Clackamas County is like Oregon in miniature: It has urban areas like Oregon City and Clackamas Town Center, affluent suburbs like Lake Oswego and West Linn, and small towns like Estacada and Mulino. It’s Oregon’s third most populous county, with 380,000 people — one in 10 Oregonians — calling it home. And its economy runs the gamut from heavy manufacturers like Precision Castparts and Oregon Ironworks to farming, logging and tourism.
So what happens in Clackamas County matters a great deal to the rest of the state, says Oregon’s top labor union official — AFL-CIO president Tom Chamberlain. And right now, Chamberlain says, “What’s happening in Clackamas County is scary.”
Chamberlain said the state labor federation is backing the Northwest Oregon Labor Council on Clackamas County races — after several long-time statewide foes of labor put hundreds of thousands of dollars into defeating a pair of incumbents on the county commission.
John Ludlow, a real estate broker and former Mayor of Wilsonville, has raised a quarter of a million dollars for his challenge to union-endorsed incumbent County Chair Charlotte Lehan. [By contrast, former Clackamas County chair Lynn Peterson spent less than $37,000 on her successful 2008 campaign.] The majority of Ludlow’s contributions — $142,638 as of late October — are from Oregon Transformation Project PAC. That group, headed by Oregon Republican Party treasurer Rob Kremer, has so far received $370,000 from Loren Parks, Nevada millionaire and longtime funder of antiunion ballot measures; $100,000 from Karl R. Miller, CEO of the Avamere nursing home chain; and $630,000 from Stimson Lumber, whose CEO Andrew Miller is one of the group’s leaders.
Oregon Transformation Project PAC is also backing former Republican state representative Tootie Smith in her challenge to incumbent county commissioner Jamie Damon.
“If the 1 percent gets a toehold there, and gets control of the county, they’re going to use that as their launching pad to turn Oregon,” Chamberlain said. “Their goal is to make Multnomah County an island.”
In fact, part of Ludlow’s and Smiths’ message is an appeal to keep the county from becoming more like Portland. “Protect Clackamas County from Portland creep,” said billboards put up by the PAC in the spring. Since 2010, Clackamas County voters have rejected an auto registration fee to pay for an upgrade to the Sellwood Bridge; barred the creation of new urban renewal districts without a public vote; and barred spending new funds on light rail without a public vote. Ludlow in particular was a supporter of those fights, and that helped him come in first in a four-way primary in May.
But Chamberlain calls their argument a hoax: “I think these folks are trying to bamboozle the citizens of Clackamas County. They’re trying to instill fears of ‘Portland creep’ in areas of the county where that will never happen.”
Under state land use law, development in the Portland metro area is limited outside an Urban Growth Boundary, to preserve farm and forest land and prevent sprawl. The boundary currently extends to Oregon City and Damascus, and it has grown only by relatively small increments since 1979. In other words, “Portland creep” is already limited by law, a law which, Chamberlain points out, some Republicans have sought to undermine — on the grounds of property rights.
As for the union movement, Chamberlain said, “We’re not for strip malls in timber land or farmland. We’re for sustainable growth and development where it makes sense.”
To support Lehan and Damon, Oregon AFL-CIO is mounting what Chamberlain described as a sophisticated ground game, with phone banks and canvasses.
Labor’s efforts focus on members – 14,000 Clackamas County residents are members of AFL-CIO affiliated unions, and 22,000 more are members of their households. Thanks to years of canvassing, there are also 12,000 members of the AFL-CIO’s Working America affiliate — its group for workers who don’t have union-representation through their workplace. And at least 7,700 residents are members of other unions.
“We’re doing everything we can to get Charlotte and Jamie elected,” Chamberlain said.