Oregon May Decide Epic Struggle Over Union Dues for Campaigns
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 12, 1998; Page A13
PORTLAND, Ore.An epic yearlong struggle between organized labor and conservative forces seeking to curb its political power is ending here in Oregon, not with a bang but with a whimper.
What began as a national effort, backed by top congressional Republicans, to reduce the unions' authority to use members' dues for political ads and grass-roots campaigns has come down to a battle over rival initiatives in one small state, where both sides have managed to dismay their own allies.
On the Nov. 3 ballot, Oregon voters will find the conservative-backed Proposition 59, which is intended to end the checkoff of dues for political purposes for 100,000 state and local government employees who have been a potent force in past Oregon campaigns. The state Supreme Court has ruled that the initiative is drafted so sloppily that it also would do serious damage to the state-issued Voters' Pamphlet, a treasured resource for generations of Oregon citizens.
Voters also will find Proposition 62, a union-backed countermeasure that would preempt and overrule Proposition 59 and enshrine the right to the checkoff of dues in the Oregon Constitution. But opponents and many neutral political observers claim that in hiding their real purpose behind a screen of other campaign finance reforms, the unions, which have millions to spend, have crafted an initiative that may violate a judicial ban on multipurpose ballot propositions. If passed, they say, it would likely be tossed out by the courts.
The conservative forces, which are hurting for money, are led by Bill Sizemore, who has made his living in recent years promoting ballot initiatives. Sizemore also is the Republican candidate for governor, apparently headed for a landslide defeat at the hands of Democratic incumbent John Kitzhaber.
As ballots go into the mail this week for the hundreds of thousands of Oregonians who regularly vote absentee, polls show both propositions winning, largely because the summary language on the ballot sounds appealing on its face.
Most observers think Proposition 62 will pass, only to be challenged in court, while Proposition 59 could still lose if labor figures out how to use its huge financial advantage for something other than shooting itself in the foot.
This kind of "amateur hour" is not what national conservatives and Republicans had in mind a year ago when they launched "paycheck protection" drives across the country, in retaliation for the $35 million labor TV blitz in 1996 that targeted supposedly vulnerable GOP House freshmen. Although it failed to tip control of the House back to the Democrats, the labor drive alarmed Republicans, who decided that the best preventive measure would be to require unions to obtain written permission from each member annually for the checkoff of dues that went into campaigns.
Measures passed in Michigan and Washington state earlier this decade had reduced labor's spending, although financial reports in both states indicate that the setback was only temporary and that labor quickly reclaimed its reputation as a potent political force. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) tried to make paycheck protection part of pending campaign finance bills this year, arguing that "no one should be compelled against his will to support candidates or causes he opposes." But Democrats, joined by some Republicans who have received labor support, stymied them.
California became the next major battleground when Gov. Pete Wilson (R) decided to lead the fight for Proposition 226, a paycheck protection proposal on the June primary ballot. Indiana insurance executive J. Patrick Rooney enlisted Wilson in the cause and Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, committed $441,000 for a Wilson mailing that produced enough signatures to get it on the ballot.
Proposition 226 began with 70 percent support, but after a $20 million labor campaign, it lost by 53 percent to 47 percent. Moves to get it on the ballot in Nevada and Colorado fizzled, and Oregon became the last echo at least for now of the campaign.
"The loss in California was a real setback to everyone's morale," Sizemore said the other day at his suburban headquarters. "The money has really dried up."
Rooney has moved on to other issues and Norquist cut off funding after a $15,000 contribution to the signature-gathering effort, for which Sizemore's company was paid $154,675.
Sizemore said he will be fortunate to raise $500,000 for the initiative and not much more for his own campaign. By contrast, Roger Gray, a former executive at the Oregon Education Association who is running the opposition campaign, said he will have $4 million "and more if we need it."
Still, Sizemore won some earlier battles in which he was heavily outspent. His biggest asset in this fight is the ballot language, which says a "yes vote prohibits using public resources to collect or help collect political funds." As Gray remarked, "Someone who reads that assumes it just means Governor Kitzhaber can't use his state-issued cell phone to call up contributors. We have a lot of work to do to make clear the real intent."
Lisa Grove Donovan, the unions' pollster, said they are attempting to apply the lessons learned in the California fight. A phone-and-mail campaign is targeted at union households, which turned out in force in California. Churches and charitable and civic organizations have been enlisted to validate the claim that workers' First Amendment rights would be jeopardized and payroll deductions for United Way be endangered claims the backers of Proposition 59 say are exaggerated or downright false.
But their biggest weapon the subject of an ad that began running last week is the claim that the Voters' Pamphlet, sent by mail to every household by the secretary of state before each election, would be jeopardized if Proposition 59 passes. In addition to neutral information on candidates and measures, the pamphlet is stuffed with $300 ads from individuals and groups on opposite sides.
"It is a sacred document, especially for seniors," said Ken Allen, executive director of the Oregon union for public employees. "They can't imagine being deprived of it."
Because the nominal ad charge does not meet the cost of producing and mailing the pamphlet, it involves a public subsidy. Sizemore protested up to the state Supreme Court, but the official summary includes the statement that passage of Proposition 59 would mean "eliminating candidates' statements and measure arguments" in future pamphlets. Sizemore fell back on the argument that making advertisers pay full costs would save the state $1.8 million per election, but the opponents of Proposition 59 believe the issue will work wonders for them.
Many Democrats and some inside labor members were dismayed, therefore, when the anti-Proposition 59 forces opened the air war with two solid weeks of heavy exposure of a TV ad that pictured Sizemore and Norquist as the sinister figures behind the initiative but did not mention the supposed consequences of its passage. A pollster who tested the ad in a focus group said, "It created a backlash. Oregonians don't like negative ads, and this was one of the five worst ads I've ever seen here."
Meantime, the whole rationale for the paycheck protection drive has come under fire from the right. In a letter made public last week, Reed Larson, president of the National Right to Work Committee, argued that unions can easily circumvent the strictures in the anti-checkoff proposals and criticized what he called "ineffective or even counterfeit paycheck protection initiatives that are undermining the long-term effort to free employees from the injustice of compulsory unionism."
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