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Vol 1 No. 1                       November 4, 2004 

The Machine
An investigative report
By Hart Williams

Part One

Oregon has a national reputation: this is the land of the bottle bill, the primary, the ballot initiative, Death With Dignity and all the rest. A haven of progressive politics, nowhere more so than here in what crypto-Fascist talk show thug Lars Larson calls "The People's Republic of Eugene."

Would that it were so.

Instead, Eugene and its Siamese twin-sister, Springfield, are run by a Gordian knot of Democratic insiders, an In-crowd of inbred self-interests generally trumping any claim to activities in the "Public Interest." Whenever one is challenged, they call in a political hitman from Seattle, known for his dirty campaign tactics, as they slush their funds between the endless "Friends of" PACs and gleefully accept campaign contributions from the Casino Indians, Budweiser, waste companies in Houston and unions in Washington State.

In one prominent case, a local senator has been "endorsed" by the local newspaper time and time again, without the newspaper's ONCE mentioning that her husband works there in a managerial position. Conflict of interest? Naw. That's just Eugene.

Where to begin? Let's just grab a single strand of the tangled skein and see where it leads. Take the case of Dr. Phil Barnhart.

In 1994, Dr. Phil Barnhart, psychologist and lawyer, decided to run for the local school board. Barnhart is a pleasant fellow, goateed and balding, a touch portly, he seems to have the Dale Carnagie technique down pat: always greets you pleasantly, no matter what his actual opinion of you. It's a technique, often used by successful politicians and actors, and, given the relative lack of polish or politesse among Lane County politicos, he's been very successful at it.

Barnhart's approach to the election was to buy $15,000 in ads in Eugene REGISTER-GUARD, the local "newspaper of record," and run them every day until the election. This was unusual in a town where a school board election cost of $1000 was considered normal, and $2000 was considered high. Barnhart won.

By 2000, Dr. Phil Barnhart was a member of the Lane 4j School Board, and a 'resume' Democrat within the Democratic Party of Lane County -- someone who wants a position for their resume without actually doing much work in that position. He'd unsuccessfully been a candidate for appointment to Sen. Pete Sorenson's old seat when Sorenson moved to the County Commission, but didn't make it as of the final three nominees that the Democratic nominating convention chose. Susan Castillo eventually got the nod -- one of a majority of local politicians to rise via appointment, rather than by election.

Barnhart, instead, took the position of Rules Chair under then-County Chair Jim Edmunson. When Edmunson moved to State Democratic Chair in 1999, Barnhart, enthusiastically endorsed by Edmunson, was elected Lane County Democratic Party Chair. Barnhart's leadership of the DPLC was, to be charitable, unfocused and chaotic. In concert with the party's Secretary and office manager, Barnhart decided to run for South Eugene's House District (then HD40). 

Barnhart became obsessed with making sure that he won, and contributed $24,418 of his total of $73,862 to his own coffers, nearly half via a contribution by his wife, listed under "Homemakers/Non-income earners" with another $4000 in contributions from the Van Meters of Lexington, Kentucky, most of whom are listed as homemakers. 

Barnhart won with over 60% of the vote in a cakewalk in a heavily Democratic district, but had refused to give up his office as County Chair, with the office effectively closed and locked through the 2000 Election, because the office manager moved to his home office to run his campaign. By comparison, Floyd Prozanski would spend $20,931 in 2002 for essentially the same seat and win by an even larger margin. This didn't stop Barnhart's PAC from making substantial contributions to other local Democrats' PAC's -- $5000 to Vicky Walker's House campaign (the 2000 war chest champ with $210,173).

Barnhart's Republican opponent in 2000, Dr. Bill Young, spent $2,764.56.

After the election, Barnhart didn't want to give up his seat on the School Board, and had to be pressured by the board members to step down. Phil's first concern, one might conclude, was his resume.

As a member of the House minority, Barnhart's effect on legislation was minimal. Then, in 2002, redistricted into the new House District 11, Barnhart faced incumbent Al King, a rural Democrat and colleague. 

As has become the increasing, secret trend in Willamette Valley Democratic politics, Barnhart hired Seattle hitmeister Michael Grossman and his "Fifty Plus One" firm to handle his election. Barnhart spent $76,250 to King's $76,390, both with heavy financial contributions from the candidates themselves. But Barnhart had Grossman on his side, and Grossman is known for dirty politics.

