democratic primary of the secretary of state’s race in favor of Shemia Fagan over Mark Hass. On election night, Hass had a narrow lead over Fagan. But Oregon voters have seen this movie before. Ballot harvesting, which the unions are so magically adept at, delivered a very narrow election victory the following day to Fagan.

In our own journalistic objection to what happened in that election, the editors of this newsletter wrote an article in the nation’s leading conservative newspaper, The Washington Examiner, in June 2020, “Oregon shows how not to do vote-by-mail,” chronicling how the unions delivered the election for Fagan over Hass.

Why did the unions deliver that election to Fagan over Hass? Because Mark Hass has served 14 years in the Oregon legislature with a rock solid reputation for honesty and independence. No one who follows state politics can imagine Hass having delivered to Kristof the kind of righteous spanking that Fagan just did. Or being that thin-skinned. Or doing the unions dirty work. Investments do matter.

What’s beautiful about Fagan’s statement against Kristof is how easily she crossed over from defending the state’s Supreme Court ruling to accusing the former columnist of behaving as if he were a right wing political agitator. And then how wonderfully she twists the knife by warning the candidates and members of the media that they ought to know better about the “impact of your words.” Kristof being guilty of being both candidate and member of the media. No doubt the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner loved a lecture on the use of language and its impact. This is classic. Fagan deserves an award for sophistry. The unions have to be proud of their investment.

It is interesting to note that in the last two decades, as the public employee unions have consolidated their power, any Oregon Democratic office holder that has shown an iota of independence from the unions has been eventually, but summarily ushered out of Oregon politics and the party: John Kitzhaber, Phil Keisling, Mark Hass and now Nicholas Kristof.

Even those who sometimes share blurred ideological lines with the unions – members of the media, other civic-minded Democrats – are beginning to understand how pervasive union control is within our state. And how rotten it is. Here’s a particularly interesting line from WW’s Monahan and Jaquiss in their critique of Fagan’s ruling and behavior:

If the most strategic choice for Oregon Democrats right now is to seek to align themselves with Kristof, who in his brief candidacy raised millions from donors mostly new to Oregon politics, Fagan did not appear to be participating in that effort.

Fagan didn’t participate in that effort because Oregon Democrats don’t control this state. Yes, Kristof is the darling of the Powell’s Books crowd. And yes, he’s been feted as the guest speaker at Oregon Community Foundation lunches over the years. And yes, that crowd adds up to a big number of Democrats in Oregon. But those numbers have zero power in Oregon politics. Zilch. The public employee unions have the power. All the power.

The good news for The New York Times and their readers is that they now have a correspondent embedded inside enemy lines who can finally explain to national correspondent Neil MacFarquhar and his editors that the political problems in Oregon run on a completely different fault line than a hundred QAnon supporters in rural Oregon.