Voters on Tuesday may elect the first Independent Party candidate to the Oregon Legislature — although only after a contest that has turned into a political soap opera.
The race in a mid-Willamette Valley House seat is a rematch from two years ago. Perhaps most importantly, it has also drawn big interest from two powerful political forces: the public employee unions and the state’s chief anti-abortion group, Oregon Right to Life.
Jim Thompson, a lifelong Republican, is now running as an Independent in an attempt to regain the House District 23 seat he lost two years to his primary rival, Rep. Mike Nearman.
Emotions are running high.
Nearman, who lives west of Salem and works with computers, teed off on the unions, the media and Thompson in a telephone interview.
“This is about public employee unions who are doing whatever it takes to get more power and their media buddies are perfectly happy to do that for him,” he said.
House District 23 is solidly Republican. But there is no Democrat in the race, which appears to have produced a tight contest between the two.
If Thompson wins, he’d be the first member running solely on the Independent Party line to win a seat in the Legislature. At times, other lawmakers have called themselves an independent. But they haven’t allied with the party, which just this election gained major-party status.
Thompson, who lives in Dallas, Oregon, and served three terms in the House, said Right to Life and the Oregon Family Council ganged up to defeat him in the primary two years ago after he endorsed same-sex marriage.
"They absolutely went off the rails," said Thompson, adding that Right to Life's involvement was particularly galling because he had never wavered in his opposition to abortion. The Salem Statesman Journal reported Thursday the state is nearing completion of an investigation into whether Nearman's committee violated campaign finance laws in 2014. On Friday, the newspaper reported that the state attorney general's office said it found no wrongdoing on Nearman's part and that the investigation should have been closed previously.
This year, Oregon Right to Life has provided more than half of the $182,000 raised by Nearman.
The group’s executive director, Gayle Atteberry, said Right to Life has become concerned that Thompson is “drifting” to the pro-choice side by moving closer to groups and individuals that support the right to an abortion.
She singled out groups ranging from Basic Rights Oregon — the state’s major gay rights group — to the same unions that Nearman attacks. Those unions, she said, work politically with abortion rights groups.
“I get money from a really broad base of people,” Thompson countered, “and I can honestly tell you that Oregon Right to Life, or right to life in general, does not come up in my discussions with any of those people.”
Thompson has received $10,000 each from the Oregon nurses union and the United Food and Commercial Workers union. Much of the $128,000 he’s raised has come from health care interests, an issue he was heavily involved in as a legislator. He’s a retired director of the Oregon State Pharmacy Association.
The main union involvement in the race involves the creation of the Real Mike Nearman Committee.
It has collected $65,000 from four public employee unions to spend on ads attacking Nearman. Service Employees International Union Local 503 — the biggest union representing Oregon state employees — kicked in $40,000. The Oregon Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers and the American Council of State, Federal and Municipal Employees also contributed.
Brian Rudiger, the incoming executive director of Local 503, says his union isn't happy Nearman has been allying himself with the Freedom Foundation, a group that wants to reduce the clout of public employee unions.
Rudiger said Nearman is an example of "everything that has gone awry with the Republican Party."
Nearman — and the foundation — has sought to make Oregon a “right to work” state. That means workers in jobs represented by unions would not to be obligated to pay union dues.
“Those guys, they get their money at the point of a gun,” said Nearman. “They get money donated to them by people who have to donate to them.”
Nearman also charged that Thompson is secretly colluding with the public employee unions to run the independent ads.
“He gets SEIU to dump a bunch of crap on my head,” Nearman said, “and this is Mr. Loving and Mr. Reach-Across-The-Aisle.”
Thompson said he has had nothing to do with the union advertising. He said while he often disagrees with the unions — which tend to support Democrats — he’s had a decent working relationship with them.
Thompson said he could support right to work legislation “in concept,” but he added that “all of the right to work bills that I have seen have been nothing more than union busting … I don’t see unions per se as evil.”
If he wins, Thompson said he would expect to ally himself with the Republican caucus if they’ll invite him in. Right now, though, he said the GOP caucus has to stick with Nearman since he’s one of their members. He said it was unlikely he’d join with the Democrats, who currently have a 35-25 majority in the House.