Relations strained between local lawmakers, chamber

Fallout from the last legislative session has strained relations between two Democratic legislators from Jackson County and the Medford chamber of commerce.

Rep. Peter Buckley of Ashland sent the chamber a strongly worded e-mail on Aug. 14, criticizing the organization tor taking a partisan stance that he characterized as sometimes personal — an accusation that surprised chamber officials say is untrue.

“I read through chamber publications and there is a consistent demonization of Democratic politicians, like (Sen. Alan) Bates and myself,” he said. “I did not deal with a more partisan group than the Medford chamber of commerce.”

Bates, an Ashland Democrat, agrees with Buckley’s comments, saying he had several hostile conversations with chamber members.

Brad Hicks, chief executive officer of the Chamber of Medford/Jackson County, said he is confused by what he describes as unfounded accusations.

He said he only remembers the two legislators being treated with respect, though many of the chamber members disagreed with their position on tax increases.

“If anybody is being attacked here it might be us,” he said. “I’m still kind of flabbergasted by the whole thing.”

Hicks said he can understand Buckley being under stress after tackling a very difficult legislative session, but he said the chamber is obligated to take a stance on issues — particularly tax increases — that could have a profound effect on local businesses.

He said this stance shouldn’t be construed by the legislators as partisan, but rather pro-business. He said the chamber often sides with Democrats on issues as well, noting he had received a thank-you note from the governor’s office over the chamber’s support for a transportation bill that will help build a Highway 62 bypass.

Hicks said the chamber took exception to tax increases on corporations and the wealthy because they could result in an estimated loss of about 70,000 jobs.

“I represent a bunch of folks that think that is unacceptable,” said Hicks. “Economic prosperity starts one person at a time. It all starts with a job.”

The e-mail from Buckley came after the chamber invited the representative to present a position on why the tax increases should be supported, Hicks said.

Buckley said his e-mail was written out of a sense of frustration with what he perceived as the chamber’s mistakes in its approach and understanding of the legislative process.

In the e-mail addressed to both Hicks and John Watt, the chamber’s lobbyist, Buckley said, “At this point, you are clearly partisan at all times while holding a pretense that you are not. This makes it extremely difficult for a Democratic legislator, no matter how much I want to find common ground, to see you as a credible stakeholder in the legislative process.”

Buckley said the chamber didn’t give enough credit to legislators for creating jobs through the transportation bill as well as the new education building in downtown Medford. An expansion of the Oregon Health Plan to cover more kids would result in more jobs, even though it was opposed by the chamber, he said. In addition, thousands of jobs such as teachers, state police, corrections workers and court personnel were saved by difficult decisions made by the Legislature, he said.

Buckley said he has no problem with people disagreeing with his policy, but he said the kind of rhetoric coming out of the chamber branded him as an uncaring politician who did not work hard enough.

The August 2009 chamber newsletter cites Buckley and Bates as playing a key role in increases in taxes, giving them the lowest marks of any local legislator for their votes on tax bills opposed by the chamber.

In the newsletter, it describes Bates as a legislator who presents himself as a moderate who supports business, but made a dramatic plea for tax increases on the Senate floor.

In the newsletter, Hicks stated, “It was as though the only jobs that Salem seemed to think were worth saving or even supporting were ones that draw a state paycheck. They didn’t want to consider the impact on businesses and their employees. They just needed someone to tax and didn’t seem to understand or care about the real economic impact of those decisions.”

Buckley said he took exception to the pointed language Hicks used in the newsletter, which he perceived as a personal attack on Bates and him.
“To say we don’t care — I’m saying why are you doing this?” he said.

Watt said he has a very different memory of the conversations chamber members had with the two legislators during conference calls.

“There were absolutely, and I emphasize absolutely, no personal attacks,” he said. “I was stunned to hear that accusation that it was personal.”

Watt said he was at every one of the phone meetings and he heard lots of frustration about some of the issues, but nothing approaching hostility.

“If someone doesn’t agree with policy, is that personal?” he said.

In Buckley’s e-mail, the legislator accuses Watt of partisanship because he disseminated a press release immediately after it was written by House Republicans who were critical of the corporate tax bill.

Watt, a lobbyist for many businesses, said he routinely gathers press releases from both parties that he e-mails as part of a news and opinion piece he prepares nearly every morning. The day after the Republicans sent out a press release, Democrats did likewise and Watt said he sent that out as well.

In addition, his Web site has links to different stories from both parties throughout the state, he said.

“We do not do this service on behalf of the chamber,” he said. “We do this service for the people of Oregon. It is not tied to my client.”

Watt, a former legislator, said he strives not to be labeled a Republican in his dealings as lobbyist.

Praising Buckley as a person who stands up for his beliefs, Watt said he understands legislators are exhausted after one of the most difficult sessions in recent memory.

“I highly respect those people,” he said.

Bates said the local chamber showed a lack of understanding about what was going on in Salem to craft the state budget, which was designed to preserve jobs and critical community services.

He said the chamber had no problems endorsing an increase in taxes for transportation projects that will benefit many local businesses, but objected to what he describes as a small tax increase on the very wealthy to help shore up schools and other critical services in Oregon that faced $2.5 billion in cuts.

In conversations with chamber members, he said it was taken to a personal level at times.

“It was more and more strident, with more and more anger,” he said.

He said many of the verbal attacks took place during chamber telephone conferences, where he wasn’t allowed to respond to the accusations.

“The chamber wasn’t there to be a part of the conversation in a positive way, a progressive way,” he said.

In one session with a local health care company that is a chamber member, he said, “I couldn’t get a word in edgewise. It was just strange.”

Bates said he is used to disagreeing with people who have views that are different than his own.

“I can understand political differences,” he said. “I can’t understand personal attacks.”

Chris Borovansky, a chamber board member and Jackson County fair manager, said he is surprised at the statements made by the two legislators.

In phone conversations with Buckley and chamber members, he described the give-and-take as polite.

“I thought Buckley comported himself well, and I thought chamber members comported themselves well,” he said.

In Buckley’s e-mail, he stated the chamber thought any budget cuts to county fairs was unacceptable. But Borovansky said that differed from his memory of the conversation. “We certainly expected cuts,” he said. “If he took it to mean any cuts are unacceptable, that’s not what we meant.”

Borovansky said he’s hoping the chamber and the two legislators can eventually patch up their differences.

“I hope that out of this thing, there comes renewed dialogue,” he said. “What’s important is not the dispute, but the resolution.”

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476, or e-mail

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