E-mails show speaker pressed hard on tax votes

SALEM — Judy Miller, the executive director of the Oregon Head Start Association, e-mailed some of her members Jan. 21 about a phone call she received from House Speaker Dave Hunt.

It was, Miller says, unlike any conversation with a lawmaker she'd ever had about the pre-kindergarten program for low-income kids. And she's not the only one who thinks something new might be going on.

Some observers say Salem is seeing a new level of hardball politics, prompted by hard feelings over last month's campaign over tax Measures 66 and 67.

The phone call to Miller followed up on exchanges in which the Democratic leader from Clackamas County advised the group to come out in support of the tax measures and to seek a lobbyist other than Mark Nelson.

Nelson managed the campaign against the tax increase measures. He is a lobbyist for many entities, including Deschutes County and Head Start.

Citing its desire to stay out of divisive fights, Head Start declined to support the measures or fire Nelson. Hunt warned Miller the 2011 session would be rough.

Hunt "indicated that we had drawn a big bull's-eye' around ourselves in the event that (the tax measures) don't pass," Miller said in her e-mail.

"He said we have isolated ourselves by not taking a position (on the measures) and that others did step up. He said that 2011 will be a real challenge for us."

Miller's e-mail and others shed light on allegations of payback in Salem these days.

Last week, Hunt dismissed the allegations as "whining." He denied that Democrats were pushing bills to punish groups that contributed to the anti-tax campaign, and he denied urging Nelson's clients to fire him.

"These allegations are all bark and no bite," he said. Hunt said he gave Nelson's clients advice about the lobbyist's effectiveness only when they asked for it.

However, e-mails Nelson provided portray a more aggressive role by Hunt. They depict a sustained effort, including several e-mails and conversations, to persuade Head Start to endorse the measures and fire Nelson.

In September, when a Harney County Head Start official, Donna Schnitker, e-mailed Hunt to thank him for supporting Head Start last year, he responded with a message noting Nelson's work on the anti-tax campaign. Hunt said if Nelson is successful, "there will be no way that Head Start can continue to be protected" from budget cuts.

On Jan. 9, he sent a Clackamas County Head Start official, Sue Elder, an e-mail saying he was following up on an earlier conversation "about Head Start's representation in Salem .... Has your association taken any action yet?"

Hunt said he did not urge anyone to fire Nelson. Rather, he merely advised them that it would be a good idea. "My approach is making sure people have a clear set of information," he said.

He acknowledged that he called the Head Start group's executive director, Miller, and predicted a rough 2011 for the group. He says he did so at the request of his local Head Start official, Elder, because they both shared concerns about Head Start's political fortunes if the measures went down and Nelson stayed the group's lobbyist.

He said he had e-mailed Miller to ask if the group had "taken any action" on Nelson because he was looking at potential budget cuts if the measures went down, and "I wanted to have a clear sense of what the challenges were going to be in terms of protecting money for Head Start."

One such obstacle, he said, would be having a lobbyist like Nelson, who "is not a credible messenger for (protecting) general funds," thanks to his anti-tax stance.

"I wanted to make sure ... that they are in the best position to be successful," he said of Head Start.

Schnitker, the Harney Head Start official, called Hunt's advice "a veiled threat. ... I was totally shocked by the whole thing." She defended the decision not to break the group's contract with Nelson, saying "he has done an amazing job for us."

Miller, the Head Start executive director, said of the call she received from Hunt, "It isn't something that I would normally expect to hear from a legislator, but also this is a democracy. People can have different opinions on things. ... I found it surprising that he would call and say that."

"I interpreted (Hunt's call) that he wasn't very happy with us and that we might not have the support that we needed from him when our issues came up in front of the Legislature."

Hunt said that interpretation is wrong — he's long been a champion of more funding for Head Start. He said that would not change, and said Democrats "are making decisions on the basis of policy."

Lobbyists differ on what the complaints about Hunt and others represent.

Len Bergstein, a longtime lobbyist with Democratic ties, said Nelson was in favor when the Republicans ran the Legislature and may just be adjusting to a new reality.

"I think everyone has to take these kinds of claims with a grain of salt," he said.

Ryan Deckert, a former Democratic state senator who heads the Oregon Business Association, said the allegation may be the product of holding a session immediately after a contentious campaign that left people raw.

When he visits the Capitol, "I can definitely feel it," he said.

Bill Lunch, an Oregon State University political science professor, said talk of payback in Salem may suggest its political culture is changing.

Nelson's allegations wouldn't even be newsworthy in places like Boston, Texas and Ohio. But in Oregon, a state without a long tradition of hardball politics, it's "pretty unusual," Lunch said.

"The difficulty here is once the people who are active and influential in the political system decide to play the payback game, or get into political retribution, it will rapidly spiral downward," Lunch said. "People can get into that kind of thing in a way that's very damaging to the capacity for the political system to find compromises."

Lunch said a good example of this is California, where elected leaders have been paralyzed by a budget crisis and partisanship.

"If the expectation grows that each side will retaliate against each other, they will," he added. "And that's a recipe for gridlock at an even higher level than we've already seen."

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