Oregon conservatives have been trying for three decades to regain the upper hand in Oregon politics, with only sporadic success.

The latest attempt to halt the state’s Democratic tide is coming from a secretive, business-oriented group that launched a splashy new website last week accusing Gov. Kate Brown of trying to “cover up the failures of her office and administration.”

The group, Priority Oregon, publicized the website in a full-page ad that ran in The Oregonian. It also sent emails to media outlets around the state.

“One of Priority Oregon’s functions is to hold public officials accountable and hold them up to standards of transparency,” said Jill Gibson, a Portland attorney long active in attempts to ban compulsory union dues for public employees in Oregon represented by organized labor. She is now serving as Priority Oregon’s spokeswoman.

The group’s own organization is less than clear. It’s organized as a nonprofit and, so far, hasn’t revealed any details about where its money is coming from or who sits on the group’s board.

Gibson and Erica Hagedorn, the group’s executive director, said they’re complying with disclosure laws relating to nonprofits. They said it’s not uncommon for nonprofits involved in various kinds of political issues to protect the identities of their contributors. The Internal Revenue Service has generally allowed this as long as the groups are not advocating a vote for or against a candidate for office.

Hagedorn said the group will file an IRS disclosure form later this year providing more details about the organization, as required by law.

A ‘Bomb Thrower’

What is clear is that Priority Oregon is taking a more hardball approach to politics than the state’s mainstream business lobby groups.

“Priority Oregon is much more of a bomb thrower,” said Ben Unger, the executive director of Our Oregon. That’s the group that plays a key role in organizing the political muscle of the state’s unions and other left-of-center activist groups.

Priority Oregon was formed nearly a year ago and soon after broke ties with other business groups in taking a tough stance against efforts by Democratic legislators to come up with a gross receipts tax that could win the backing of both business and labor. 

That effort had come just months after the broader business community had defeated a union-backed initiative, Measure 97, in the 2016 election to levy a much larger gross receipts tax on larger corporations.

Priority Oregon ran TV ads saying the proposal was “really just a sales tax” that would whack consumers, an effort that helped contribute to its failure in the 2017 legislative session.

In September, Priority Oregon helped orchestrate the introduction of four proposed ballot measures aimed squarely at legislative Democrats and their power. The measures would include Gibson’s effort to curtail public employee union dues, impose new reporting requirements on those unions, put new caps on spending for state programs and make clear that legislators need a three-fifths majority for any bills that lead to increased tax revenues.

Speaking Out More Forcefully

Priority Oregon is “more on the right flank” and “out there doing their own thing,” said Jeremy Rogers, vice president of the Oregon Business Council, which is run by CEOs of many of the state’s major companies.

For years, the council has been associated with Grow Oregon, a nonprofit set up to play the same kind of political organizing role that Our Oregon has long played on the left.

Hagedorn, who had run Grow Oregon since its inception in 2012, is now at the helm of Priority Oregon.

Several business lobbyists said Priority Oregon was designed to take a more hard-nosed approach to politics, unencumbered by the mainstream business community’s need to maintain ties to the Democrats who largely run state government.

“There are a lot of lobbyists in Salem who are registered Republicans, and their advice is just uniformly, ‘Make nice with Democrats and just get the best deal that you can,’” said Jim Pasero, a Republican political consultant, noting that Priority Oregon is speaking out more forcefully.

While sharpening its rhetoric, the group seems to be protecting its backers from any blowback.

Where’s The Support Coming From?

Several sources cited top executives from Entek, a Lebanon-based firm that manufactures batteries and other products, as key supporters of Priority Oregon. The company has been involved in an air pollution dispute with the state and the firm’s CEO, Larry Keith, has been a major contributor to Republican candidates.

Kimberly Medford, the company’s general counsel, said she is aware of Priority Oregon but said her firm is not involved with the governance of the group. And she said she didn’t know if it had contributed to the organization.

A hint at Priority Oregon’s support can also be found in financial disclosure reports with the state Elections Division for the political committees formed to pursue the three ballot measures.

The Oregon Farm Bureau, Associated Oregon Loggers and the Automobile Dealers Association of Portland are among the donors to all four measures.

Hagedorn, Priority Oregon’s executive director, said it plans to be visible in other ways during this year’s election season.

“You’ll be seeing more of us,” she said.

Meanwhile, political consultant Rebecca Tweed has taken over the leadership of Grow Oregon — while also running Republican Rep. Knute Buehler’s campaign for governor.

Tweed said Grow Oregon and Priority Oregon often are aligned by issues. But she said that neither Grow Oregon nor Buehler’s campaign has anything to do with the Priority Oregon website attacking Brown.