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2 Groups Want To Recall Gov. Kate Brown. Why Can't They Get Along?

Dirk VanderHart/OPB
Michael Cross, leader of the "Flush Down Kate Brown" campaign, collects signatures for a recall petition on Aug. 7, 2019.

In a gravel lot overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Michael Cross offers a siren song to passing motorists.

A banner taped to the grill of a rented RV behind Cross screams, “Recall Kate Here.” Yard signs crowded around him urge, “Recall Gov. Kate Brown NOW!” And ahead of him is what many believe is an impossible task: collecting more than 280,000 valid signatures by Oct 14, enough to force a vote on the fate of Oregon’s governor.

“Clearly Kate Brown really doesn’t respect the Constitution, the Bill of Rights,” says Cross, a 52-year-old former septic system technician and the divisive driving force behind a campaign called “Flush Down Kate Brown.” “People could disagree with me or whatever, but based on her actions she just doesn’t.”

Judging by the steady flow of people stopping by to sign, plenty of Oregonians would like to get rid of the governor. The problem for Cross — or at least one of the problems — is that he’s not the only game in town. After initially dismissing his effort, the Oregon Republican Party has begun its own recall campaign.

The result is a confusion that’s emblematic of the state of Republican politics in Oregon.

At a time when partisan clashing in Salem has ratcheted up enthusiasm among the GOP base, Brown’s most fervent opponents are fighting amongst themselves over two campaigns rather than uniting on one — with accusations of lawbreaking and other chicanery flying back and forth.

“I’m giving this a zero chance of being successful,” says Dan Lavey, a political consultant who has run campaigns for moderate Republicans in Oregon, including former U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith. “This is a Hail Mary pass that is going to go ridiculously out of bounds.”

Two Petitions

Cross says he began his work in February, not long after the Oregon Legislature convened with new Democratic supermajorities pushing an ambitious and decidedly progressive legislative agenda.

One online video depicts Cross, goateed and wearing a fluorescent yellow vest, instructing viewers on the best way to sign up interested people for the campaign’s mailing list.

“The first step is to get 40,000 volunteers,” he says with the certainty of an old campaign hand.

Cross does have some electoral experience, and some experience with recalls. In 2006, he says he ran an effort to boot then-Lincoln County District Attorney Bernice Barnett. He often describes working on another campaign to recall a Marion County judge around the same time.

Neither effort resulted in a recall election, yet Cross claims victory.

“This will be my third successful recall,” he told OPB, sitting in the rented RV. “And when I say ‘successful,’ I mean the people that hired me were happy with the results.”

For this campaign, Cross isn’t working for anyone else, though he’s hoping to claim nearly $13,000 for his work from the campaign fund if there’s money left afterward.

Cross has also worked on signature-gathering efforts out of state. Court recordsshow that he was arrested in 2000 outside an El Paso shopping mall while attempting to collect signatures to get Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan, a former staffer for presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, on the Texas presidential ballot.

“Mall officials asked Cross to leave, and when he refused to do so, they called the police,” reads a decision in which Texas appeals court judges affirmed his conviction for criminal trespass.

By this year — not long after running an unsuccessful write-in campaign to become mayor of Turner — Cross was after Brown. He came to believe, he says, that she was “paid for by the corporate cronies” and ignored the will of many Oregonians.

Cross filed a recall petition on July 15, the first day allowed under Oregon elections rules. His Facebook page suggested tens of thousands of people were behind him, and he told OPB at the time that he’d collected thousands in donations.

But that same day, the state GOP filed its own petition to recall the Democratic governor — offering strikingly similar reasons for wanting Brown recalled.

“The people of Oregon deserve and expect a Governor that honors the will of the voters and works for the good of all citizens, not just special interests and politically motivated agendas,” Oregon Republican Party Chair Bill Currier wrote in his submission.

He laid out a list of grievances that included Brown signing a new law providing undocumented immigrants with driver’s licenses, her “failed” efforts to address Oregon’s pension woes and a high-profile push by Democrats to address climate change by charging large polluters for their greenhouse gas emissions. The climate change proposal failed this year, and Brown has threatened to create the policy via executive order, if lawmakers won’t act.

“That is not the Oregon way,” Currier wrote.

Cross’s petition for a recall also included references to the law allowing people to register driver’s licenses without showing proof of legal presence — a policy voters shot down resoundingly in 2014, before President Trump was elected and immigration became such a political hot topic. And Cross, like Currier, raised objections to the state’s huge pension debt and a $1 billion annual business tax for education passed under Brown this year.

Cross’ group and the GOP agree on another thing, too: That the time has never been more ripe to recall Brown. But rather than working in tandem, the two groups have sniped at one another.

“The only opposition we’ve faced is from the GOP,” Cross says. “At times it seems to me that we’re trying to recall a Republican governor, and I really don’t understand what the heck’s going on. I mean, they’ve attacked me personally. They’ve attacked the organization.”

