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Politics & Government

Oregon Senate Majority Leader Reaps Big Police Union Donations

Sen. Rob Wagner (D-OR) chairing the Oregon Senate Committee on Education during the first public hearing for Senate Bill 664 on Feb. 20, 2019.
Sen. Rob Wagner (D-OR) chairing the Oregon Senate Committee on Education during the first public hearing for Senate Bill 664 on Feb. 20, 2019.

A lobbyist for police unions in Oregon said the donations to Senate Majority Leader Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, had nothing to do with police accountability issues.

A political action committee for police unions in Oregon typically hands out campaign donations of a few hundred dollars to favored legislators. But several months ago, that PAC funneled $21,000 to state Democratic Sen. Rob Wagner, who last month became the Senate’s majority leader.

Wagner, of Lake Oswego, and police union lobbyist Michael Selvaggio both insisted that the large contribution — more than four times what the PAC had given to any other candidate since it was formed in 2017 — had nothing to do with legislation affecting the now-superheated issue of police accountability. 

Selvaggio, who works for the Oregon Coalition of Police & Sheriffs, said his group’s PAC donated heavily to Wagner because of his opposition to a 2019 bill that slightly trimmed pension benefits for public employees in the state.

“He was one of the few legislators who stood firm with us against the PERS bill,” said Selvaggio, referring to the Public Employees Retirement System. Instead of handing out numerous small contributions, the union coalition decided to support fewer members and give “more generously to those who stood with us on that issue.”

Wagner said he was the only member of the Senate Democratic leadership to vote against the 2019 PERS bill and that he thought the police unions appreciated his support for collective bargaining.  Wagner was then a majority whip.

At the same time, Wagner said he is a staunch backer of police accountability. In 2019, he voted for legislation aimed at narrowing the ability of the police unions to overturn disciplinary actions against officers by seeking binding arbitration. That bill never became law and is expected to be one of the topics handled at an upcoming special session. Selvaggio said he thinks the unions and legislators are close to agreement on language for an arbitration bill.

In addition, Wagner said he offered “full-throated support” to a police reform package offered by the Oregon Legislature’s People of Color Caucus last week. In addition to the arbitration bill, the group called for revamping police use of force standards and for giving the state attorney general the power to investigate police actions resulting in death or serious injury.

The group’s PAC, Law Enforcement for Responsible Public Safety, gave $5,000 to Wagner in March, $10,000 in January, $5,000 in November and $1,000 in October. Those are the only donations the group has made to any legislator since January of 2019.

Selvaggio said Wagner “was more active in courting” the group as he sought to become the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate.

Lauren Dake contributed to this report.

Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting