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Eugene voters reject recall against state Rep. Paul Holvey in resounding fashion

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A sign in Lane County shows support for state Rep. Paul Holvey

A sign in Lane County shows support for state Rep. Paul Holvey

Lauren Dake / OPB

State Rep. Paul Holvey has avoided becoming the first Oregon lawmaker recalled from his seat in more than three decades.

Then again, it appears the Eugene Democrat was never in jeopardy.

On Tuesday, initial returns showed Eugene voters overwhelmingly rejecting arguments by one of Oregon’s largest labor unions that Holvey – long considered one of organized labor’s chief allies in the Legislature – had begun to turn his back on working people.

United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555 spent more than $300,000 making that case to voters. The money didn’t go far.

At the first drop of more than 11,000 ballots, fewer than 10% were cast in favor of the recall. With comparatively few ballots expected to be outstanding, the result put to rest any questions about Holvey’s political future.

“Today we sent a strong message that one deep-pocketed group who doesn’t get their way can’t abuse the recall system to deceive a community and intimidate elected officials,” Holvey said in a statement that went on to chide UFCW leaders. “I hope that members of UFCW 555 hold UFCW’s leadership and individuals behind this recall accountable for wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars from their dues, without making a single worker’s life better.”

The union, meanwhile, said it respected voters’ decision.

“The Recall campaign gave Eugene voters an opportunity to evaluate Rep. Holvey’s record without the distraction of up-ticket races, and those voters affirmed that his values are those which should represent District 8 in Salem,” a concession statement read.

The bruising recall campaign involved more than just big spending on UFCW’s part. To defend himself, Holvey has laid out more than $250,000 this year, state records show. It is far more than the longtime lawmaker has ever spent on an election.

Rep. Paul Holvey, D-Eugene, (right) speaks with Rep. Nancy Nathanson, D-Eugene, in the House Chamber on April 30, 2019, in Salem, Ore.

Rep. Paul Holvey, D-Eugene, (right) easily dodged an attempted recall on Tuesday.

Laurie Isola / OPB

The race also featured dueling ads on Eugene airwaves – including the first TV attack ad against Holvey in nearly 20 years.

His longtime voters weren’t swayed. In the weeks leading up to election day, Holvey, his Democratic allies in the Legislature, and members of other large labor unions swarmed Eugene neighborhoods to defend the candidate – insisting all the while that the lawmaker would be vindicated.

Tuesday’s results were an exclamation point of sorts to the most notable recall campaign the Legislature has seen in many years. Holvey and his defenders insisted for months that UFCW was rashly abusing the recall process, which they argued should be reserved for lawmakers facing serious allegations of crime or malfeasance.

That was the case for the last successful legislative recall. In 1988 voters ejected a state senator from Medford who’d pleaded guilty to child sexual abuse.

The case against Holvey, though, was based on policy differences.

UFCW announced its intention to recall the Democrat in late May, after it said Holvey stood in the way of its central policy proposal for this year’s legislative session – a measure to reduce barriers for cannabis workers to unionize.

That was the inciting event, but in newspaper ads, door-to-door pitches, and the TV attacks, UFCW accused Holvey of more political misdeeds it said had hurt union members. Many of those were broadly supported by majority Democrats, including cuts to public pension benefits and a bill that sent COVID relief funds to low-income Oregonians rather than explicitly targeting front-line workers.

UFCW attempted to make the case that Holvey, one of the House’s top-ranking Democrats, played a special role in formulating those bills. Holvey argued that the attacks were disingenuous, and pointed out that he helped raise the state’s minimum wage, pass a paid family leave law, and mandate overtime pay for farmworkers, among other things.

Holvey was backed by every large labor group in the state except for UFCW Local 555, and many lawmakers scratched their head at the effort to attack a staunch union ally with an anti-worker message.

With the campaign now over, the union’s path to political relevance is murky. UFCW has said that it plans to stop pushing bills in Salem – at least for a time – and there is no doubt that the recall effort angered top Democrats with a lot of say in what policies pass or fail.

But the union has made clear it will press on with its policy aspirations. UFCW has submitted five possible measures for next year’s ballot. They include proposals to rein in political contributions, stiffen penalties for lawmakers who break ethics rules and limit when lawmakers can meet in private.

The union is considering pushing the same policy on organizing cannabis workers that failed to pass during this year’s session – the one whose failure sparked the recall in the first time. This time, though, UFCW would leave the decision to voters, not lawmakers.

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