In what the SEATTLE TIMES called one of the dirtiest campaigns in memory, Michael Grossman got relative unknown David Della elected to the Seattle City Council in 2003. Seattle alternative newspaper THE STRANGER wrote: "'[Della's] campaign [strategy], from the beginning, was to get elected by any means necessary,' says Wills' campaign consultant, John Wyble. 'I have never seen a candidate more determined to get on the city council, and he was willing to cross some lines that I wouldn't cross to get there.' " Well, at least Grossman was. And Grossman was handling Barnhart's campaign against King. 

In an infamous mailing that was only targeted to the South Eugene environmentalist market, King was painted as an anti-environmentalist, with the ultimate effect that the Eugene WEEKLY wrote: "Barnhart holds a 100 percent Oregon League of Conservation Voters rating -- stellar in comparison to his Democratic competitor Al King's 47 percent. King is being touted as 'a moderate Democrat.' Right now, we need Barnhart's strength of convictions more than Democratic moderation." 

The whispering campaign was highly effective: Barnhart won handily. King, Barnhart's peer in the House Democratic caucus, was, by all reports, emotionally devastated, withdrawing from public life for the past two years.

With no real competition in the 2002 general election, Barnhart continued with Grossman, but contributed thousands of dollars to the campaigns of other local Democrats through his 'Friends of Barnhart' PAC. Armenta Hawkins shared space in the Coordinated Campaign office, recruited by FuturePac (the Democratic Leadership's PAC) to run against Republican City Council member Pat Farr. In one intriguing transaction, Barnhart contributed $5000 to FuturePac. The following day, across the hall, Hawkins received $7100 from FuturePac in two checks. 

That legislative session, Barnhart authored two bills, one for Oregon State Government computers to look to using "open source" software (i.e. LINUX). Both bills died in committee.

In 2004, Barnhart faced no primary opposition, and was doing his part to enter the Democratic House Leadership. He recruited Rich Cunningham to run against Pat Farr. Cunningham had been gearing up to run for County Commissioner in December 2003, but Phil convinced him to run for the River Road/Junction City seat. Then Pat Farr left the race, announcing that his wife, Deb, would take his place, as he took the position as head of Food for Lane County.

Weeks before the March 2004 primary filing deadline, Cunningham began to hear rumors that the House leadership and Barnhart were trying to recruit a woman to run against Deb Farr. Cunningham, evidently, had been cursed with the wrong genitalia, and was, therefore, disqualified from running, even though he'd shifted his entire campaign fundraising operation, in action since late 2003. Andrea Ortiz informed Cunningham that Barnhart had tried to recruit her, but she was running her own, successful campaign for city council. Others were contacted, with former Junction City Mayor Bev Ficek finally filing 48 hours before the deadline.

Cunningham was angry. The House Democrats (who, through Future PAC increasingly control who is and isn't elected to Democratic House seats) and Barnhart, Cunningham felt, had stabbed him in the back. He made his charge to the REGISTER-GUARD, who contacted Barnhart for comment.

On March 12, 2004 the R-G reported: "Barnhart said Cunningham was not 'recruited' as the Democrats (sic) top choice to run, and that he was angry that the party had continued to encourage others to get into the race for the party's nomination."

In the 2004 General Election (undecided as this goes to press), Barnhart and his opponent are more or less evenly matched in contributions as of October 21: Barnhart has $97,416.87 and his Republican opponent, Michael P. Spasaro has garnered $115,046.56. Barnhart has again retained Michael Grossman and Fifty Plus One of Seattle.

Phil Barnhart isn't atypical of Lane County Democratic politicians. The main themes of seeking advancement through appointment, Grossman, shuffling monies between campaigns, owing allegiance to the House and Senate Democratic leadership, along with a county party that seems more like a singles bar for politicians trolling for available seats than a "grass-roots" political organization are often repeated.

Is this Public service or self-service?


A member of the National Writers Union, AFLCIO, Hart Williams has been in print since 1973, and has written for THE WASHINGTON POST, THE KANSAS CITY STAR, THE SANTA FE SUN, THE LOS ANGELES TIMES, THE OREGONIAN and many others.