Switch Hitter

Big Business borrows Big Labor's political brain.

No political advocacy group in the state has enjoyed greater success than Our Oregon in recent years.

In 2010, Our Oregon engineered the passage of Measures 66 and 67, two income-tax hikes that bucked a national trend.

In 2006 and 2008, the group, which gets much of its funding from public-employee unions, won more than half a dozen ballot measures. 

Now a group so new that it has little more than a name and a two-page draft plan wants to be the next big player in Oregon politics—and its "action plan" looks remarkably like Our Oregon's.

One of those responsible for Our Oregon's 2005 creation—then-Oregon Education Association lobbyist Chip Terhune—is helping steer the new group, which comprises large businesses often at odds with Our Oregon.

State filings show the new outfit, called "Grow Oregon," was incorporated April 18, using Wally Van Valkenburg, managing partner at the city's largest law firm, Stoel Rives, as agent. 

People involved with Grow Oregon stress that the effort is in its infancy.

"It's truly in pre-start-up phase at this point," says Justin Delaney, vice president of legal and public affairs at the Standard, an insurance company that is among Portland's largest employers.

Delaney says he and other large employer reps want to build on the 2011 Oregon Business Plan, which business and political leaders wrote with a focus on increasing employment and raising per-capita income to the national average (Oregon lags by about 10 percentage points).

"This is not a partisan effort," Delaney says. "We want to work toward job and wage growth."

A two-page Grow Oregon document WW obtained (see below) includes "The Grow Oregon Action Plan," nine bullet-pointed headings on how to build a political machine—something the business community lacks.

The plan, apparently contributed by Terhune, bears a striking resemblance to the original blueprint Terhune and others created for Our Oregon. (Terhune now works for Schnitzer Steel.)

"Whoever put this together has a clear appreciation for what we do," says Our Oregon spokesman Scott Moore of the Grow Oregon document.

The Grow Oregon plan, Moore says, describes Our Oregon's approach: "electorate modeling," "targeting message delivery," "using data to measure progress and success" and "long-term strategic electoral planning."

While at OEA, Terhune arranged a big chunk of Our Oregon financing and helped create a permanent, highly organized staff. (Terhune did not respond to calls seeking comment for this article.)

Now, a group that includes Schnitzer, the Standard, PacifiCorp, Portland General Electric, NW Natural and, Delaney hopes, many of the state's other large employers, want to use Our Oregon's approach to reverse the business community's losing record at the ballot box. (Grow Oregon hired Laura Imeson as a fundraiser and tasked her to raise $1 million for the 2012 election cycle.)

Business interests sought to eliminate Portland's publicly financed elections in 2006, recruited a candidate to unseat then-City Commissioner Erik Sten that same year, twice failed at statewide efforts to make political primaries nonpartisan, and last year pumped millions into losing efforts in the governor's race and statewide votes on tax hikes.

Businesses sometimes win—they abolished Portland's publicly financed elections in 2010—but often, better-organized operations beat them.

Our Oregon's Moore says his group is suspicious that terms such as "growing the economic pie" are code words for tax cuts.

"They say, 'We're working for all Oregonians,' but if you're talking about tax cuts that only benefit the top 5 percent of taxpayers or large corporations—and that's what these companies have advocated for in the past—that doesn't square," Moore says.

But Delaney insists Grow Oregon will not continue the tax fight.

"This is not about taxes, and Grow Oregon is not about providing a counter to Our Oregon," he says.

Delaney says the goal is unleashing Oregon's economic potential through a variety of mechanisms—better education, lower healthcare costs and streamlined regulation, among others.

Moore says Our Oregon will be watching.

"You can certainly talk about how 'We're all in this together,' but if the business community pursues policies that only benefit a few, its results are going to be the same,” Moore says.