Oregon Cities

Dark money group targets Oregon swing districts with new mailers, ads

A dark money group founded by a national Republican political operative and oil industry lobbyists stepped up its efforts to influence Oregon voters this week, sending mailers and buying ad space in seven competitive state House districts.

Voters in the four Republican-held districts received glossy pieces of mail asking them to thank their representatives for sponsoring a bill to make drug possession a misdemeanor punishable by a year in jail, while voters in three swing districts held by Democrats were told their representatives “failed to protect Oregonians.” Some voters saw television ads.

The Coalition for Safe, Healthy and Prosperous Communities send new ads to voters praising Republicans and criticizing Democrats.

The Coalition for Safe, Healthy and Prosperous Communities send new ads to voters praising Republicans and criticizing Democrats.

Julia Shumway / Oregon Capital Chronicle

The ads and mailers were paid for by the Coalition for Safe, Healthy and Prosperous Communities, a dark money group that has been involved in Oregon politics since 2022. That summer, the Capital Chronicle detailed how the coalition managed to avoid campaign finance laws by carefully wording its missives: Groups that do issue advocacy, or spend to support a cause that isn’t directly tied to an election, don’t have to file as political action committees or report their campaign spending or fundraising.

Nearly two years later, details about the organization remain scarce, though voters throughout the state have continued to see mail, web ads and even billboards paid for by the secretive group. Documents the group filed with the Internal Revenue Service last fall show it spent nearly $550,000 in 2022, with no data yet available for 2023 or 2024.

The organization didn’t respond to an attempt to reach it through the “contact us” tab on its website and has no other available contact information.

The coalition paid for a billboard last fall above the Lucky Thai Elephant Restaurant in Newport, thanking Sen. Dick Anderson, R-Lincoln City, for “leading our district toward a brighter future.” Last April, constituents of Rep. Hoa Nguyen, D-Portland, received text messages claiming she sponsored a bill she didn’t actually sponsor that would have allowed cities to ban fossil fuels in new construction. Republican Rep. Cyrus Javadi’s constituents received mail last spring praising him for supporting police funding, and online ads urged voters to email Rep. Ricki Ruiz, D-Gresham, to demand to know why he wanted to “put tampons in boys’ bathrooms,” based on a bill he introduced that would loosen an existing state law requiring free tampons in student bathrooms.

Most of the bills the coalition targeted in the 2023 legislative session had missed key deadlines and were already dead by the time voters saw the ads. That, combined with the latest batch of ads targeting specific candidates in swing districts, raised suspicions among political observers that the group is skirting state campaign finance laws to hide its donors and influence elections.

Under state law, any political communication that supports or opposes a clearly identified candidate must disclose the name of the person or group that paid for it. Most ads or mailers also must disclose the top five contributors to the campaign, and anonymous donations of $1,000 or more can’t be used for communications supporting or opposing a candidate.

Failing to include that information can result in a fine of up to 150% of the cost of printing or broadcasting an ad if an Oregon voter files a written complaint and the secretary of state’s office investigates it. The agency has a backlog of hundreds of election complaints dating back years.

A spokeswoman for the secretary of state’s office didn’t immediately respond to a phone call or email.

Documents show big spending with Republican groups

The Coalition for Safe, Healthy and Prosperous Communities hasn’t registered as a business in Oregon. The Internal Revenue Service approved it as a 501(c)4 nonprofit organization, exempt from paying taxes, in March 2022.

That type of nonprofit organization is allowed to advocate issues, but not for or against candidates. It doesn’t have to report its donors, but it does have to file annual Form 990 returns with the IRS each year. It filed two so far: a 2021 notice that the group had less than $50,000 and a 2022 return that shows it received close to $900,000 and spent nearly $550,000.

