By Don Iler • News Editor • 

Election complaints, big money heat up acrimony in House race

On May 2, Sen. Brian Boquist, R-Dallas, filed a complaint with the Secretary of State's Office alleging various improprieties by Nearman's campaign.

Nearman soundly beat Thompson in the May 20 primary election, backed almost solely by more than $94,000 in donations from two socially conservative political action committees — Oregon Right to Life and Oregon Family Council.

However, Nearman's opponents have not waved the white flag in a district considered a guarantee for Republican victory.

In addition to Boquist's complaint, Jonathan Thompson, Jim Thompson's son and president of the moderate Republican Dorchester Conference, filed a complaint July 22. He alleged misuse of funds raised by the Polk County Republican Central Committee, which Nearman heads.

Briefly, a Republican sought endorsement of the Independent Party of Oregon, but that ended after a build-up of negative phone calls and mailers prior to the minor party's July primary.

Nearman's victory clearly has upset Republicans in the mostly rural district that includes Amity and Dayton, and stretches south from McMinnville's city limits through Polk County to include the rural portions of Benton County beyond Democratic-leaning Corvallis.

Nearman's backers

In the weeks leading up to May 20, Nearman received $45,000 from Oregon Right to Life PAC and $49,284 from Oregon Family Council PAC.

Nearman in turn spent most of his money with Gateway Communications, Inc., a Portland-based firm that specializes in marketing and fund raising.

The company sent nearly 20 mailers in support of Nearman on behalf of Oregon Family Council, Oregon Right to Life and Nearman's own campaign.

In his complaint, Boquist alleges the three organizations colluded to secure Nearman's primary victory. Oregon election law allows PACs to spend unlimited amounts of money directly on campaigns.

Gateway Communications CEO Tim Nashif co-founded the Oregon Family Council, which is best known for successfully spearheading a 2004 ballot measure to establish a gay marriage ban in the Oregon state constitution. That amendment was found unconstitutional earlier this year by a federal judge.

Nashif and Gateway's president, Michael White, also serve on Oregon Family Council's board of directors.

In 2012, Oregon Family Council spent $118,535 with Gateway. So far in 2014, the PAC has spent $91,618 with Gateway.

Oregon Right to Life's ties with Gateway also stretch from fundraising to being the recipient of much of the PAC's political money.

Gateway raised $225,924 for Oregon Right to Life through telemarketing and direct mail in 2012. Gateway retained $98,715 of that, with $127,209 going to the organization, whose primary political focus is banning abortion.

Nashif acknowledged that both organizations are clients of Gateway and that the company has done business with both for years. He said the company conducts fundraising for more than 185 organizations, most of whose work is non-political.

He described Boquist's allegations of collusion as “bogus.”

“Our tendancy is to support more conservative candidates,” Nashif said. “Oregon Family Council and Oregon Right to Life tend to support the same candidates.”

He also acknowledged that Gateway wrote off $15,000 of debt Nearman's campaign owed the company following his primary victory. Nearman's campaign spent more than $77,000 with Gateway.

“I definitely wanted Mike Nearman to win that election, and our clients did, too,” Nashif said.

Gayle Atteberry said Oregon Right to Life has done business with Gateway for years, and what happened in the Nearman race is no different from how Gateway has performed in other elections.

“There is nothing illegal in (both PACs) supporting the same campaign,” Atteberry said. “There is no foundation in Boquist's claims other than he was upset about our activity supporting Mike Nearman.”

Nashif said his company did mailers for 15 campaigns this year, and that all the activity was recorded on ORESTAR, the Secretary of State's online campaign finance reporting system.

“For Boquist to make a big deal about it seems embarrassing,” Nashif said.

The complaints

Boquist's complaint ranges from arcane details, like whether Nearman properly identified the company he works for, and whether campaign finance information was accurately and quickly entered into ORESTAR, to allegations of illegal cooperation between Nearman's campaign and Oregon Family Council and Oregon Right to Life.

He also suspects the Secretary of State's office is dragging its feet on the investigation because of politics. If it disqualifies Nearman after a certain date, the Republican party would be unable to appoint another candidate, leaving the Democratic nominee Wanda Davis to face only token opposition from minor party candidates in November.

