Oregon Political Insiders Fund Primary Election “Reform”

Are political insiders funding a primary election “reform” initiative (again)? For the second time in 6 years, a group of political insiders are attempting the rewrite the law on how primary elections are carried out in the state of Oregon. The first time was 2008’s Measure 65 and the latest attempt is the Unified Primary Initiative.

What is the “Unified Primary” Initiative?
Fair and Unified Elections Committee is seeking to have an initiative placed on the ballot that they say will result in a better way to run primary elections. They call the concept a “Unified Primary”, and it is similar to the primary system that California, Washington have implemented in recent years. The Unified Primary bills itself as an election reform initiative and works primarily by letting any and all candidates compete in an open and “Unified” primary. The twist in the system is that only the two candidates who receive the most votes move on to the general election. In many ways it turns the primary in the general election and the actual election itself into a runoff, making sure that voters only have two choices when actually voting for who will take office. This is key as Unified Primary promotes the benefit of “No more Spoilers!” on their website, referring to third-party or independent candidates who “spoil” the election for the “front runner” or major party candidates by getting votes.

Another claim on their website is “In today’s primary election, only voters and candidates in one of the two major parties can participate…” This claim is not completely true, minor parties can hold their own primary elections, just without financial help from the State of Oregon. One such example is the Independent Party of Oregon which for the last several election cycles it has staged its own, self-funded mail-in primary election.

In the 2014 elections, 34% of incumbents in the Oregon House of Representatives have no challenger

Political Insider Funding

The Fair and Unified Elections Committee gets the majority of its funding from four people, each with a history of  significant donations over the years. Three of the four seem to primarily favor Democratic candidates and organizations such as Future PAC, which is the primary fundraising arm for Democrats in the Oregon House run by Tina Kotek and Val Hoyle.

Donors Representing the Majority of Cash Contributions

Stan Amy/Developer – $5,000 to Unified Primaries – Past major donations to Kitzhaber 2010, Future PAC and Eileen Brady. Also donated to Measure65/Open Primary Committee.

James Kelly/Rejuvenation Hardware – $10,000 to Unified Primaries – Past major donations to Future PAC, Yes on 49 and Charlie Hales($75k). Also donated to Measure65/Open Primary Committee.

Tom Bowerman/No Current Occupation – $5000 to Unified Primaries – Past major donations to Future PAC, Rust for Commissioner, and Rob Handy. Did not donate to Measure 65/Open Primary Committee.

Joe Gonyea III/Owner of the Timber Products Co. – $2000 to Unified Primaries – Past Major Donations to Kitzhaber, Rick Dancer and Pat Farr. Did not donate to Measure 65/Open Primary Committee

Open Primaries – A Repeat
The Unified Primaries effort has many of the same features, and one key player, from a earlier attempt to change Oregon’s primary elections, 2008’s “Yes on 65”. One of “Yes on 65’s” key backers, NW Democracy Resources, is also the main political consultants used by Frohnmayer and Unified Primaries. To date they have account for just over 50% of the group’s expenditures. NW Democracy Resources is owned by Ted Blaszak, and according to campaign finance records have been paid over $2.5 million dollars by various campaign committees over the last 6-7 years. Some of the biggest have been Tom Hughes (current Metro President), Good For Oregon and Yes on 82 & 83 (the casino initiatives) as well as Protect Oregon Priorities I & II, which are committees run by Our Oregon.2008’s “Yes on 65” was a high-profile and hard-fought campaign, with a larger and well-known list of donors, one that they eventually lost. Regence Group (Blue Cross/Blue Shield), Brett Wilcox of Summit Energy, Providence Health and PacifiCorp each gave 10’s of thousands of dollars to the campaign and committee. Brett Wilcox, CEO of Summit Energy, gave just over $150,000 himself according to campaign finance records from the Oregon Secretary of State’s office. Political Reform by Limiting Choices
Unified Primaries differs from Measure 65 in that it does not seek to change requirements for attaining and keeping minor party status. “Yes on 65” would have placed greater membership requirements on minor parties, eliminating most of them overnight had it passed. This lead to a huge backlash and the measures eventual defeat. But the new initiative has what some would consider flaws almost as serious, mainly shutting third-party and independents candidates out of the general election. Without changes to campaign finances, some say that the results will be the same. Major party candidates with large donors buying elections. Except with Unified Primaries, we could end up with even less choice come election day.

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