May 4th, 2012 | by NIGEL JAQUISS News | Posted In: PDX Votes, Politics, Legislature

House Candidate Fears Being Labeled a “Lobbyist”—Even Though She Is One

jwilliamsonJennifer Williamson
Jennifer Williamson, who is seeking the Democratic nomination in Oregon House District 36 (Southwest Portland), seems to be struggling with being called a “lobbyist.

She is a lobbyist—but her claim that her opponent might try to label her as one raises questions about the accuracy of one of Williamson’s own campaign mailers.

In the mailer, which reached Democratic voters in late April, Williamson said: "Insurance companies are ready to spend a fortune to smear Jennifer Williamson as a ‘lobbyist.’"

“Smeared” is an interesting term, given that Williamson acknowledges she is a professional lobbyist, representing a wide range of interests, including PacifiCorp, the American Institute for Research (which sells tests to schools), the Komen Foundation for the Cure, the Oregon Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, and the Oregon Conservation Network. (The Oregonian has also noted she’s a professional lobbyist.)

Williamson says her claim that she’s about to be the target of an insurance industry attack is based in part on campaign contributions given to her opponent, Dr. Sharon Meieran.

“I think a lot of health insurance companies support her,” Williamson tells WW.

But records show Meieran, an emergency room physician, has raised less than $5,000 from insurance companies (out of a total of $133,000). Williamson says she’s not aware of any campaign material from Meieran noting her job as a lobbyist.

Willamson says Meieran’s campaign manager shared with potential supporters a polling memo that showed voters responded more positively to Meieran’s being a doctor than to Williamson’s being a lobbyist.

“Being labeled a ‘lobbyist’ out of context, without voters understanding what I have spent my career advocating for, is clearly something they thought was negative or they would not have tested it,” Williamson says.

Kathryn Firestone, Meieran’s campaign manager, says she did share a polling memo with some groups but says the memo only used descriptions taken from both candidates’ websites. In her mailer, Williamson made a distinction calling herself "a lobbyist for public interest causes."

But not all of her clients fit that description. In the 2011 legislative session, PacifiCorp successfully overturned a 2007 law that sought to prohibit utilities from pocketing money collected from ratepayers to cover the utility’s income taxes. Williamson says she helped lobby for the utility on that issue.

Williamson says most of her work for the utility involved advocating for green energy and the Business Energy Tax Credit program, which she says she considers "public interest work."

Veteran lobbyist Ellen Lowe, who’s a Meieran supporter, has worked the Oregon State Capitol hallways since the 1970s on behalf of the League of Women Voters, Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon and is a now contract lobbyist for the Oregon Association of Hospitals and Health Systems.

Lowe says Williamson is on one hand appearing to run away from the label of “lobbyist” while also taking credit for things she’s done as a lobbyist.

“I’ve always thought of lobbying as a positive thing,” Lowe says. “It would be more honest if she just said she had a variety of clients.”

One of those claims in Williamson's mailer goes like this: "When budget cuts threatened our public schools, Jennifer Williamson got to work and was successful in securing the largest state investment in public schools in Oregon history."

Williamson lobbied for the State Department of Education in 2007, when lawmakers approved an historic increase in school funding. In fact, cuts were not really on the table because a soaring economy boosted the general fund budget 21 percent from the previous biennium.

And lawmakers and others say Williamson's agency was a far smaller player than were parents, unions and business groups.

“I don’t recall the Department of Education playing a significant role in budget talks,” says former Sen. Vicki Walker (D-Eugene), who chaired the Senate Education and General Government Committee in 2007.

Williamson says she’s proud of her work on education but acknowledges the language in her campaign mailer overstates her role.

“I think that language went too far,” Williamson says, “And I have directed my team not to use it again.”
 
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