A registered Republican, Cross strongly suggests that the GOP effort could be a feint meant to keep Brown in office. He bristles at adversarial Facebook posts calling his trustworthiness into question, including one by Baker County’s Republican party chapter that laid out a somewhat lengthy history in court.

Records cited by the group show that Cross has felony assault and criminal mistreatment convictions in Oregon, at least 10 civil lawsuits naming him or his former businesses, and a 2015 bankruptcy filing.

“We cannot in all good conscience encourage signing both petitions,” the July 18 post from the county chapter said, “as there is no guarantee how your personal information will be used.”

To be clear, there are people enthusiastically pushing both petitions. Some GOP chapters are making both available for signature.

Cross’s group, though, banned anyone from publicizing a signature-gathering event on its Facebook page if the Republican Party petition would be offered — a decision tied partly to Cross’ insistence that his effort is nonpartisan.

“For us to carry their stupid petition would be us saying, ‘We’re a bunch of frickin’ idiots,’” Cross said in an Aug. 15 Facebook video.

'The Political Landscape Changed Dramatically'

Cross wasn’t always so dismissive of his own party. Just two months before that video dispatch, he was actively recruiting the GOP for his effort.

In a June 14 exchange, Cross e-mailed Jeff Heyen, chair of the Marion County Republicans, to ask for time to present the recall at the chapter’s upcoming meeting. Heyen responded curtly, telling Cross the agenda was too full for him to speak, and making clear the Republican Party did not support the petition.

Almost exactly a month later, the party had filed its own petition against the governor. Heyen told OPB that circumstances changed in the days after his response to Cross.

“At the time, there was not enough support to make it happen,” he said.

During the final weeks of the Legislative session, 11 Republican senators fled the Capitol in order to block House Bill 2020, the Democrats’ bill for regulating greenhouse gas emissions by capping emissions and charging polluters. The walkout spurred threats of arrest by the governor and inspired a massive rally in support of the senators by loggers, truckers and farmers organized by the fledgling Timber Unity group.

Once the GOP senators did return, Democrats were able to push through a torrent of bills opposed by many Republicans in the final two days of the 2019 session. That list included the law granting undocumented immigrants driving privileges, a bill limiting the use of online petitions for ballot initiatives and a bill that narrowed Oregon’s death penalty.

Republicans credit all of these factors — along with lingering anger over a failed attempt to tighten state immunization standards and Brown’s threat to issue an executive order on climate change — with firing up their base. One possible sign that conservative-minded Oregonians are frustrated enough to mobilize: State elections officials saw an unusually large number of voters register with the GOP in July.

“The political landscape changed dramatically toward the end of the session,” Currier told OPB. “There’s an incredible opportunity to harness that energy.”

Currier said the Republican Party is ready to spend upward of $100,000 on a recall. Asked why the GOP didn’t join up with Cross, Heyen demurred.

“I am not going to go down the road of publicly bashing anyone other than to say that my team did not feel confident in Mr. Cross and his organization to be a viable entity,” he said. “He is not the type of person that me, as a responsible party chair, is going to enter into any kind of work with.”

The concerns aren’t limited to party officials. A rift in the Flush Down Kate Brown campaign has emerged in the last month, with some of the movement’s central supporters splitting with Cross — and now speaking against him.

“We just can’t get behind both petitions anymore due to all the illegal activity,” said Laura Aho, a Jackson County resident who helps run a Facebook group that formerly served as the main hub for Flush Down Kate Brown. “It’s just wrong. Wrong.”

Shiloe Weston, the treasurer for one of Cross’s two PACs, posted a video online on Aug. 24 in which she called on Cross to step down. Weston described what she called questionable spending, including Cross purchasing a camera and paying for phone service with campaign funds. She said the group, Oregon First! PAC, was in debt without the ability to pay its bills.

“Michael Cross is a bully,” Weston said.

Meanwhile, other petition supporters have applauded Cross for his activism. Cross himself has consistently defended his actions as appropriate, and waved away criticisms.

“Weird things happen in recall campaigns,” he said in a meeting with Lincoln County supporters in early August, referencing the departures of a former campaign treasurer and administrator. “Our numbers are impressive. In spite of all the baloney, we’re still getting it done.”

That’s not the picture presented by campaign finance disclosures.

Despite Cross’ boasting in July about thousands of dollars in existing donations, and a related GoFundMe account that has raised $850, the Flush Down Kate Brown PAC has reported just $100 in cash contributions dating back to June 24. The Oregon First! PAC has reported $1,224 in donations. At the same time, Cross’ effort has reported spending more than $7,250.

Under state law, the committees have seven calendar days from the time of a contribution or expenditure to report the transaction.

The Secretary of State’s Office, which regulates campaign finance law, acknowledged that it has received campaign finance complaints that were being looked at. Cross said in an Aug. 22 interview that his campaign had raised around $18,000 and that he’d thought his campaign’s financial reporting was up to date. He said he’d look into discrepancies.

Meanwhile, a political action committee affiliated with the Republican Party recall effort has reported cash contributions of more than $7,000 — a long way from the kind of money Currier has envisioned spending. Of those contributions, $5,500 is from a single check written by a Portland property manager. The committee also reported owing more than $12,000 for printed material, and spending thousands more on postage.

