By Tom Chamberlain, Oregon AFL-CIO president
On the afternoon of Nov. 4, I began to follow election returns from across the United States. The news wasn’t good.
The Blue Tide that swept across America in 2008 on President Obama’s coattails was ebbing. Democrats who had won Senate seats in Republican states lost big. Throughout the night, swing states such as Colorado elected Republicans. All in all, eight U.S. Senate seats flipped from blue to red, as did 13 U.S. House of Representative seats and three governorships.
These results aren’t surprising when you start to evaluate the 2014 election. America’s governing bodies — from the U.S. Senate to state legislatures — became more conservative because working people didn’t go to the polls. After eight years of President Bush’s profit-at- any-cost agenda, six years of Congressional stagnation, and the rise of corporate domination of the political process, working people stayed home.
They didn’t go to the polls because they felt their vote didn’t matter. They were turned off by the millions of dollars spent on negative advertising. Only 36.3 percent of eligible voters made it to the polls nationwide.
While America was becoming more conservative, in a small corner of the Pacific Northwest, a state became more progressive. The most noticeable difference? 69.5 percent of registered voters participated in the 2014 election in Oregon.
Why is that?
Some say it is because we vote by mail. But Colorado and Washington are vote-by-mail states, and their voter turnout was just slightly above the national average.
Some say that ballot measures drove voter turnout. Five states had minimum wage on the ballot, and Alaska, Arkansas, Illinois, Nebraska and South Dakota all exceeded the national turnout. But none came near Oregon’s turnout numbers.
Why is it that Oregon has moved progressively left since the mid-1990s when Republicans controlled both chambers and Democrat John Kitzhaber was governor? Was it the migration of tech jobs into Washington County, once a Republican stronghold that now votes consistently progressive? Is there something else turning outlying parts of our purple state blue?
I believe Oregon’s success is a combination of factors that includes vote by mail, takes into account Washington County turning blue, and acknowledges the content of our ballot measures.
But it’s more than that.
What separates Oregon from the rest of the country is that we have learned to fight together.
Billionaires bought the airwaves to fight GMOs, push the top-two primary, and support Monica Wehby and Dennis Richardson. This is not strange territory for Oregon. We always seem to be in someone’s electoral gun sights. Tax reform, restrictions on marriage, limiting workers’ rights, all have been on the Oregon ballot with mixed results.
Oregon is a cheap media market and attracts all manner of millionaire crackpots. This constant election year attack has forged a strong alliance within Oregon’s progressive community. We know that while it may not be our fight this year, it could be our fight next year. Environmentalists, immigrant rights, choice and basic rights activists, unions and working people — we’ve all banded together to share resources, develop strategies, and fight an ongoing onslaught of conservative ballot measures.
The 2014 election cycle was Oregon at its best, carrying the message door to door, on the phone, in the workplace and through the mail. Our combined efforts made a difference.
Since 2010, the Oregon AFL-CIO has not contributed to candidates but, instead, invested in our infrastructure. We’ve created the largest ground game in the state — complete with call sectors, weekly canvasses, worksite programs, and Working America.
This year we hired on-the-ground staff in Bend, Medford, Corvallis and Eugene to establish our program across the state, and it paid off. Thirty percent of our calls and walks were done outside the Portland area. Sara Gelser and Alan Bates won hard-fought State Senate elections in Corvallis and Medford — two regions where our ground game was on the move.
We as a progressive movement should be proud of what we have accomplished. But we should also remember that we won because we kept our egos in check. We won because we fought together. We won because we realize the future of our state and our nation rests in the hands of the people, not corporations and billionaires.
I hope you have also noticed that a measure backed by the AFL-CIO lost two to one—-Measure 88. For the record, my dad was an SEIU Local 49 member, but we were close enough to being homeless without him having to compete against illegal aliens at the same time.
Washington County Democratic Party’s field operation chair was also a recently created full time position who had a great person working in it that helped turn this county more blue over the last two election cycles. That person was promoted to heading up a state level field operation right before the election, which probably helped us all statewide too.
Also, I think what might have helped are many progressives, especially tech people like myself who got pushed out of places like California in 2008 when the economy was collapsing moved to Oregon, and largely in the more tech centric Washington County area to perhaps help change the demographics to move the way it has too. I believe that it has a lot more both intellectual and ethnic diversity now than it did before, but it would be worth looking at statistics to verify that too.
And on measure 88 losing. Note that Measure 90 lost by a bigger margin and didn’t win any counties in the state, unlike 88, which won Multnomah County. I think that measure showed what could happen when members of all parties could see how big money was trying to minimize grass roots participation in a non-partisan fashion, which provoked a non-partisan negative response from the community at large in all of our political parties who are just sick of big money drenching our corrupt political system.
Thanks for the article, Tom! 2014 was an excellent example of how the workers’ movement can do for themselves…now we just need to run or own candidates, instead of depending on whoever the democrats put up!
Ron, I get your anger, but if you really don’t want cheap, undocumented labor driving down wages, you need to direct your anger, not at people just trying to make a better life, but at the bosses who exploit them. Fighting in solidarity with immigrants, getting them rights, getting them in unions, getting them living wages, US good for all working people. Turning us against one another is what the boss wants. Don’t give it to him.