Summary: With volunteers, some media exposure and a state warning, the measure might defy Oregon's tradition of defeating tax hikes No TV ads. No big campaign spending. And opponents who thought Measure 28 had no chance of passing. Yet, night after night, the volunteers cramming into a union-owned phone bank in a nondescript Southeast Portland basement could be pulling off one of the biggest upsets in Oregon history. Their mission: Deliver a one-on-one pitch selling the statewide income-tax increase on Tuesday's ballot to a carefully culled list of voters. They are the vanguard of an unusual volunteer army formed with the financial and strategic backing of the state's major public-employee unions. If the measure prevails, Oregon voters would be the first in the country to raise their own income tax rates in this current economic downturn. It would break with Oregon voters' tradition of rejecting almost any tax increase put before them. They've defeated a sales tax nine times and haven't approved any increase in income taxes since establishing the current system in 1930. Opponents now say they wish they had campaigned harder against a measure they thought was dead on arrival but was even in a poll released last Monday. "By the time people woke up . . . there just wasn't the time to put the money together for a campaign" against the measure, said Russ Walker of Citizens for a Sound Economy, one of the main opposition groups. The public-employee unions that put up most of the money for the pro-Measure 28 campaign made what now appears to be a smart strategic decision: They let volunteers such as Luther Henson do most of the speaking for it. "I have stayed out of politics for 20 years because I didn't think this stuff would affect me," said Henson, 49, as he got ready to learn how to use the computerized phone bank owned by the Oregon AFL-CIO. "But now here I am. This could hurt me." Over the course of an evening, Henson, who is disabled with Parkinson's disease and several other ailments, spoke mostly to answering machines and voters who said they had already sent in their ballot. But he also had the chance to tell one undecided woman in Douglas County about how he's in danger of losing the part-time care that will allow him to move out of an assisted-living center. "I could end up back in a nursing home," he told her. The Yes on 28 campaign skipped running expensive television ads -- and the lack of TV lulled opponents who thought Oregonians would never go for a tax increase while they were still paying bills from Christmas and facing the nation's highest unemployment rate. The absence of television advertising by either side turned out to be crucial. Supporters and neutral analysts said it might have been easy for opponents to raise doubts about any tax increase. "I'm really delighted they sat on their thumbs in this campaign because it's very easy to fashion a 30-second ad that says no," said Tricia Smith, a lobbyist for the Oregon School Employees Association. "Our side is more complicated." Union lobbyists fought hard against referring the measure to the ballot, hoping the Legislature would instead just pass a tax increase to fill the budget shortfall. But once the measure was on the ballot, the unions decided they had no choice but to get behind it. In the end, five public-employee unions raised almost all of the $490,000 given to the pro-Measure 28 campaign. While that dwarfs the less than $30,000 that opponents reported spending, it's a relatively small amount for a statewide ballot measure -- where spending can sometimes exceed $5 million. "We didn't believe that spending a lot of money was the right thing to do," said Smith, explaining that unions had spent down their war chests during the 2002 election. The campaign has spent about $280,000 on carefully targeted radio advertising aimed at voters likely to support the measure. That means advertising on stations like KINK FM that appeal to liberal baby boomers and avoiding stations like KXL AM and its conservative talk-show hosts. Mobilizing a united front Most importantly, the unions made a common cause with a long list of other groups worried about cutbacks in state programs. "The grass-roots aspect of the complete statewide mobilization of citizens has been what has made this so invigorating for us political types," said Heather Beaman, volunteer coordinator for the Measure 28 campaign. She estimated that more people have worked on the campaign. Her phone bankers have ranged from PTA groups and supporters of the Oregon Food Bank to employees of senior care units run by the Providence Health System.
The number of volunteers exploded after the state last month sent more than 63,000 notices to social-service recipients and care providers warning of benefit reductions starting Feb. 1.
The notices also sparked numerous news stories around the state about people who would be hurt if Measure 28 failed.
"The fact the media led with these stories made it less hype and more real," said Lisa Grove, a Portland pollster who has worked with the unions.
She said the campaign now reminds her more of a local property-tax election revolving around specific services.
That's left opponents frustrated.
They say the state won't really follow through on those cuts, which they charge were made for their maximum political impact.
State officials deny that, saying the large number of cuts for schools and services are necessary because the budget shortfall is so concentrated at the end of the budget cycle.
Opponents distracted at times "The dynamics of this campaign have truly been one-of-a-kind," said J.L. Wilson, who heads the Oregon chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business.
"I've never seen anything that was written off so widely come back and have legs," he said. "Nobody thought it had a chance."
Wilson said he saw no reason for his group to get involved in the campaign, even though a survey of his members showed 85 percent opposed to the measure.
Some groups expected to be high-profile opponents were caught sleeping. For example, the Oregon Republican Party, preoccupied with an internal fight over the party leadership, never took a formal stand on the measure.
The party's new chairman, Kevin Mannix, has been sending out recorded phone calls to Republicans urging them to vote and saying there are alternatives to the cuts if Measure 28 fails.
Opponents were "the lastest with the leastest instead of the firstest with the mostest," said Mannix, who argued against Measure 28 during his campaign for governor.
At this point, the Libertarian Party and the Taxpayer Association of Oregon have started their own radio advertising, but at a much lower level than the proponents.
A recent poll showing the race was a dead heat has helped wake up opponents, said Richard Burke, executive director of the Libertarian Party of Oregon.
"I think it will fail," said Burke. "Having said that, I won't be in the least surprised if it passes. It will be close."
Supporters said passage of Measure 28 may push legislators and Gov. Ted Kulongoski to move more quickly on finding a more stable tax system for the state. Kulongoski said he wants to first work to make government more efficient before trying to make major tax changes or seek more revenue.
"What I hope comes out of this is the sense on the part of 90 legislators and the governor that this is the time for tax reform," said Ellen Lowe, a social-services lobbyist.