'A Very Challenging Task'

Supporters of a recall find a lot of things to dislike about Brown. Lincoln City voters raised concerns ranging from a new tax on business, to the state’s pension fund and foster care systems, to worries about new gun controls.

Two issues — immigrant driving privileges and the proposed greenhouse gas regulations — seemed to hold special sway.

“She’s letting illegals drive,” a woman named Barbara Hopkins said after signing the petition. “And then to top it all off is this ‘green’ stuff that she’s trying to push through.”

However strong those feelings are, the arithmetic of Oregon recalls makes a successful campaign extremely difficult.

In order to force an election to recall Brown, her detractors need to collect 280,050 signatures — equal to 15% of votes cast in last year’s governor’s race — in just three months. That’s more than twice the signatures required to force a vote on a constitutional amendment in Oregon, in perhaps a quarter of the time.

Since some signatures are inevitably ruled invalid, campaign experts say upwards of 330,000 will be required before a campaign can feel secure. But the fact that there are two petitions circulating raises the difficulty level for organizers; voters are more likely to mistakenly sign the same petition twice.

“Recalls generally are focused around malfeasance — breaking the law and unethical behavior,” says Lavey, the campaign consultant to Republican campaigns, who last year dropped his own registration with the party. “Merely trying to recall an elected official based on policy differences isn’t going to work.”

Currier, the GOP chairman, concedes his effort is “a very challenging task.” One of his lieutenants uses stronger terms.

“We acknowledge it’s a long shot,” said Heyen, the Marion County GOP leader. “That means ‘extremely difficult, might not even be able to be done.’”

Democrats, meanwhile, have largely ignored the effort.

“I’m not sure what about the will of the voters they don’t understand,” Brown said this week. “I’ve had two elections in the last three years.”

KC Hanson, chair of the Democratic Party of Oregon, said the state party is “looking at important issues, and we’re not looking to get in a tiddlywinks fight with the GOP.” A spokesman for the Democratic Governors Association said only that he hadn’t heard of the recall attempts.

Both petition campaigns, though, say their efforts are on track.

As of mid August, Flush Down Kate Brown reported collecting 70,000 signatures. If that’s accurate, and that momentum can be sustained, petitioners could be on pace to gather enough signatures to qualify for a November or December special election.

But even if either group does collect enough signatures, they face another enormous hurdle: actually recalling Brown.

The governor won reelection last year against a credible opponent — former state Rep. Knute Buehler — and continues raising large amounts of money even though she’s barred by term limits from seeking reelection. Oregon Republicans may be angry at the governor, but the state still leans heavily Democratic — especially in the areas where most voters live.

“If it gets on the ballot then it is a difficult slog through the next part,” said Julie Parrish, a former Republican state representative who has also worked as a consultant for conservative candidates and initiatives. “Multnomah County still gets to vote. I think it’s a big hurdle.”

Then there is the matter of what would happen if Brown were actually recalled. Normally, the Secretary of State would ascend to the office, but the constitution likely prevents that in this case.

Secretary of State Bev Clarno was appointed to her seat by Brown after the death of fellow Republican Dennis Richardson earlier this year. Even Clarno believes that, as an appointee, she’s barred from taking over for Brown. If that’s correct, State Treasurer Tobias Read, a Democrat, would ascend.

A National Symptom

Recalls are a popular form of political protest right now. 

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, also a Democrat, faces a recall effort from the right over new laws around gun control and oil and gas regulations. In Alaska, voters are attempting to recall Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy over steep budget cuts he’s enacted. New Jersey Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy faces a recall attempt based on immigration and taxes. There’s also a recall effort against California Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Taken in this context, the efforts to unseat Brown look more like a symptom of the nation’s fractured and highly partisan politics than the unique circumstances of one small state.

Joshua Spivak, a senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College, ties the current rash of recalls in part to Republicans’ weak showing in the 2018 elections.

“Part of what may be happening is a channeling of the anger from the Republican base,” said Spivak, who has studied recalls for more than two decades. “You're able to channel that into an effort of a recall: getting signatures, getting upset when it fails, raising funds, keeping everybody engaged and active.”

In Oregon, Republicans reeled last year after losing what looked like their most competitive gubernatorial contest in years and giving up supermajorities in both houses of the Legislature.

In the aftermath of those losses, some Republicans openly debated whether the party had a viable future in the state. One legislative leader compared his members to “speed bumps.”

If Spivak is correct, a recall — successful or no — might be just what Republicans need to gain momentum heading into the 2020 campaigns.

“The bottom line,” Currier told OPB, “is this is an opportunity for these disaffected citizens to demand accountability.”

But there’s another possibility too: That confusion and distrust caused by the dueling recall efforts will damage both the attempt to get rid of Brown and the enthusiasm Cross saw in Lincoln City.

If that’s occurred to Republican leaders, or the party activists now opposing them, they’re not letting on.

Copyright 2019 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.