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Democratic rivals say Oregon’s new congressional district is not for sale

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Newcomer Carrick Flynn benefits from $1 million ad-buy from national party fund and $5 million from an out-of-state cryptocurrency backer

PETER WONG

Oregon Capital Bureau

Multimillion-dollar ad buys by political action committees— including one with ties to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — to political newcomer Carrick Flynn are drawing sharp criticism from six other Democrats seeking Oregon’s newest seat in the U.S. House.

The House Majority PAC has put in $1 million, on top of at least $5 million reported by Protect Our Care PAC, which is associated with the cryptocurrency industry and Sam Bankman-Fried, who leads a cryptocurrency exchange. 

These expenditures are independent of Flynn’s campaign for Oregon’s newly created 6th District, which extends from the southern suburbs of Washington and Clackamas counties into the mid-Willamette Valley, including the portion of Marion County that takes in Woodburn and Salem. Oregon gained a seat as a result of the 2020 Census.

But six Democratic rivals took aim at the interventions by the PACs, most of which usually stay out of contested primaries, particularly PACs associated with party leadership.

“We are united in our condemnation of this unprecedented and inappropriate attempt to influence Oregon voters,” they said in a statement they read aloud Tuesday, April 12, at a gathering in Salem.

“This effort by the political arm of the Democratic establishment to buy this race for one candidate is a slap in the face to every Democratic voter and volunteer in Oregon.”

They declined to say more as a group, but the five who were present spoke to reporters individually afterward.

Nine Democrats and seven Republicans are seeking their party nominations in the May 17 primary. Under Oregon law, only registered Democrats and Republicans can cast ballots for their nominees; voters have until April 26 to register with their party to participate in the primary. Mail ballots will go to voters starting at the end of that week.

The multi-candidate races could result in winners with only small shares of the party vote, akin to Republican Wes Cooley’s 1994 victory for the 2nd District nomination with just 23% in a seven-candidate race. (Cooley went on to win the seat, but served just a single term after being accused of misstating his military record in the voters pamphlet — a state felony.) 

Unlike other states, Oregon has no requirement for partisan candidates to get a majority of votes.

U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, also a Democrat, criticized the House Majority PAC’s action.

“I haven’t endorsed in this race,” he said in a tweet. “But it’s flat-out wrong for House Majority PAC to be weighing in when we have multiple strong candidates vying for the nomination.”

Defense by PAC 

A spokesman for the leadership PAC and Flynn’s campaign manager defended the ad buy for Flynn, a specialist in pandemic and disaster preparedness planning who lives in McMinnville — but who has never sought public office. He lists “candidate, unpaid” as his occupation on his candidacy form filed with the Oregon secretary of state.

“House Majority PAC is dedicated to doing whatever it takes to secure a Democratic House majority in 2022, and we believe supporting Carrick Flynn is a step toward accomplishing that goal,” C.J. Warnke said in a statement.

The PAC spent $160 million in the 2019-20 election cycle.

Flynn earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Oregon and a law degree from Yale University, according to the filing, which lists his job experience as “policy adviser, paid.”

Campaign manager Avital Balwit said this in a statement:

“Our campaign is rooted in Carrick’s Oregon values — hard work, opportunity, and supportive, resilient communities. That message is clearly resonating, not only here in the 6th District, but with national advocates for pandemic preparedness, equity and voter engagement, and Democratic leaders across the nation.

“We are grateful for the confidence and support of these organizations, and remain committed to running our locally focused campaign.”

Women of color 

But two of the six candidates behind their statement say that House Democratic leaders, who are holding onto the thinnest majority in recent history, have disrespected the other candidates — among them three women of color who have or are currently in public office.

The sharpest words were uttered by Loretta Smith, a former Multnomah County commissioner, who likened it to the death of George Floyd in mid-2020, when a now-former Minneapolis police officer put his foot on Floyd’s neck.

“Nancy Pelosi has put her foot on the neck of Black women in Oregon. Black women have given her the majority she so loves right now. Black women have made it so that she is in power right now,” Smith said. 

“To decide to disrespect the first and only Black woman to run for Congress in Oregon, I find it disrespectful on several levels. I do not appreciate it, and Black women in Oregon do not appreciate it.”

She has endorsements from individuals and two PACs, the Collective and Higher Heights for America.

State Rep. Teresa Alonso León of Woodburn, who was absent but also supports the statement, had similar words. Alonso León has been in the Oregon House since 2017.

“The fact that this ‘Democratic’ organization would choose to act in a primary against three women of color is an attack on every voter, every representative, and every person who wants our government to reflect the country,” she said.

She has endorsements from American Federation of Teachers/Oregon, Bernie PDX and Oregon Single Payer Advocates. 

State Rep. Andrea Salinas of Lake Oswego, who has amassed the most endorsements so far, did not refer to her ethnicity. Salinas has been in the House since 2017 and was majority whip, the No. 3 leadership position, in the 2021 session.

“As a state legislator, I have been doing this work for a number of years,” she said. “I am going to double down on doing the work of the people of the Willamette Valley.”

She has endorsements from Service Employees International Union — which she has worked for — and the political arms of the Oregon Education Association, Oregon League of Conservation Voters and Planned Parenthood. Among her other endorsers are U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici of Beaverton, Gov. Kate Brown, Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum and former Gov. Barbara Roberts.

She also has been endorsed by BOLD PAC, an arm of the congressional Hispanic Caucus, which says Salinas would be the first Latina to represent Oregon in Congress. (She also would be the seventh woman, and the second from a racial or ethnic minority; the same would hold true for Smith and Alonso León.)

“Andrea believes that change can happen in a generation if you work for it. She knows, because it happened for her. Andrea’s dad immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico in 1950 and with hard work, paved a path into the middle class for her family,” its endorsement said. 

“Now, Andrea’s ready to show Washington what hard work can accomplish — real, meaningful change for all of us.”

Other newcomers 

For the others, this race is their first for public office.

Dr. Kathleen Harder is the only Democratic candidate from Salem, the district’s largest city, where she works at Salem Clinic and sits on the budget and facilities committee of the school district. She also led the Oregon Medical Board for two years.

“People here in this district want someone who understands their issues and their struggles and can speak for them,” Harder said. 

“We are not going to change our tactics at all. We are doing this the old-fashioned way. I really think the amount of money is backfiring. Voters are a lot smarter than people give them credit for. I am confident they will choose somebody who actually represents them.”

Cody Reynolds of Tualatin was in the Army from 1997 to 2004 and is a cryptocurrency investor. He said he is not letting the multimillion-dollar ad buy for a rival from a leading cryptocurrency advocate deter him.

“We are running the race we intended to run,” he said. “I’ve been working toward this for 10 years. We’re just going to execute the plan that we have, because that’s all we can do.”

Matt West of Beaverton is an engineer at Intel and a cryptocurrency developer. But he said the ad buy for a rival will only draw unfavorable attention to Flynn.

“It has not happened before in Oregon politics, and to the best of our knowledge, it has not happened anywhere nationally,” he said. “We should not have D.C. elites and billionaires seeking to buy elections and being allowed to.”

The other Democrats in the primary are Ricky Barajas of Portland, who ran against Bonamici in 2018 and 2020, and Greg Goodwin, a communications officer (dispatcher) for Newberg-Dundee police. They have not weighed in on the controversy.

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