Last month, a handful of Oregon's largest companies began a new effort to wrest control of the state from Democrats.

On June 25, a powerful lobbyist named Shaun Jillions filed paperwork to incorporate a new trade association called Oregon Manufacturers and Commerce, which is expressly aimed at tilting the balance of power in Salem.

The creation of that association has not been previously reported.

Working with deep-pocketed allies, including the Lebanon, Ore., manufacturer Entek International and Lyons, Ore.-based Freres Lumber, Jillions began pitching business leaders on the new group. It aims to support business-friendly candidates and ballot measures—such as two anti-tax measures on November's ballot.

"The Oregon Legislative Assembly has become increasingly combative to business interests in Oregon," say Jillions' confidential presentation slides, obtained by WW. "The influence of Oregon's public employee unions and significant out-of-state donors with extreme environmental agendas have pushed the majority Democrats further and further to the left."

The creation of the new group was just one step in a series of assaults on public employee unions.

(Rosie Struve)
(Rosie Struve)

Two days later, the U.S. Supreme Court hit public employee unions with a body blow, ruling that dissenting union members no longer have to pay dues.
The ruling is expected to weaken the financial and political power of those unions—whose influence in Oregon may be unmatched in the country.

Jillions and his allies want to challenge unions this November, on what is shaping up to be the most policy-rich, consequential Oregon ballot since Democrats seized control of the Legislature in 2007.

"And this is just the beginning," Jillions says. "I think ballot measures are only going to increase in the future."

But the business community is already splintering—because Nike broke ranks.
Last week, the Beaverton sportswear giant cut a deal with the union-backed advocacy group Our Oregon to keep a corporate disclosure bill off the ballot, as first reported by Oregon Public Broadcasting. In exchange, Nike agreed to oppose two anti-tax measures headed for the November ballot. Nike's move could embolden other businesses or give them an excuse to sit out the ballot measures.

"It's not the first time Nike has cut their own deal at the expense of the rest of the business community," Jillions says. "It's disappointing to say the least."

Track made from recycled shoes on the Nike campus in Beaverton. (Jodie Wilson / Flickr)
Track made from recycled shoes on the Nike campus in Beaverton. (Jodie Wilson / Flickr)

Jillions, 45, a Republican who grew up on a Polk County farm, spent the past decade as the lobbyist for the Oregon Association of Realtors, first as the association's in-house employee, then as a contractor.

He's been plowing rocky soil. Oregon is one of just six states in which Democrats control both the Legislature and the governor's office. That control rankles Jillions' Realtor clients, who fear tenant-friendly legislation and Democrats' interest in reducing the home mortgage tax deduction. It infuriates companies like Entek and Freres Lumber, and other prospective members of Jillions' new group.

Oregon's businesses are coming off their biggest ballot measure victory in decades, having crushed Measure 97, a gross receipts tax in 2016, by 59 to 41 percent.

So Jillions expanded his ambitions.

On the Realtors' behalf, he launched a November ballot initiative that would amend the Oregon Constitution to make it harder for Democrats to raise new tax revenues. The campaign he led, the "A Tax Is a Tax Committee," turned in 174,000 signatures June 27—more than enough to qualify for the ballot.

The initiative is part of a concerted effort by business interests to squeeze tax revenues, the lifeblood of public employees and their unions. (A companion measure would ban new taxes on groceries.) That makes November's ballot a referendum on the size and scope of Oregon's government.

Jillions' efforts—the anti-tax measure and the new trade association—signal growing enthusiasm for taking a hard line against Democrats and their union allies.

For the past decade, business interests have sought to curtail the unions' dominance, forming groups such as Grow Oregon and Priority Oregon and threatening anti-union, right-to-work ballot measures, among other steps.

Gordon Lafer, a professor at the University of Oregon's Labor Education Research Center, studies the interaction of business and unions across the country. He says in other states, he's observed a two-step process. First, corporate interests seek to weaken unions, then they seek to reduce the size and scope of government services.

"The playbook is get the unions out of the way, then shrink the list of things that people can vote on," Lafer says. He notes that the two constitutional amendments on the November ballot—Initiative Petition 31, which Jillions is backing, and Initiative Petition 37, the ban on grocery taxes—do that.

Portland skyline (Motoya Nakamura / Multnomah County)
Portland skyline (Motoya Nakamura / Multnomah County)

But Nike's decision, coming just a week after the Supreme Court ruling in Janus v. AFSCME, suggests disagreements within Oregon's business community may complicate the attempt to weaken union power in Oregon. (Nike declined to comment.)

The new trade association is the latest effort to harness the financial strength of corporations for political advantage. Last summer, the state's two largest business associations consummated a long-planned merger July 1, 2017, becoming Oregon Business & Industry.

The deal combined Associated Oregon Industries, whose members tended to be natural resource companies, with the Oregon Business Association, whose members were environment-friendly, more oriented toward professional services, and more Portland-centric.

Proponents of the merger hoped to build on the momentum of their defeat of Measure 97—and to get corporate Oregon to speak with one voice.

But that hasn't happened. Less than a year after OBI's formation, the organization abruptly fired its CEO, former state Rep. Mark Johnson (R-Hood River), after he reportedly made racist comments about state Rep. Diego Hernandez (D-Portland). A stream of high-level staff left even before Johnson's ouster. (Interim CEO Ginny Lang declined to comment.)

Jillions says the new group he's forming—and for which he plans to serve as executive director—is not meant to replace OBI. "They'll still have a role as an umbrella group for all Oregon businesses," he says.

Tom Kelly, president of the Neil Kelly Company and a co-founder of the Oregon Business Association, left OBI last year because of that group's lack of support for cap-and-trade legislation and co-founded the Oregon Business Alliance for Climate.

He says disagreement over issues such as climate legislation will continue to divide the state's business groups.

"It would be great if the business community could speak with one voice," Kelly says, "but I think the past few years have shown that's just not possible."