The Unger Games

A union-funded advocacy group called Our Oregon has filed a grab bag of ballot measures the state estimates could raise up to $5 billion a year in new tax revenue—much of it from big corporations.

Ben Unger terrifies Oregon CEOs who earn dozens of times his salary.

A gaunt former union organizer, the 39-year-old Unger gave up a Washington County seat in the Oregon House last year after just one term. Yet today, he's got the state's most powerful business leaders scrambling to arrange a shotgun wedding that befuddles some observers.

Unger is the executive director of a union-funded advocacy group called Our Oregon. Earlier this summer, Our Oregon filed a grab bag of measures aimed at the 2016 ballot that the state estimates could raise up to $5 billion a year in new tax revenue—much of it from big corporations.

The tax measures are no idle threat. With a combination of voter mobilization, sophisticated data analytics and effective messaging, Our Oregon has for the past decade lost on the ballot about as often as Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt finishes second on the racetrack.

Ten years ago, the group regularly defeated ballot measures by prolific anti-tax and anti-union initiative author Bill Sizemore. In 2010, Our Oregon overcame enormous business opposition and passed two tax increases. In 2014, the group killed a business-backed measure to require open primaries and helped defeat business-backed candidates.

"They've been extremely successful," says Reed College political science professor Paul Gronke. "So much so that you need a counterweight. But an effective business voice has really been missing in this state."

The state's two largest business groups, Associated Oregon Industries and the Oregon Business Association, are tired of losing.

They and their members have spent millions on dud campaigns and also-ran candidates. They've even tried replicating Our Oregon with a group called "Grow Oregon." That didn't work either.

All the while, business leaders have railed against Oregon's high personal income taxes and the level of political influence that public employees wield in the state. They blame these factors for Oregon's relatively low income per capita and woeful performance in public education.

Recently, leaders of 13 of Oregon's largest employers, including Intel, Daimler Trucks, U.S. Bank and the state's three largest utilities, signed a letter urging the merger of the two groups as a way to put the state on the right track.

"The need for a unified business voice has never been clearer or more timely," the July 30 letter says. "Invalidation of the 2013 PERS reforms, the failure of our Legislature to pass a transportation package, and the potential for high-stakes ballot measures in 2016 have heightened our concern for the future of business in Oregon."

Discussion of a merger shows both groups are girding for war against Unger and Our Oregon. They're readying to turn the tax-raising ballot measures into the big-money battle of the next election cycle.

Companies pushing for the merger collectively represent hundreds of billions of dollars in capitalization, many tens of thousands of well-paid employees in Oregon, and the potential to make enormous political expenditures.

But there are a couple of problems with the plan. First, part of the reason the business lobby speaks with multiple voices is that businesses don't always agree with each other.

Part of the impetus for merging was the failure of a $344 million transportation package in Salem earlier this year. The debate over that bill crystallized the schism between the extreme wings in each group.

OBA was founded in Portland in 1999 as an alternative to the smoke-stack industries that dominate AOI, such as PacifiCorp. This year, OBA endorsed the low-carbon fuel bill. AOI opposed it.

Republican lawmakers made repeal of the low-carbon fuel standard the price of voting for the transportation bill. But business lobbyists, working with Gov. Kate Brown, could not overcome environmentalists for whom the low-carbon standard was a top priority.

Differences on climate change remain a major issue and could scuttle the merger. Sources say some of OBA's founding members—such as Nick Blosser of Celilo Media and Jim Kelly, founder of Rejuvenation Hardware—are fighting to block any link-up with AOI because they question the association's interest in addressing climate change. (Both declined to comment.)

The second problem with the merger is it might not change the fundamental problem.

"€œOur polling shows big business doesn'€™t have a lot of credibility with the public," says pollster Adam Davis.

Davis' firm, DHM Research, regularly surveys Oregonians on behalf of various clients. He says the results of those surveys make him skeptical that a merger driven by large companies would lead to different political outcomes.

"They've been tone-deaf relative to where the public is on a lot of issues," Davis says. "A merger may help in terms of efficiencies or in speaking with one voice, but that doesn't change that they are out of sync with Oregonians' values."

Proponents of the merger, which they hope to complete by year's end, say they are working in the state's interest.

"It is time to build a framework and forum to unite us in service to the principles of job creation and business growth in Oregon," reads the July 30 letter. "We cannot emphasize strongly enough our desire to move quickly."

Our Oregon's Unger says his organization's success is a reflection of listening to voters and protecting their interests. He says both business groups have failed at that task.

"They pretty much speak with the same voice now,"€ Unger says. "€œOnce Wal-Mart joined the OBA board, it was hard to see the difference between them and AOI."