With Oregon’s influence rising on the Hill, annual state bash draws new crowd

There was beer and wine from Oregon and oysters from the coast at the Oregon State Society’s annual spring charity banquet, just as there always is, plus the usually tough-fought trivia contest and a raffle.

But frequent attendees noticed one big difference this year : the presence of high-profile tax lobbyists and representatives of big national companies who don’t generally turn out for the party.

It’s hard to be sure why they all showed up, but there appears to be one partial explanation: the elevation of Sen. Ron Wyden (D), the state’s senior senator, to the chairmanship of the Senate Finance Committee.

State societies have long been a way for Capitol Hill aides, corporate executives, lobbyists and others to gather, network and celebrate their shared passion for a place. And they play an important role in many Washington institutions — from hosting inaugural balls to choosing Cherry Blossom princesses.

As the Oregon event shows, though, they have also become a way for outsiders to try to curry favor with elected officials and other boosters of the state.

Wyden didn’t attend the March 28 event at the Capitol Hilton, which drew a bigger than usual crowd of nearly 400, and it wasn’t a fundraiser for him. Proceeds this year went to Gales Creek Camp, about 30 miles west of Portland, which helps kids and teenagers learn to manage diabetes.

But with Wyden in charge at the Finance Committee, which handles taxes, trade and other big issues, there are lots of companies that now have business before him. And, as one lobbyist and fundraiser explained, “You want to be on the list. You want to be seen as supportive.”

One notable addition to this year’s Oregon list was Capitol Counsel, a leading lobby shop that specializes in tax issues. Early this year, the firm announced that it had hired Josh Kardon, boasting that he had spent 17 years as Wyden’s chief of staff.

“I went to my new firm, and said, ‘Can you please do this,’ ” Kardon said, noting that he’s not an Oregon native but has been involved in the state society since 1992.

Kardon said he also told his colleagues that he wasn’t able to attend the event, so encouraged some of them to go, and added that executives from a company he works with — SolarWorld, based in Hillsboro, Ore. — also wanted to be there. (Capitol Counsel is listed as a “Trail Blazer,” the highest level of sponsorship, meaning it contributed $3,000, and received preferential seating for up to 10 people and free admission to other society receptions this year.)

Lots of companies with ties to Oregon and the Pacific Northwest were also sponsors, including Nike, Weyerhaeuser and the University of Oregon. But for the first time, Google — which has faced criticism for shifting its cash overseas, avoiding U.S. taxes — was a sponsor. And Wal-Mart, which isn’t a regular, also bought a table this year. (They’re both listed as Webfoot Circle, at $1,700 for 10 people, plus other benefits.)

Google declined to comment on its participation.

Wal-Mart spokeswoman Brooke Buchanan, said, “We always look for opportunities to build relationships, and we thought this was a good one.”

Several Oregon boosters said that the strength of the state’s congressional delegation reminded them of the mid-1980s, when Sen. Mark Hatfield (R) was chairman of the Appropriations Committee and Sen. Bob Packwood (R) led the Finance Committee (though back then, lobbyists could buy raffle tickets for Hill staffers).

Today, Rep. Greg Walden (R) is chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, Rep. Peter DeFazio (D) is the top-ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D) sits on the Appropriations Committee. (Merkley was an intern for Hatfield and is only the second Oregon senator to win a seat on Appropriations.)

“Oregon is ascendant,” Kardon said.

That may be, but his old boss is on his own trajectory.

On Tuesday, the Internet Association is holding its first-ever charity awards gala. The group, founded 18 months ago, has 24 members, including all the big Internet companies, and views the event as a sort of coming-of-age for an industry that was reluctant to build a Washington presence. About 200 people are expected at the dinner, and Michael Beckerman, the association’s chief, said tables are only being sold to Internet companies.

The charity cause this time is Girls Who Code, a nonprofit organization that’s trying to close the gender gap in the tech world. And the group chose two members of Congress to receive its Internet Freedom Award for their long commitment to Web issues: Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Wyden — though Beckerman said that decision was made before Wyden took over the Finance Committee.

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