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Timber Unity Recall Effort Against Oregon Coastal Democrat Comes Up Short

<p>A man holds a Timber Unity sign at a rally at the state Capitol in Salem in June.</p>

David Stuckey

A man holds a Timber Unity sign at a rally at the state Capitol in Salem in June.

For the third time this year, the recall is off.

The group Timber Unity announcedWednesday that it had failed to force a recall election of state Rep. Tiffiny Mitchell, D-Astoria. The group “fell short” of collecting the required 4,883 signatures within Mitchell’s Democrat-leaning coastal district, it said in a statement on Facebook hours before the 5 p.m. deadline for submitting petitions.

“I think we underestimated how many voters in this district feel left behind, so much so that they don’t feel their vote or signature matters,” Darren Mead, the owner of an Astoria sign-printing business and the recall effort's chief petitioner, said in a written statement. “We will continue to work on changing that.”

Timber Unity’s release did not say how many signatures it had collected since the effort began 90 days ago. Mead did not return a request for comment.

News of the recall’s failure comes less than two months after two separate efforts to force a recall election of Gov. Kate Brown also failed to garner enough signatures. Both efforts revolved around the policy records of Mitchell and Brown, rather than the misdeeds or scandals that typically prompt recalls.

In Brown’s case, petitioners needed to collect more than 280,000 valid signatures statewide, a high hurdle that had caused most observers to conclude those petitions were doomed to fail.

But the effort to recall Mitchell gave some Democrats heartburn. They worried that opponents would be able to collect the relatively low number of required signatures to force a recall, and could seek to replicate the strategy in other districts.

Instead, it seems Timber Unity — a fledgling political organization that played a role in killing Democrats’ sweeping climate change bill earlier this year — has failed in an early test of its political might.

Mitchell, a freshman state representative, said Wednesday she was “relieved” to learn the petition didn’t succeed.

“The folks behind the petition have their concerns about the votes that I took,” said Mitchell, referring, among other things, to her support for bills to regulate greenhouse gas emissions and tax businesses to pay for schools. “Very clearly I ran on those issues. That’s pretty well documented.”

House Majority Leader Barbara Smith Warner, D-Portland, issued a statement calling the recall threat an “assault on our democracy.”

“Voters know that recall elections should only be used when absolutely necessary, not just because one side is upset about the outcome of an election,” Smith Warner said in the statement.

In announcing the recall’s failure, Timber Unity accused Mitchell and her allies of “unethical behavior,” including paying for online ads and mailers opposing the recall without properly reporting the expenses to state elections officials. The group also suggested the chief of staff for state Rep. Janelle Bynum, D-Happy Valley, had been sent as a “spy” to one of its events.

Mitchell acknowledged Wednesday that “there were a lot of people who were interested in the outcome of all this,” but said efforts to oppose the recall were not officially associated with her campaign.

At least some spending in opposition to the recall came from Future PAC, a political action committee affiliated with House Democrats. 

"It shouldn't be a surprise to anybody that Future PAC was working in support of one of our caucus members," said Hannah Love, the group's executive director. 

According to campaign finance transactions reported as of Wednesday, Future PAC spent more than $31,000 beating back the recall since Sept. 27. Those expenses were reported as in-kind donations to Mitchell's campaign committee.

The campaign committee established for the recall, meanwhile, reported receiving roughly $16,800 for the effort, nearly all of it from Timber Unity.

Despite his effort’s failure, Mead suggested Wednesday the recall could lead to changes in a district where registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by more than 3,000.

“We already have folks lining up to run for her seat next year, and it hasn’t stopped there,” he said. “Now Timber Unity members are stepping up to get involved on city and county levels too. We have Tiffiny Mitchell’s awful vote record to thank for that.”

Copyright 2019 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Dirk VanderHart is JPR's Salem correspondent reporting from the Oregon State Capitol. His reporting is funded through a collaboration among public radio stations in Oregon and Washington that includes JPR.