June 6, 2008 Volume 109 Number 11

Oregon unions make difference in key state, federal races

State and federal candidates backed by organized labor won big in Oregon’s May 20 primary.

Every candidate running with the endorsement of the Oregon AFL-CIO won, including the two candidates for whom the state federation worked hardest: Jeff Merkley and Michael Dembrow.

Merkley, who is speaker of the Oregon House of Representatives, won the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate, and will face Republican incumbent Gordon Smith in November.

The national AFL-CIO has targeted the U.S. Senate race in Oregon as one of its top priority contests in the country.

Dembrow, an officer of American Federation of Teachers-Oregon, outpolled two other candidates to win the Democratic nomination for Northeast Portland’s House District 45. No Republican filed to run for the seat, so Dembrow’s primary win effectively makes him the latest addition to the Legislature’s growing labor caucus.

And John Kroger, a Lewis & Clark Law School professor and former federal prosecutor, won the Democratic primary race for state attorney general with support from the AFL-CIO, the Oregon State Building and Construction Trades Council, Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the Oregon Education Association, locals of the Pacific NW Regional Council of Carpenters, and others. No candidate from another party filed to run for attorney general, so Kroger’s win means he will be the state’s top prosecutor as of January 2009.

Most AFL-CIO-endorsed state and federal candidates were incumbents or were otherwise strongly favored to win. But labor involvement likely made the difference in close races like the Merkley and Dembrow contests. With 45 percent of the vote, Merkley outpolled fellow Democrat Steve Novick by three percentage points. Dembrow won by 800 votes.

Much of labor’s political impact came from outreach to union members, and to the 65,000 members of the AFL-CIO’s community affiliate, Working America.

Oregon AFL-CIO spokesperson Rebekah Orr said the state federation made 195,000 phone calls, some automated, others by volunteers or by a hired call center. Union staffmembers and volunteers from affiliated unions also knocked on 1,200 doors, and that’s not counting the Working America canvass. Five paid staff from Working America spent three weeks going door-to-door in Dembrow’s House district.

On the weekend before election day the Oregon AFL-CIO, Northwest Oregon Labor Council, and Oregon AFSCME Council 75 co-sponsored a big get-out-the-vote (GOTV) canvass in the Portland metropolitan area.

Then there were worksite fliers — 50,000 a week for six weeks, Orr said — distributed at union halls and at construction sites and other union workplaces by members and staff of 50 local unions. Union leaders sent letters to 20,000 members. The Oregon AFL-CIO sent over 80,000 pieces of direct mail to union members in Multnomah County and to Working America members around the state: two mailings for Merkley, two for Dembrow, and a union voter guide.

A comparable effort was mounted by SEIU, which targeted its members, plus members of unions affiliated with the Change to Win labor federation. Staff and volunteers in 22 cities made 160,000 phone calls, knocked on 31,250 doors, and sent over 300,000 pieces of mail, according to a tally distributed by SEIU on election night.

Early union endorsements also helped legitimize candidates — like Kroger, who was relatively unknown.

And union political action committees (PACs) wrote some big checks, especially in the race for attorney general. Union committees contributed close to $380,000 to Kroger’s campaign, over half of the total Kroger raised. Almost all of that came from SEIU ($312,500) and the Oregon Education Association ($50,000); The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers gave $10,000, and five other unions gave lesser amounts.

Unions were the source of most of the $51,000 in cash and $65,000 in in-kind contributions Dembrow raised in House District 45.

And union-run and union-supported PACs also contributed at least $143,000 to the Merkley campaign, according to filings with the Federal Elections Commission.

Merkley spokesperson Matt Canter said labor support was a pivotal factor in Merkley’s primary win. “The men and women of the union movement did tremendous outreach,” Canter said, “and talked to members about what Jeff did in the Legislature.”

“It was absolutely critical that we deliver that win for him,” said Orr, the Oregon AFL-CIO spokesperson. “Jeff Merkley has been the most pro-union speaker of the House in decades, and passed a sweeping slate of pro-worker legislation. The bottom line is if people are going to stand with us, we’ve got to stand with them.”

Turnout by members of AFL-CIO unions and Working America was 62.2 percent — 5.1 percentage points higher than the general public. And in Dembrow’s district, the union turnout was 6.2 percentage points higher.

Union activists also celebrated the wins of other endorsed candidates on election night.

• State Sen. Kurt Schrader will be the Democratic nominee for Congress in Oregon’s 5th District and will face Republican businessman Mike Erickson in November. Incumbent Democrat Darlene Hooley is retiring.

• Democratic congressional incumbents David Wu, Earl Blumenauer and Peter DeFazio each won their primary races by wide margins.

• Nick Kahl, who had numerous labor endorsements, including the Oregon AFL-CIO, won by 300 votes in East Multnomah County’s House District 49, the seat currently held by former Republican House Speaker Karen Minnis. Kahl will face Republican John Nelsen in November.

• Democratic State Sen. Kate Brown, who was supported by SEIU Locals 503 and 49, the Oregon Education Association, and the Oregon State Building and Construction Trades Council (in a three-way co-endorsement) in her race for secretary of state, won her party’s nomination and will face Republican Rick Dancer. Two other labor-friendly Democrats — State Senators Rick Metsger and Vickie Walker — also sought the post, all with some labor support. Metsger and Walker are both in mid-term, so they’ll be back on the Senate floor when the 2009 Legislature convenes in January.

• Union Carpenter and organizer Ed Glad had strong union backing in his bid for the Republican nomination in Oregon House District 24 in Yamhill County. His campaign received endorsements and contributions from the Carpenters, AFSCME, SEIU, the American Federation of Teachers, Oregon Nurses Association, Oregon Education Association, and United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555. Glad got 1,703 votes, 24 percent of the total, in a three way race. He outpolled former U.S. Congressman and one-time Oregon Republican Party chief Jim Bunn, but lost to software developer and restaurant owner Jim Weidner.• State Sen. Ben Westlund ran unopposed for the Democratic nomination for state treasurer. He will face Republican Allen Alley, who was deputy chief of staff for Gov. Ted Kulongoski until March.


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