Former City Commissioner Jim Francesconi and former county commissioner Deborah Kafoury are competing in the May 20 primary to be the next chair of the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners.
Both are experienced politicians with strong lists of supporters but Francesconi has claimed an advantage in one key area—support from public employees.
Francesconi won key endorsements from two public employee unions after pledging that, if elected Multnomah County chairman, he would use his influence to increase the number of union workers employed by county contractors.
Francesconi also said he would require that the buildings the county owns or rents employ union janitors and security guards.
He made those pledges in writing last month in response to questions from the Service Employees International Union, the state's largest labor union. SEIU and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the largest county workers union, later endorsed Francesconi.
If he wins and carries out his pledges, Francesconi could run afoul of a state law that prohibits elected officials from using their influence to favor union organizing. The Public Employer Accountability Act, passed by the Legislature in 2013, states, "A public employer may not use public funds to support actions to assist, promote or deter union organizing." The law covers an agency's employees and "employees of its subcontractors."
Another state law prohibits a political candidate from offering an incentive in exchange for an endorsement.
Francesconi made the promises on a questionnaire sent to him and his chief opponent, Deborah Kafoury. Candidates routinely fill out questionnaires for interest groups as part of the endorsement process. Francesconi's campaign provided his answers to WW.
One of the questions that SEIU, which represents custodians, posed was this:
"Many state, local and federal contracting standards take into account things like wages, benefits, training, and labor relations. What standards do you think are important to awarding contracts?"
"I would like to work with SEIU and AFSCME to assist in unionizing nonprofit county contractors that do not pay living wages," Francesconi wrote. "I also want to mention that the county is a major renter and property owner in the county and should require that all buildings are served by union cleaners [and] security guards."
Multnomah County spends more than $100 million a year on outside contracts, each approved and signed by the chair, who has a degree of budget and decision-making authority far greater than that of Portland's mayor.
Francesconi's response carries an implicit promise to the unions: They will get more members, more dues and more clout. The benefits he's seeking are the endorsements, contributions and manpower the unions can bring to his campaign.
When WW asked Francesconi about the SEIU questionnaire, he initially said: "I didn't write this. It's wrong."
In a later phone message, he backtracked. "I overreacted," he said. "I'm standing by that language."
In a subsequent interview that day, Francesconi said "assisting in unionizing" would not create a conflict with state law that prohibits public officials from helping unions in their organizing efforts.
"How you 'assist' is by making sure contractors have neutrality agreements," he says. "The assistance has to be within the confines of the law."
Francesconi acknowledges that his answer about "requiring" buildings that rent space to the county have unionized janitors and security guards went too far.
"The language is too strong," he says. "You can't require that."
However, Francesconi says his answer to SEIU about increasing union membership was not an offer of something of value in exchange for an endorsement.
"It's not a quid pro quo," Francesconi says. "I think the unions view me as somebody who's trying to close the gap between rich and poor. I'm very proud of standing up for working people."
Keith Cunningham-Parmeter, an associate professor at Willamette University College of Law, says no matter how much public officials may like or dislike unions, they must remain neutral. That means not using the public's checkbook to help unions add members.
"The law says employers cannot use public funds to encourage or discourage union membership," he says.
Cunningham-Parmeter says, in his opinion, Francesconi appears to be offering a quid pro quo.
"The candidate is saying that with greater union support for him will come greater rates of unionization for them," he says.
Portland pollster Adam Davis, who has worked in politics for 30 years but is not involved in the county chair race, says he's never heard of a candidate making such a bold proposition.
"Whoa," Davis said when WW shared Francesconi's response. "I haven't heard of anything like that before in Oregon."
SEIU political director Felisa Hagins says Francesconi has done nothing wrong. She believes Francesconi's pledge to "assist in unionizing" and "require all buildings are served" by union cleaners and security guards violates no law and is not a quid pro quo.
"That's absurd," Hagins says. "A quid pro quo has to be very specific, like, 'If you give me $10,000 and an endorsement, I'll guarantee you 30 new union jobs.' That's not even close to what he said."
Hagins says SEIU, which represents about 600 workers employed by county contractors, endorsed Francesconi because he performed better in the candidates' joint interview.
"Our members felt strongly because he came in with a message about income inequality that resonated with their working lives," Hagins says. "Deborah was not as able to articulate the good work she's done."
AFSCME statewide political director Joe Baessler says he was unaware of what Francesconi wrote to SEIU.
Baessler attended AFSCME's interview with Francesconi and says the candidate made no such representations then or in any other communications he's aware of.
"Our members like Deborah," Baessler says. "But as one of them said, 'Jim comes across as more of a fighter.'"