Citizens United and Citizen Knight

‘Phil’s Bill’ moves to the Oregon Senate

We have a tradition in America of naming laws after real people. Laws named after people are often created so they can protect others. 

In 1981, John Hinkley Jr. wounded four people, including President Ronald Reagan and his press secretary James S. Brady (who survived despite being shot in the head). The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993, or “Brady’s Law,” led to the establishment of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). Amber Alerts were named after Amber Hagerman, and each state began development of an “early warning system” to help find missing children in 2003.

The Oregon House recently passed a trio of campaign finance reform bills sorely missing in our state politics. Unlike Mitch McConnell and the U.S. Senate Republicans, our Democratic leaders here have taken steps to protect us and our political process from the undue influence of the wealthy. 

HB 2716 requires that an advertisement in support or opposition to a candidate would have to identify the committee that paid for the advertisement and the names of the five people who made the largest contributions if those are $10,000 or more in aggregate. 

HB 2983 is about “dark money,” the strategy of wealthy donors purposely hiding their names until after an election. The bill requires these dark money nonprofit organizations who contribute more than $100,000 to either a political committee, statewide race or measure, more than $25,000 on a legislative race, or smaller city or county measures, would have to disclose names of donors. For a legislative race, measure, political committee or statewide race, these organizations would have to list all donors that gave $10,000 or more that election cycle. 

But the Big Kahuna of the trio of bills was HB 2714 — the campaign contribution limit bill! After HB 2714 sails through the senate, and after it’s signed by the governor, candidates for statewide office cannot take more than $2,800 from a single individual, multi-candidate political committee, single-candidate committee or recall committee per election. Senate and Circuit Court judge candidates cannot accept more than $1,500 and House candidates no more than $1,000. There also are limits on how much different political action committees would be able to accept from individuals, multi-candidate political committees and recall committees.

In the tradition of naming bills after people, I propose we call HB 2714 “Phil’s Bill.” After all, it’s aimed directly at Mr. Knight. The Nike founder and chair emeritus of the company donated a total of $2.5 million to Knute Buehler, Republican gubernatorial candidate in 2018. That amount far exceeded any other individual donation to any other political candidate in state history. 

The 2018 gubernatorial race was the most expensive in state history by more than a factor of two. Total campaign contributions to the two candidates — Democrat Gov. Kate Brown and Buehler — exceeded $37 million.

Knight, who is thought to be worth about $30 billion and is famously private, never explained what was behind his bizarre obsession with his gift to the Republican candidate. Buehler’s campaign team declined to comment on the donations. 

Brown had a theory, however. Through a spokesperson, her office proposed that Knight was “clearly accustomed to buying whatever he wants” and that “a lot of Oregonians are wondering if this is an attempt to buy a governor.”

Bill Lunch, a political science professor at Oregon State University, told Rolling Stone magazine that Knight had joined the mega-donor class with the Koch Brothers and casino mogul Sheldon Adelson. “Part of what may be going on here is that Phil Knight, himself, is shifting more to the right,” he said.

Given Brown’s recent history with Buehler and Knight, I have a hunch she’ll sign HB 2714 when it reaches her desk. But it’s not the end of the discussion of money in Oregon politics. It’s just a start. 

Here’s a recent reminder of the need for this legislation. This month Jeff Mapes reported that Rob Freres Jr., an Oregon timber company owner long known for his political activism, has given $1 million to the referendum campaign seeking to overturn a new business tax to fund schools. The new tax — passed by the Legislature last month — is designed to provide an additional $1 billion a year for schools. It imposes a 0.57 percent levy on sales by businesses with revenue of more than $1 million a year, though it allows companies to deduct certain expenses. 

Many in the business community are staying neutral on the new tax after winning concessions from Brown and Democratic legislative leaders. Not Freres, by god! Stay tuned.

Update July 1, 2019: I wrote this column before the Oregon Senate voted on Phil’s bills and before the Republicans walked out for the second time. I predicted HB 2714 would “sail” through the Senate on its way to Brown’s desk for a signature. After all, it was the Democratic campaign finance reform bill, the product of a two-year “big table” commission that included all the major players. But HB 2714 died in the Senate Rules Committee without ever getting a floor vote before the legislative session ended June 30.  Sine Die indeed.

I don’t blame the Republican senators for this one. Democrat Peter Courtney is the senate president — for now. For the record, the three Democrats on Senate Rules are Ginny Burdick, Lee Beyer and Arnie Roblan. They outnumbered the two Republicans, Herman Baertschiger and Brian Boquist. No small irony there. And Uncle Phil gets to spend away with the help of the Democrats. Nice job, Courtney.

Tony Corcoran of Cottage Grove is former state senator and a retired state employee.