The rumble of raw logs bouncing through the sawmill's machinery sounds like giants rolling strikes in a bowling alley. A metal lever thrusts the 10-foot-long Douglas firs onto a conveyor chain, and a wheel smacks them into place: Slam-BAM! Slam-BAM!
In a crow's-nest office above the action, the man whose checkbook could upend Oregon politics stares at a computer screen that shows him how fast these trees are being turned into money: the weight of each log, the number of two-by-fours the saws can slice out of each one, and the dollar value of every board.
The sawmill, outside the tiny Washington County town of Gaston, has been owned by Stimson Lumber Company for nearly a century. Except for the computer, the mill is largely unchanged from the day in 1969 when Andrew Miller, whose family has owned Stimson for generations, first visited it at age 10.
Miller, Stimson Lumber's 53-year-old CEO, inherited his wealth and still makes his money from what many people see as a dying part of Oregon's history. The state has mostly moved on from its timber past, a boom-and-bust economic cycle that battered the state's forests and, in the end, betrayed hundreds of thousands of rural families who had counted on middle-class lives earned from the Oregon woods.
Miller, who is 6 feet 4 inches tall and as narrow as one of his company's two-by-four studs, views things differently. He sees an Oregon economy and manufacturing base sabotaged by Democratic Party politicians and public-employee unions that have made it difficult for business to thrive and, in turn, create the kind of jobs that pay for the schools and services Oregonians say they want.
"We are out of money," he says of state government. "We should be ashamed of our behavior. We have not made a better world for our children. We have made it worse."
Miller's complaint is the same message corporate leaders have been sending for years, without stemming the blue power of the progressive, Democratic Portland metropolitan area.
But Miller is trying to alter that by bringing his fight to Portland's doorstep.
His privately owned Stimson Lumber Company has spent $2.2 million in recent years to influence Oregon politics—unmatched by any other business in the state.
But Miller's growing influence arises from how he's spending it: funneling cash to candidates from his increasingly influential political machine, Oregon Transformation Project PAC.
Miller's operation is trying to win political control of Clackamas County. His group's slogan, "Stop Portland Creep," is resonating with those who are tired of urban planning, density and especially the Milwaukie light-rail extension. The revolt has earned the county the nickname "Clackistan."
Scott Moore, spokesman for union-backed political force Our Oregon, says Miller's group "has the potential to be a game-changer."
Election victories in Clackamas County would give Miller's operation a powerful geographic base—a counterweight to Portland's liberal voting power. "If you campaign effectively against 'Portland creep' [in] Clackamas County, then you can take that into Washington County," says veteran Salem lobbyist Len Bergstein. "In two or three cycles, you've created a ring around the progressive vote."
If this siege succeeds, it will be because of the money and drive of a blue-eyed, buttoned-down Portland businessman who annually donates the 75-foot holiday tree to Pioneer Courthouse Square.
Miller can be soft-spoken one moment, and explosive the next—when he goes off on Oregon's business climate, government interference and his motives for financing a political insurrection.
But Miller's friends say he is just as frustrated by what he sees as the Republican Party's failure to provide voters with acceptable political choices as he is with the Democratic leaders who have run the state for nearly three decades.
"I don't think he can be categorized," says Jody Stahancyk, the Portland divorce lawyer who's been Miller's friend for years. "He's as independent as a hog on ice."
Republican donors have always given big money in Oregon politics. But for decades many were moderate, even progressive, recognizing that what was good for Oregon came first, and what was good for their businesses would follow.
Those leaders included timber barons—who have mostly vanished along with their companies. "You don't have those same type of visible characters," says Jim McCauley, who was a timber industry lobbyist before joining Washington County as government affairs director. "They've died. Retired."
Stimson Lumber survived—and put Miller in position to be an old-style power broker in a new era.
Miller's family has owned Stimson Lumber—named after his great-great-great-grandfather, T.D. Stimson—for 162 years. Other companies owned mills but not the timber. When the feds cut off the supply from national forests, their futures dried up.
