By Don McIntosh
Eric Burnette says it was the flat tire of a pickup truck that made him decide to run for Congress.
A registered Democrat, Burnette lives in Hood River, Oregon, a couple blocks from the house of one of America’s most powerful Republicans — Congressman Greg Walden.
Walking by the house last Spring, Burnette noticed the right front tire on Walden’s pickup was half flat. Seeing the truck day after day, he came to conclude it hadn’t been driven in some time — because Walden hadn’t been home. At the time, Walden was knee-deep in the process of writing a bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and was dodging town halls and public appearances back home, prompting a “Where’s Walden?” campaign.
“It just struck me that here’s a guy who’s working on legislation that was going to knock 35,000 to 55,000 of his own constituents off health care, with no viable alternative,” Burnette told the Labor Press, “and he wasn’t coming home to hear what people had to say.… He wasn’t in touch with his constituents.”
Burnette decided to run, and take early retirement from his job as executive director of Oregon Board of Maritime Pilots to be able to campaign full-time.
Winning a race against Walden would seem to be a long shot. Oregon’s Second Congressional District hasn’t elected a Democrat since 1978. The district covers all of Oregon east of the Cascades, two-thirds of the state, and includes some of Oregon’s most Republican areas. Republicans hold a 36 percent to 27 percent voter registration edge over Democrats in the Second Congressional District, and 57 percent of the District’s voters went for Trump last year, compared to only 39 percent statewide.
More to the point, Walden has won election in the District 10 times in a row, garnering more than 70 percent of the vote against the last two Democratic challengers.
How could a Democrat win in that landscape?
“This election is different,” Burnette says. “The stakes are high and immediate.”
Burnette says Walden’s constituents know he was willing to do them a disservice on health care, and now that hangs like an albatross around his neck.
He’s dedicated and committed, and he very much understands and cares about labor.” — Kevin Billman, UFCW Local 555
Burnette isn’t the only one to think Walden may be vulnerable. As many as seven other candidates are running in the May Democratic primary for the chance to run against Walden this November. Two years ago, there was only one: Attorney and former oil executive Jim Crary ran unopposed in the Democratic primary, and lost to Walden by more than two to one.
But Burnette says he wants to campaign differently than the District’s past Democratic candidates. He thinks the Democratic Party has pursued the wrong strategy in rural America — fielding candidates who are ‘Republican lite.’
“I think ‘red’ America’s already got a Republican party,” Burnette said. “They like it. So if we want them to do something different, we’re going to have to offer them something different.”
It’s stances like that that make Burnette a good match for Oregon’s largest private sector labor union. United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 555 has pursued a political strategy that takes the fight to overtly anti-union Republican incumbents even in districts where they’re considered safe. Because it represents grocery store workers, Local 555 has members all over the state.
Local 555 is backing Burnette because he alone among the contenders calls for re-unionizing America’s workforce as a central part of his campaign. He also wants health care for all, more federal investment in rural areas, and policies to promote renewable energy and a sustainable environment.
As a third mate in the merchant marine from 1989 to 1994, Burnette was a member of the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots union. After that career was brought to a close with what later proved to be a faulty diagnosis of asthma, he worked for the Port of Portland as a waterway planner, responsible for making sure channels were dredged.
“Eric is highly energized,” says Local 555 Legislative Director Kevin Billman. “He’s dedicated and committed, and he very much understands and cares about labor.”
Kallie Kurtz, Burnette’s campaign manager, thinks President Trump has made Walden vulnerable in a way he’s never been vulnerable before — creating division among Republicans, while motivating a lot of non-Republicans to get active who’ve never been politically involved before.
Kurtz, a school counselor and member of Service Employees International Union Local 503, ran Mark Reynolds’ 2016 state House campaign against Hood River incumbent Republican Mark Johnson. Reynolds lost by several thousand votes, but a year later, Johnson decided not to run again, instead leaving to head up the state’s business lobby.
“For a long time these districts have been considered like there’s no chance, so [Democrats] aren’t even trying in them,” Kurtz says. “But as we’re running real campaigns, and as unions like the UFCW are mobilizing and making infrastructure available to run campaigns, you’re seeing a huge shift. There’s a lot more to be gained.”
MORE ABOUT THE CAMPAIGN: burnette4congress.org
Greg Walden’s labor record
Prevailing wage: He’s not a total union foe: He voted against several attempts to repeal Davis-Bacon prevailing wage requirements. He also voted against a measure to defund the NLRB. Last year he spoke at the Oregon State Building Trades convention.
Free-trade: He wasn’t in Congress when NAFTA passed, but he voted for every NAFTA-style trade deal since taking office, including permanent normal trade with China, deals with Korea, Colombia, and Central America (CAFTA), and the “fast track” procedure that helps deals like this pass.
Weakening labor: Last year he voted to undermine state-sponsored retirement savings plans like one that’s launching in Oregon. And last month he voted for a bill that exempts tribal casinos from the requirement to recognize unions.
Affordable Care Act: He voted dozens of times to repeal Obamacare, and led a failed effort to replace it.