The Secretary of State's investigator on July 22 sent letters to Gateway, Oregon Right to Life and Oregon Family Council with questions related to Boquist's complaint.

Rachele Altman, legislative director for the Secretary of State's office, said the investigation is ongoing, saying the department's policy is not to comment on ongoing investigations.

Nearman also filed his own complaint against Thompson, after mailers paid for by the Conservative Republican Defense Fund attacked Nearman. The CRDF was almost entirely funded by a PAC run by lame duck state Sen. Larry George, who decided not to seek re-election. That campaign is between conservative talk show host Bill Post and Independent Party nominee Chuck Lee.

Acrimony runs high

Usually after a primary election, defeated candidates get behind the party's choice, or at least remain on the sidelines until the next time around. Not so in the District 23 race.

Boquist believes Nearman used illegal tactics to defeat Thompson. He also thinks Nearman is putting a target on his back by orchestrating local Republicans.

“When they put it in writing that they are going to take you out next election, it drives you to do something,” Boquist said. “Yes, there is an element of self-preservation there, but if there is enough dirty laundry here, something needs to happen.”

An email circulated among Polk County Republicans says Boquist has broken the 11th commandment, “Thou shalt not speak ill of other Republicans.”

Nearman and his backers aren't sure why Boquist and others have come out so strongly against him.

“They're not happy that I was running against Jim Thompson. and they are still on the warpath against me,” Nearman said.

Nashif said he supported Nearman instead of Thompson because Thompson supposedly changed his opinion about same-sex marriage.

“Thompson flip-flopped on traditional marriage,” Nashif said. “Oregon Family Council supported him for the last decade and never had a chance to talk to him after he changed his position. After a decade of support, there was not even a phone call or explanation — we read about it in the paper.”

Boquist says they created the controversy and suddenly pulled their support in order to stir up their base and raise money for themselves.

“It looks like more of a money issue than a political issue,” Boquist said. “If you don't have a rallying cry, you can't go off and raise a million bucks.”

However, there appears to be nothing illegal with the circle of money that starts with Gateway raising funds for PACs that then spend their funds with Gateway.

Nearman thinks Boquist's conspiracy charge is far off.

“If they donated money and then gave it back to themselves, there is no way you could do the math for that to make money,” Nearman said.

Nashif said only 5 percent of the company's revenue comes from political campaigns, with most revenue from work with other clients that predominantly are charities.

While Nearman's primary campaign only spent money with Gateway, his campaign since has spent money with other companies.

Playing to win

Even the Independent Party of Oregon's primary was affected by the Nearman campaign.

Fewer than 50 District 23 voters participated in the IPO primary, but mailers and phone calls from Nearman's campaign sought to turn voters away from Beth Jones, a Republican Dallas city councillor who at the time was seeking the Independent nomination. She removed herself from the race after winning the IPO primary, citing a desire to spend more time with her family.

Nearman, who did not seek the IPO nomination, said he is allowed to campaign during that primary election. His ORESTAR account shows several transactions for phone calls and mailers during that time period.

“I'm allowed to do that (campaign against Beth Jones),” Nearman said. “It makes things simpler that she dropped out.”

Nearman faces Davis, who is the Democratic candidate, in November.

Before Nearman's May 20 victory, Davis had a low profile and had raised little money in running unopposed. She since has begun to raise campaign funds, but she still lags far behind Nearman.

The district is gerrymandered in a way that makes a Democratic victory unlikely. But Davis sees the Republican political infighting playing to her advantage, saying many Republicans have said they support her because they are upset about Nearman.

“Things were twisted so badly," Davis said, "and lies were told about Jim (Thompson)."

Speaking of Nearman, Davis said, "He wants to bring Washington-style obstructionism into the Oregon House of Representatives."

Only 16 percent of voters in District 23 cast votes in the Republican primary. Although Nearman handily defeated Thompson by a margin greater than 2 to 1, he received only 4,263 voters.

District 23 has sent Republicans to the statehouse for the last 20 years, but Nearman does not foresee a guaranteed victory.

“I consider this a race that's going to be a lot of work for me,” Nearman said.

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