But Stimson Lumber spent decades buying timberlands. Today it still owns 500,000 acres of forest and eight mills across four Western states. With 700 employees (nearly half in Oregon), the privately held Stimson has annual sales of $260 million, according to industry estimates.
Miller might go unnoticed on a Portland street in his shirt-and-slacks business attire, if not for his Lincolnesque height and jutting chin. He's missing the tip of the middle finger on his left hand, severed by a saw when he was 25 and managing a Weyerhaeuser sawmill in Wisconsin.
Miller is genteel, reserved to the point of bashful. John Ludlow, one of the Clackamas commission candidates he's backing, says Miller is "so soft-spoken, at times I nearly had to force him to talk."
But Miller can become heated when talking about what drives him in his campaign.
"The Democratic Party has been a monolithic front for public-employee unions," he says while walking along the log pond at Stimson Lumber's Gaston sawmill, a 45-minute drive from downtown Portland. "Everyone said we don't need the timber industry because we've got Silicon Forest or whatever. That's just bullshit."
Former Trail Blazers player Chris Dudley, who received an extraordinary $510,000 from Stimson Lumber in his failed 2010 Republican bid for governor, remembers his first conversation with Miller.
"He said, 'Listen, I'm not going anywhere,'" Dudley recalls Miller telling him. "'I'm not going to leave. I'm going to change this place. I'm going to make it a place where people can support their families.'"
Unlike other businesses, Stimson cannot just get up and run. Its wealth is tied to the land—something everyone in Miller's family understands. "My mother's almost 80 years old," Miller says, "and she's still giving me a hard time: 'Aren't you buying more timber?'"
And it was a fight over land—and his company's right to use it as it sees fit—that first engaged Miller in Oregon politics.
Miller's 1977 Lincoln High School yearbook photos show a kid with David Cassidy hair. He graduated from Grinnell College in Iowa and later earned a Master of Business Administration at Columbia University. He worked at the Wisconsin sawmill for three years before moving back to Oregon, minus a fingertip, to join the family business in 1991.
During this era—when the timber industry was being hit by recession, timber shortages and tightening environmental standards—Stimson was run by non-family members. Miller was a divorced father of three daughters and a son. Friends recount how Miller baked cookies with his children to deliver to workers at the Gaston sawmill, so his kids would know where their wealth came from.
In 2004, Oregon voters passed a ballot measure to allow property owners to file claims against government agencies for what they believed was the loss of their land's economic value as a result of land-use planning. Stimson Lumber, which had promoted Miller to CEO the previous year, spent $30,000 backing the measure.
"The attitude coming out of Salem was, 'We're going to tell you what to do with your land,'" Miller says. "If you don't protect your interests, you'll get run over."
The new law could have cost the state and local government billions and disrupted the state's planning system. Stimson Lumber was hoping to develop 40 luxury homes over 1,143 acres of Washington County property south of Cornelius called Iowa Hill.
In 2007, under pressure from government agencies and environmental groups, lawmakers sent voters an alternative, Measure 49, that overturned the compensation claims. Stimson Lumber spent $490,000 unsuccessfully fighting that reversal, the most money donated by any company.
The measure passed, and Stimson Lumber sold the Iowa Hill land for $6.5 million to Metro—the regional planning agency Miller sees as an adversary—to create a nature reserve. It was a fraction of the price Stimson would have earned from subdividing the land.
The defeat intensified Miller's determination to change state government. Miller pinned his hopes on Dudley, the 6-foot-11 former Blazers center many thought was a moderate Republican who could sway Portland-area voters.
Dudley spent $10.4 million in his effort to defeat the comeback campaign of Democrat John Kitzhaber, who was seeking a third term after being out of the governor's office for eight years.
"For a brief, shining moment," Miller says, "it looked like he had a chance."
Miller won't talk about the Dudley campaign, but insiders say he fought bitterly with Dudley's out-of-state campaign team, including national political consultant Steve Schmidt, the senior adviser to Sen. John McCain in his failed 2008 presidential bid.
Miller felt the consultants had Dudley spending too much time in rural Oregon where he had support locked up. Miller wanted Dudley spending more time campaigning in the Portland suburbs and east Multnomah County, where Dudley's star power and appeal as a political moderate had its greatest potential to win over new voters.
"They would come to (Miller) with their hand out," says Ross Day, a land-use activist who volunteered on Dudley's campaign, "and when he said, 'You've got to be in Portland more,' they would say, 'Go and sit in the corner. Be a good donor.' That's not something he would really appreciate."
Dudley lost by 22,238 votes statewide—or 1.5 percent—after heavy turnout for Kitzhaber in Multnomah County swung the race.
For Miller, it was a turning point. If he was going to pay the bills, he decided, he would pick the candidates and the consultants.
"The Republican Party hasn't been a lot different in this state," he says. "You can keep giving money and not pay attention to how it's being spent. Or you can just give up. Or you can go straight to the customers—which is in this case the candidates. It's all about how you go to market."
Miller decided the best vehicle for his money—and his determination to call the strategic shots—was Oregon Transformation Project. It was a think tank of sorts started by Allen Alley, the state GOP chairman and a failed candidate for governor and state treasurer.
Alley founded it with Third Century Solutions, a Lake Oswego-based political consulting firm with five employees, including principals Bridget Barton, Jim Pasero and Rob Kremer.
Kremer is a bushy-browed former Chicago financial derivatives broker who lost a bid for Oregon Superintendent of Public Instruction in 2002. He's a hard-right conservative whose particular passion is what he considers the evils of the public education system. He now serves as treasurer of the Oregon Republican Party and hosts a radio talk show.
And he saw in Miller someone with the cash and spine to mount a separate movement.
"There's a reason we've lost jobs in downtown Portland," Kremer says. "Have you ever heard an honest conversation in this city about the economic consequences of smart growth?"
Oregon Transformation Project is a wing of Third Century Solutions with many business donors, most of whom remain secret. The group's political action committee is separate and funded primarily by Stimson Lumber.
Oregon Transformation Project PAC typically works through targeted media buys and direct mail. Third Century Solutions creates the marketing. Stimson Lumber gives money.
To campaign against the Portland Public Schools bond measure, the PAC has paid for the "PolitiMyth" billboards, a parody of PolitiFact in The Oregonian. It's also sunk money into small-town races, including Wilsonville and Damascus city councils, and even donated to fight a $10 million Gladstone library levy.
Miller and his group are also trying to swing the deadlocked Legislature into Republican control.
Much of the $645,000 donated by Stimson in the last two years—more than three-quarters of the committee's bankroll—has gone to candidates whose campaigns make the best pitch. Most are considered underdogs—some long shots.
The group has given $30,000 to freshman Rep. Mike McLane (R-Powell Butte) and $33,400 to Dan Mason, a property manager trying to unseat Rep. Chris Harker (D-Beaverton). Scott Roberts, an oral surgeon from North Bend running for an open Oregon Senate District 5 seat against Democrat Arnie Roblan, received $25,000 from the Oregon Transformation Project PAC and another $50,000 directly from Stimson Lumber. (Oregon is one of four states that has no limit on how much an individual or organization can give to a candidate.)
Miller says one candidate, entrepreneur Manuel Castaneda, was told by other consultants not to bother running against five-term incumbent Rep. Jeff Barker (D-Aloha) in Oregon House District 28. Castaneda has since become a favorite of Miller's.
Castaneda was born in a tiny village in Mexico, moved to Washington state with 11 siblings to pick berries, and now runs a successful construction and engineering firm. Oregon Transformation Project PAC gave his campaign $72,000 because Miller and Castaneda shared a deep dislike for what they see as government interference with business.
"People were telling him, 'Don't even try, Manuel, because it's a 10-point registration deficit district,'" Miller says. "Why would we want to discourage somebody from even trying?"
