Nobody in Oregon took a bigger beating on the ballot last week than Ben Unger, executive director of Our Oregon, the union-backed advocacy group that created Measure 97.
In the first week of September, Unger, 40, looked like a hero. The $3 billion-a-year corporate tax increase had the support of 60 percent of voters. By election night, polls showed the measure had collapsed under the onslaught of $27 million in corporate spending, but almost nobody expected the final result—a 59 to 41 percent shellacking.
Here are Unger's thoughts about the result and what comes next.
WW: What surprised you most about this loss?
Ben Unger: The biggest surprise was how difficult it was to tell voters a story about how big the need is. And we struggled to communicate how we could address those needs with one measure. There is a deep skepticism about whether we are delivering what people need from their government.
What lesson did you learn?
I think the biggest takeaway is the coalition we've built now, we needed at the beginning. When we started, it was just Our Oregon. Then when we had a meeting the night before the election, there were 60 groups represented in the room. It was a much bigger, broader community. We needed them at the beginning. I think they could have laid the groundwork with the political elites and the media. We never convinced the establishment that we got the details right.
Which of the opposition's arguments was most harmful?
They were all harmful. They did a good job of connecting a bunch of different arguments that hit home with voters. Then they closed with an argument that the money wasn't going to go where it was intended. That was the hardest to overcome.
You got millions of dollars from out-of-state unions. How are they feeling?
They want to make sure that nationally we are learning from this experience. How you win these fights is an ongoing question. How do we apply what we've learned to the next fight so we're more able to win? That's why they invest in us—because they want to know how to do this in other places. I can't overestimate how much the uncertainty at the national level puts pressure on us to figure that out quickly.
We go to Salem. It will be hard for people to propose budget cuts without first increasing corporate taxes. You talk to voters, they agreed 100 percent that corporations need to do their fair share. We will force that choice more in Salem. The opposition to our campaign is gone now—the California consultants aren't sticking around like our coalition is, and I think people are more motivated now than ever before.
Will you go back to the ballot again?
That question is still up in the air. We will come to the Legislature with a menu that calls for investments—significant investments, not small. I think we've put pressure on everybody. We are willing to come to the table. The challenge is, how do we bring everybody else along?