It didn’t disclose its donors, and it claimed it didn’t engage in “direct or indirect political campaign activities on behalf or in opposition to candidates for public office” in 2022. It has no employees but has three unpaid directors. President Marc Himmelstein is a longtime lobbyist for the energy industry. Secretary Jeff Berkowitz was formerly the chief researcher for the Republican National Committee. And treasurer Alby Modiano was the president of the U.S. Oil and Gas Association from 1993 until at least 2018. None of the men have clear ties to Oregon.

Nonprofit organizations have to report the names of their five highest-paid contractors that receive more than $100,000 in a year, and the coalition’s form shows ties with prominent Republican firms.

The group paid more than $200,000 to Salt Lake City-based Arena LLC for advertising. The mail and digital ad company works with the Republican National Committee and U.S. Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Oregon, along with hundreds of other Republican campaigns. The Oregon Right to Life PAC, Republican state Reps. Kevin Mannix, Javadi and Tracy Cramer, as well as state Sen. Suzanne Weber, used the company for their 2022 campaigns, paying nearly $400,000 combined, according to state campaign finance records.

The coalition also spent close to $175,000 on consulting from Colorado-based Ascent Media, a firm founded by the former Republican leader in the Colorado Senate. That company worked to elect Republican gubernatorial candidate Christine Drazan in 2022, and state campaign finance records show a Republican candidate from southern Oregon paid it more than $565,000 in his failed attempt to replace Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland.

None of the coalition’s spending is visible on ORESTAR, the state’s campaign finance system.

Traci Bean, a Democratic voter in Javadi’s district, started hunting for information when she received mail praising Javadi last year. She’s more familiar with the state’s campaign finance system than many voters, having served as a treasurer for two different political action committees, but she couldn’t find anything on ORESTAR or when she tried to contact the coalition directly. When she got in touch with Javadi’s office, his staff told her they didn’t know anything about it.

“I am disturbed every time I run into these black holes where you can’t find anything,” Bean said. “Because as a voter and as a citizen, I want to be informed.”

Cole Avery, executive director of the House Republican Caucus’s Evergreen Political Action Committee, said Republican lawmakers didn’t know about the ads.

“To my knowledge, our candidates have had no coordination with this organization and had no knowledge of the mailers,” Avery said. “The law allows for advocacy in the political space. Whether or not this organization’s advocacy is in compliance with the law is a question for the organization.”

Ads target swing districts

The latest round of mailers and ads are targeted at seven competitive House districts, four represented by Republicans and three by Democrats. All are held by representatives elected in 2022 for the first time or after a break in legislative service, and they’re all top priorities for both parties as Democrats seek to protect and expand their majority in the House and Republicans try to make inroads. Democrats now hold 35 districts; Republicans, 25.

Mannix and Cramer flipped two Marion County legislative districts formerly represented by Democrats, who outnumber Republicans in both districts. Their opponents’ personal issues – Mannix’s opponent spent time in prison for selling marijuana and Cramer’s opponent visited a spa where he later reported experiencing unwanted sexual advances – and low turnout among Democratic-leaning voters contributed to their victories.

Democrats also outnumber Republicans in Javadi’s coastal district, where Democrat Logan Laity is looking for a rematch after losing by fewer than 850 votes in a 2022 contest that saw nearly 35,000 votes cast. And Republican Rep. Jeff Helfrich, R-Hood River, won his district in the Columbia River Gorge by just more than 1,600 votes after narrowly losing in a similar district in 2018 and 2020.

The coalition’s mailers and 15-second ads praise the four Republicans for sponsoring House Bill 4036, which would create penalties for drug possession as part of the Republican response to the state’s addiction crisis. They include phone numbers that provide a patch-through line to the legislators’ offices.

The ads targeting Democratic Reps. Annessa Hartman, Emerson Levy and Hoa Nguyen, meanwhile, ask where the representatives are as Oregonians die from dangerous drugs. They also include a number.

Hartman, Levy and Nguyen all narrowly won their races in 2022 in districts based in Oregon City, Bend and southeast Portland, respectively.

This story was originally published by the Oregon Capital Chronicle.

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Lynne Terry for questions: info@oregoncapitalchronicle.com. Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.

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