Oregon Transformation Project PAC has aggressively campaigned for Castaneda—to the point of mailing out a flier falsely claiming that Barker, a former Portland cop, was receiving "a government pension worth more than $100,000 a year." Barker actually collects $79,104 annually through the city's Fire and Police Disability and Retirement fund.
"They're just blowing a lot of money," says Rep. Dave Hunt (D-Gladstone), the former state House speaker. "They continue to waste a ton of money on legislative races they can't win."
But few suggest Stimson's dollars are being wasted in Clackamas County. "That's been a smart expenditure on their part," Hunt says. "There's no question they have a shot at taking that."
Hunt should know. He gave up his House seat this year to run for chair of the Clackamas County Commission. He ran into a slate of anti-light-rail candidates bankrolled by the Oregon Transformation Project and got crushed in the primary, finishing fourth.
Miller says he couldn't care less about the fate of light rail in Milwaukie or anywhere else.
"I know it's a rallying point," he says, "but it's not an issue for Stimson Lumber or Andrew Miller. Other people have a bone to pick with urban transit—I don't give a shit about that."
Miller and the Oregon Transformation Project PAC unleashed their money on Clackamas County because its political map showed promise in 2010: Dudley had done very well in the county, winning 53 percent of the vote despite a three-point voter registration edge for Democrats.
Despite the party registration, Clackamas County has traditionally shown some resentment toward Portland.
"There's always been this undercurrent of, 'We're the county that nobody pays attention to,'" says former U.S. Rep. Darlene Hooley (D-Oregon), who served on the Clackamas County Commission and represented West Linn in the state Legislature before she went to Congress.
That friction became a fissure in December 2010, when the Clackamas County Commission approved a $5 vehicle registration fee to fund repairs on the Sellwood Bridge into Multnomah County. Residents forced a public ballot, and 63 percent of voters rejected the fee.
"One of the most remarkable developments to happen in Oregon in our political lifetimes," Kremer says. "The rulers are at war with their people."
By the time Oregon Transformation Project PAC mounted a billboard reading "Stop Portland Creep" along Interstate 205 this spring, Clackamas County was already rebelling against TriMet's light rail being extended to Milwaukie.
Oregon Transformation Project PAC identified three candidates for Clackamas County Commission—former Wilsonville mayor John Ludlow, former Rep. Tootie Smith (R-Molalla) and anti-light-rail petitioner Jim Knapp—as the group's primary election slate and has spent more than $200,000 to get them elected.
Smith, a former co-owner of a Christmas tree logging company and farm, made news when she raffled off a 9 mm Glock pistol in May at a fundraiser.
"People give to a campaign, they think they don't get anything in return," Smith says of the raffle. "With my campaign, you get something in return."
Ludlow, a realtor who announces Wilsonville High School football games, says he'll send every public project costing more than $20 million directly to voters.
In the primary, all three campaigned on requiring a public vote on any further county debt funding for light rail—a ballot measure that passed in September. Miller's checkbook has also paid for the "Portland Creep" billboard and a radio jingle from a Los Angeles songwriter who's written a track for the band Maroon 5. "How do we stop Portland creep?" the bass-heavy song asks. "Tootie, Ludlow, Knapp!"
Knapp lost in the primary to Martha Schrader, but Ludlow and Smith finished first and second in their respective primaries, and are now positioned to win outright, giving conservatives a majority on the County Commission.
Miller gets angry at the suggestion he's buying control of a county. He says Stimson Lumber has no land in Clackamas County and no stake in county issues.
"You're making the assumption this company is uberwealthy," Miller says. "If people want to say, 'This guy's trying to buy influence,' I don't know what to say about that."
Victory in Clackamas County would give Miller and his group a political foothold and a sign of strategic progress.
He has inverted the old moderate businessman's adage in Oregon, arguing what's good for Oregon emerges from what's good for his business. Bringing that argument to victory in the shadow of Portland would send a very loud message.
"Somebody in the goddamn metro area is trying to stand up and protect natural-resource businesses," Miller says. "If we do not have urban political leaders who protect the natural-resource businesses, we are on the long road to decay."