Midsession calls, mailings target lawmakers

While Wayne Scott the House minority leader was engineering a floor vote to boost the number of Oregon State Police troopers, Wayne Scott the political action committee director was ordering thousands of direct-mail “hit pieces” and “robo-calls” sent to voters’ mailboxes and home telephones, all lashing their Democratic representatives for not supporting the legislation.

More than ever, legislative and campaign politics are blurring as House Republicans and their allies spend tens of thousands of dollars on mailings and automated phone calls to voters across the state in districts that could be battlegrounds in next year’s legislative elections.

There’s nothing new about parties and pressure groups putting voters to work to pass or defeat legislation.

But lawmakers from both parties say they’ve never before witnessed anything like the flurry of automated calls and blizzard of mailers going out to voters in the middle of a legislative session taking lawmakers to task after they’ve voted on legislation – and with the next election still 18 months away.

In the past three months, voters in at least nine House districts – including three with portions in Lane County – have received mailers or robo-calls criticizing their Democratic representatives for votes on Oregon State Police budgets, property rights and Measure 37, education funding and corporate taxes.

A mailer sent by the House Republicans’ Majority 2006 PAC accused Rep. Arnie Roblan, D-Coos Bay, of turning his back on voters by referring to the ballot a rewrite of Measure 37. GOP ally FreedomWorks has sent out postcards to Democratic Rep. Terry Beyer’s Springfield constituents, warning that “in the next few months, she could vote to raise another $1 billion” in taxes.

One of the most frequently targeted lawmakers has been Rep. Chris Edwards, D-Eugene. Elected in November to his first term in House District 14, Edwards broke a string of GOP wins to represent northwest Eugene and outlying areas, including Junction City.

Thanks to the House Republicans’ PAC, the Oregon Republican Party and their anti-tax lobbying ally, FreedomWorks, Edwards’ constituents have been warned he may raise their taxes by $1 billion, has voted against smaller class sizes, pushed a “costly and complicated scheme that will snatch away property rights” and “flip-flops on state police support.”

Edwards said the relentless battery of criticisms has wildly distorted his actual record.

In the cases of the state police and school funding votes, he said, Republicans attempted to bring budget bills out of committee and send them to the Senate. They were outvoted by majority Democrats who said they have every intention of passing budgets before adjournment that increase the number of highway patrol officers and allow school districts to reduce class sizes.

“I certainly wasn’t prepared for this kind of smear campaign,” said Edwards, who has responded by “just really trying to focus on getting my work done and not get distracted.”

Scott, the House’s top Republican and the man behind most of the robo-calls and mail pieces, disagrees with the notion that they constitute a smear campaign.

“It’s intended to keep their constituents updated on how their members are voting,” the Canby lawmaker said.

Jarret Hamstreet is executive director of the House Republicans’ PAC, Majority 2006, which Scott, his uncle, controls. Hamstreet said the robo-calls, hit-piece mailers and advertising have been focused almost entirely on a handful of first- and second-term Democratic representatives who were elected to moderate or “swing” districts – districts where a few Republican wins next year could put his party back in the majority it enjoyed in the House from 1991 to 2006.

From Feb. 28 to March 26, Majority 2006 reported paying $27,509 to three political operatives and advisers who have traditionally done most of their partisan political work in election years. Those payments went to Gateway Communications Inc., consultant Chuck Adams and the polling firm Moore Information. The money has paid for auto-dial calls, ads, printing, postage and polling, mainly to put out messages critical of Democratic lawmakers to their constituents, said Hamstreet, who also is chief of staff of Scott’s legislative office.

Scott said labor unions and other Democratic allies have done similar work to advance the majority party’s agenda this session and to generate constituent pressure on Republicans to support bills such as the one raising cigarette taxes to pay for children’s health care. He said the distribution of fliers in Republicans’ districts sounded as if they were just as much geared toward the next election as the current session.

Scott mentioned seven such GOP House members as examples. But among them, four said they weren’t aware of any critical robo-calls or mail pieces going into their districts.

Among the remaining handful of Republicans asked, some said the efforts to harness voter pressure came before a vote on impending legislation, apparently part of a traditional grass-roots lobbying campaign. At least two House Republicans said they were targeted by campaigns to turn voter opinion against them after they refused to vote for the cigarette tax increase. One was Rep. Bruce Hanna, R-Roseburg, who said his office got calls from constituents after receiving automated phone calls informing them Hanna had voted against the cigarette tax to expand health care to children.

Democrats and labor leaders dispute the contention that they are using the same campaign season-like tactics as the Republicans.

House Majority Leader Dave Hunt, D-Gladstone, said the biggest change in how campaign-season politics are dominating the legislative session is in how the House Republican caucus PAC is sending out hit pieces and robo-calls while the two parties are trying to work together on policy for the state.

Democrats have chosen not to respond in kind with similar campaign season-type hit pieces or robo-calls targeting Republicans this session, Hunt said. “There’s a time for campaigns, and 2008 is that time. Two-thousand-seven is a time to rebuild schools and improve the economy.”

Political scientist and commentator Jim Moore said the strategy of House Republicans has played out in recent years in other states, including California and Virginia.

Whether all this in-session voter messaging will pay off remains an unanswered question, Moore said, in part because such pre-election campaigning is still untested.

“Until we see how these districts vote when they next elect their legislators, there’s no way to say whether this is effective or not,” he said.