An epic scuffle erupted suddenly between Oregon’s Left and Oregon’s Democratic Party establishment.
On May 22nd Oregon’s Poor People’s Campaign (PPC) allied with four branches of Oregon’s Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) against Oregon’s “progressive” Governor Kate Brown, protesting her convening of a “Special Session” of the state’s legislature to give tax breaks to the wealthy.
The protest was politically significant for several reasons. Because this is election season, Oregon’s “progressives” typically keep their head down and their criticisms of the governor muted. Knowing this, Kate Brown went full Republican, assuming she’d skate through her Special Session unopposed. The governor badly miscalculated, and the Democratic Party followed her blindly into the dumpster fire she lit.
The protests gained media attention across the state, exposing the governor’s blatantly pro-wealthy bias that will follow her into election season. A powerful combination of labor and community groups came together, mobilizing hundreds of people and showcasing speakers such as the president of the NW Farm Workers Union (PCUN), the vice president of the Portland Association of Teachers, and representatives from Jobs With Justice, Portland Tenants United and several speakers from the Poor People’s Campaign.
The protest also showed that much Left criticism of the DSA and PPC is inaccurate, wherever these groups are portrayed as Left flanks of the Democratic Party. This may be true in some localities, but in Oregon the Democrats are the establishment that the DSA and PPC confronted head on, over an issue that has haunted Oregon’s labor and progressive movement for decades.
Oregon and Washington are perhaps the best examples of how broken the Democratic Party is; both states are often cited as the “most progressive” in the country, but they’re so openly ruled by the wealthy that the governor takes “urgent” action to make Oregon’s spiraling inequality yet worse.
Oregon’s tax system was already severely broken, which perpetually results in chronically underfunded state services and overcrowded classrooms, where Oregon has the 48th worst high school graduation rate in the country.
In 2012 the previous Democratic Governor, John Kitzhaber, convened a Special Session of the legislature for one corporation, Nike, to make it illegal to raise Nike’s taxes; the same deal was later extended to Oregon’s other corporate behemoth, Intel. Thus, the two biggest companies in the state are guaranteed low taxes for 30 years, helping to guarantee that the state remains starved of resources.
In 2013 the Democrats convened another Special Session, passing yet more tax breaks for big corporations that further drained $100+ million per year from Oregon’s budget. Ever since they went into effect, labor and progressive groups have wanted the 2013 tax breaks overturned, but the new tax breaks serve to deepen them, making it all the more difficult to repeal them.
Governor Kate Brown justified her current tax giveaway based on the fact that not all wealthy people benefitted from the 2013 tax breaks, and it was only “fair” to also extend the tax breaks to rich people who managed their businesses under Sole Proprietorship status.
The governor tried to pass this tax break off as a benefit for “small businesses,” but the Oregon Center for Public Policy (OCPP) showed that the tax cut was “heavily skewed in favor of the rich.” Daniel Hauser of the OCPP also spoke at the rally to explain and denounce the tax cuts.
On the lead up to the rally Portland’s DSA drafted an “Open Letter to Oregon’s Democrat Legislators” that discussed what was at stake politically. The letter includes:
“On May 21st you [Oregon Democrats] have an important decision to make, and voters will be watching… By taking this action, now, during election season, the governor is loudly signaling how she’ll govern if she is re-elected.”
It’s true that Kate Brown’s Special Session wasn’t urgent, or necessary, but rather a political stunt that was meant to prove that she could stand up to the Left in a time of “uncertainty” for business. The DSA open letter continued:
“Democrats command nearly a super-majority in the [Oregon] legislature, but this power continues to be used to prioritize the needs of the rich, and meanwhile there are simultaneous crises in Oregon over education, housing, PERS [pension system for public employees], and a lack of living wage jobs. A Special Session should be called to fix these urgent matters, not make them worse by yet more tax breaks to the rich.”
A theme of the rally against the governor’s tax cuts was, “Where’s the People’s Special Session? Where’s the special session that prioritizes the housing crisis? The education crisis?”
The Democrats shrugged off the Left criticism and voted overwhelmingly for the tax cut, the House voting 51-8 in favor. The Senate passed the measure with less support, though Oregon’s most progressive senators, Michael Dembrow and Lew Fredericks, joined hands and voted “aye” in support of the governor and the rich.
The fact that Democrats voted overwhelmingly for the tax cuts surprised many, who thought that at least the “Left” Democrats would stay principled. And indeed they were principled in their support of the wealthy and dedication to the governor.
By exposing the shenanigans of the Democrats, the Poor People’s Campaign and DSA raised consciousness around an issue that nobody else was willing or able to organize around, an issue that strikes to the core of Oregon’s deepening social crisis.
The two groups collaborated closely in organizing the rally, which may mark the beginning of an ongoing relationship that is desperately needed in Oregon and beyond. By acting independently and militantly, the Poor People’s Campaign and DSA can lead powerful coalitions capable of defending working people and fighting back against the neoliberal consensus shared by Democrats and Republicans. By doing so they’ll transcend the boring Left politics of yesterday, knowing that tomorrow is up for grabs.