In Oregon’s primary election this past Tuesday, Andy Stahl, who frequently comments on this blog, lost his bid to become Lane County (Oregon) commissioner. It is hard for me to tell this story, as I am one of the reasons he lost.
His opponent was Pete Sorenson, a four-term incumbent. I’ve known Pete for about as long as I’ve known Andy (meaning 35 years), and while I can’t say we were friends, we were always friendly. In the late 1970s he worked for Oregon Congressman Jim Weaver and I worked (as a very low-paid consultant) for the Oregon Wilderness Coalition (now Oregon Wild) helping Weaver’s staff justify their boss’s support for wilderness even though he represented the congressional district that cut more national forest timber than any other.
In the early 1980s, Sorenson went to the University of Oregon law school, and I frequently saw him on campus when I was studying economics. Over the next several decades, we would meet at conferences or bump into each other in Eugene and exchange war stories about various environmental issues. When I started proposing free-market reforms of the Forest Service in the late 1980s, he always listened politely and expressed sympathy with my growing fiscal conservatism.
Recently, however, Pete got in trouble over Oregon’s open meetings law. Apparently, he and one or two other county commissioners conspired to make certain budgetary decisions in private against the advice of the county attorney. In a sharply worded decision, an Oregon judge found that Pete and another commissioner “willfully violated” the law, though he found the third commissioner innocent. Neither of the guilty commissioners ever expressed any contrition or remorse, instead insisting they were being persecuted as the most liberal members of the commission.
This angered many of Pete’s constituents. As one of them told me, “someone who abuses the power of government reduces people’s faith in government. Liberal Democrats don’t like to see that happen because they want to believe that government can work.” One of those liberal Democrats, a member of the Oregon state legislature, happens to be a cyclist, and on a long bike ride he persuaded Andy to run against Pete.
Andy has had a varied career: after graduating from the Oregon State University College of Forestry a few years after I did, he briefly worked for the Forest Service training forest planners, then got a job with Associated Oregon Loggers. At the time, I published a magazine called Forest Planning, and he wrote a couple of articles for the magazine. Since I was a known environmentalist, his articles caused controversy among industry lobbying groups, and he resigned his job to save face for his employer.
He soon took a job with the National Wildlife Federation and later the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund. In those jobs he crafted the environmentalists’ successful legal strategy for saving spotted owls and old-growth forests, leading him to be hung in effigy by angry timber industry workers. Later he became director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics. In all of his jobs, he has done incredible work representing the interests of his employers.
While I’ve known both Pete and Andy for about the same number of years, Andy is a true friend, someone who I’ve called my best friend. While we’ve been rivals at times, this rivalry spurred both of us to do better.
Unlike me, Andy is no libertarian. While he understands the value of free markets, I would describe him as a pure pragmatist, willing to use any tool that will accomplish his objectives. The fact that he is willing to consider market-based tools makes him suspect among those environmentalists who have grown wedded to big government, but Andy is just as willing to use government tools if they will serve his clients, whether those clients are wildlife advocates, wilderness advocates, or Forest Service employees. Andy’s skill at crafting political strategies to solve complex problems is difficult to match and he is exactly the person you would want on your side if you are trying to attain some political goal.
When he announced he was running for county commissioner, I sent him a contribution. What could I do? He was my best friend. But that turned out to be a mistake, as this contribution became one of the major issues of the campaign.
Sorenson and his friends started a whispering campaign, saying that Andy was being bankrolled by the Koch Brothers-supported Cato Institute. Andy was obviously just another tool of the timber industry and the other conservative interests who were out to get Sorenson when they accused him of violating the open-meetings law. In fact, of course, many people–most of them liberal Democrats–contributed as much or more than I did.
Oregon has a vote-by-mail system, and after the ballots were mailed out (meaning after some people had already voted), Sorenson sent out an attack mailer accusing Stahl of being “too extreme,” citing my friendship with Andy (and the fact that I once called him a “faithful ally” in this blog) as two of the four bullet points against him. A third bullet point attacked Andy for wanting to “privatize” public lands, referring to Andy’s proposal to turn BLM lands into a trust, which was influenced by my own trust concept. Hit pieces in the Eugene Weekly focused on my libertarianism and Stahl’s guilt-by-association with me.
While the Weekly endorsed Sorenson, the far larger Eugene Register-Guard endorsed Stahl. “It’s not just that Pete Sorenson participated in an effort to exclude members of a minority on the Lane County Board of Commissioners from decision-making, a freeze-out whose consequent lawsuit cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees,” said the paper. “It’s that even after being found to have committed willful violations of the Oregon Open Meetings law, Sorenson has never acknowledged any error or expressed the slightest contrition.”
The R-G also responded to Sorenson’s “Orwellian” mailer. “If Stahl is too extreme for the Board of Commissionersâ€™ South Eugene District, so is [Eugene's liberal U.S. Representative, Peter] DeFazio,” who introduced the BLM trust measure in the House, said the paper. “So is every Lane County Democrat in the state Legislature, all of whom are supporting Stahl.”
I’d like to believe that Andy’s and my environmental credentials are impeccable. Andy’s work forced the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to save millions of acres of Pacific Northwest old-growth forests, about the only federal forest timber sales that indisputably made money. My work on below-cost sales in the rest of the National Forest System contributed to the nationwide reduction of Forest Service timber sales from 11 billion board feet in 1990 to around 2.5 billion board feet per year today. But Sorenson, desperate to distract attention from his own problems, needed issues that he could use against Stahl, and I became one of those issues.
Oregon has a vote-by-mail system, and I suspect the earliest votes to be filed are counted first. One minute after the polls closed, the vote count showed Sorenson beating Stahl by a small margin. But his margin grew, and if the later-counted votes were the ones filed after Sorenson’s attack mailing, then the mailer may have played a role in this growing margin. So, while it seems Andy might have lost even if I hadn’t made the contribution, the contribution did him no favors.
The Register-Guard called Sorenson’s attacks “Orwellian,” but it would be more accurate to trace them to Joseph McCarthy’s guilt-by-association campaigns in the early 1950s. I used to respect liberal Democrats for their resistance to such ad hominem attacks, but at least some of them are perfectly happy to use the same techniques to stay in power.
Though he puts on a good face, I am sure Andy is taking this a lot harder than I am. But most of all I wish we could make democracy work better. Everyone knows politics are dirty. But somehow they seem a lot dirtier when you are the one getting covered in mud.