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Politics of Personal Destruction

Sorenson Stands Up to the Right

Et tu, Andy Stahl? Political smears are hardly a modern phenomenon, nor is political intrigue. You can’t throw a stick at the corpus of Shakespearean tragedy without hitting one in which a character is killed or victimized through the evil machinations of another. To the audience of a play, it’s soon made clear who the true villains are, but in politics where we are not just the audience but actually part of the action — all the world’s a stage — who the good guys are can get a little unclear once the mud-slinging begins. 

Commissioner Pete Sorenson has been hit with a lot of mud, and yet his supporters haven’t come to bury him, but to praise him. He’s one of the good guys, say the unions, the enviros and the teachers. The news media and the right wing have tried to make the mud stick, but once the facts are examined, none of the accusations that have made headlines actually pan out. For some reason the truth doesn’t seem to make the headlines. 

Sorenson’s record says he shouldn’t have to beware the “Ides of May” in this primary election against challenger Andy Stahl for the South Eugene commission seat. Sorenson can point to his votes on issues that south Eugeneans care about, from voting against the Willamette Water Company water grab to standing up for unions and schools. Some say Stahl is taking advantage of the right-wing attack on Sorenson for his own political gain. Is this a case of Democrats eating their own in the politics of personal destruction?


The Issues

The South Eugene race has been framed by many as a liberal versus liberal, green versus green, but Sorenson says to look at it that way is wrong. “There are a hundred other issues — public health, human rights,” he points out. And he’s clear on where he stands on the issues, he says, and that he is willing to vote in the minority if that vote is the right thing to do. 

Sorenson says even the votes he has lost to the conservative majority are important, such when he voted to keep the Lane County Human Rights Commission, because those votes represent the dominant point of view of his district and causes that south Eugene cares about. 

A key vote just last week reflects Sorenson’s concerns with labor and health care. On April 24, the conservative board majority of Sid Leiken, Faye Stewart and Jay Bozievich voted in favor of authorizing County Administrator Liane Richardson to execute a contract with Corizon, an inmate medical services company, to provide medical and mental health services at the Lane County Jail. Sorenson voted against it.

Sorenson says contracting out rather than using the county’s unionized nurses might seem as if it saves money at first, but he says there is only an initial savings, not a long-term savings of money. 

That’s not the only reason Sorenson voted against a contract with Corizon. Not only could contracting out hurt the county’s union labor, Sorenson says that “the company has had a great deal of litigation against it over substandard care.” 

A recently released report on conditions at the Idaho State Correctional Institution called health care conditions there in violation of “the right of inmates at ISCI to be protected from cruel and unusual punishment.” The report included allegations that a prisoner who scored high as suicide risk was not referred to mental health services and committed suicide, and another patient was left unattended by a nurse during cardiac arrest and  later died.

Corizon is the company Idaho contracted to provide health-care services at the prison, and the same company over which Sorenson is voicing his concerns over hiring here in Lane County. 

Stahl is new to public office, though not new to issues like public schools and the environment. He is the executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics and his prior elected office was serving on the school board of the Crow-Applegate-Lorane School district, which has a student population of 300. While on the school board Stahl spearheaded a grant effort to turn Lorane Elementary into a charter school.

Stahl has not been willing in public debates thus far to be clear on where he stands, Sorenson says. Sorenson on the other hand has been vocal about his issues, campaigning for schools and voting to keep the Human Rights Commission. His campaign page lists veterans, animal welfare, jobs and a sustainable economy, human rights, public education and the environment as key issues. 

When asked by EW, Stahl, like Sorenson, says he would bring back the county’s Human Rights Commission, is pro-union, pro-open conversations about the future of animal control and pro-adoption over euthanasia, to name a few.

So why run against a commissioner who already votes and speaks out on the same issues?

Stahl’s campaign page doesn’t appear to have a section on issues, but does list out a few things that he stands for and the top of his list is, “Transparency and accountability. No more government in secret.” There’s no doubt Stahl’s for open government — he points out that he’s defended the rights of public employees to blow the whistle when laws are violated. 

But when it comes to the accusations leveled against Sorenson by right wing and conservative interests, it seems that Stahl has either drunk the Kool-Aid or is using those accusations for political gain.


The Why

Don’t believe everything you read in the papers. 

Sorenson says the positions he has taken on issues from logging to sprawl to the Strong Schools initiative over the years have reflected the views of the people in his district but have “infuriated really powerful interests.”

Those powerful interests include a timber company, Aaron Jones’ Seneca Sawmill Co. — the same company that just bought the much-protested Goose Timber Sale. Seneca funded a lawsuit that alleged Commissioners Sorenson and Rob Handy, as well as former commissioner Bill Fleenor, violated public meetings laws in their discussions about the county budget. 

Coos County Circuit Judge Michael Gillespie, in a controversial ruling, found that Sorenson and Handy had done so, even though the evidence did not show that any three commissioners were ever in the same room together talking about the issue.

Interestingly enough, Gillespie also found that current conservative Commissioner Faye Stewart had also met inappropriately, but because the suit did not name him, he was not found in violation and his name has stayed clear of the headlines in the R-G bashing the liberal commissioners. Also downplayed in the R-G is that the terms of the settlement stipulated that Handy and Sorenson didn’t admit any wrongdoing.

Legal minds argue the ruling was clear as mud anyway. That includes the Oregon Legislative Counsel, the agency that provides legal research for the Legislature and its members. The legislative counsel reviewed Gillespie’s ruling and concluded that the judge’s reasoning “does not support the conclusion that a public meeting law violation occurred.”

The case could have been appealed, but the conservative county commission appeared against it, and a settlement was reached instead.

The suit was criticized as a politically motivated effort to hurt the liberal commissioners, and it worked. Fleenor, who was exonerated, did not run again for the West Lane commission seat, and Libertarian-turned-Republican Jay Bozievich took the spot in the last election. 

Stahl says his issue is with “Sorenson’s conduct when the ‘Book Club’ was established to hide the deliberations of budget committee members who met privately to line up votes for commissioners’ aides, just as the county was facing budget challenges that have worsened to this day.”

However, under Gillespie’s ruling, which was based on “serial emails,” there was no quorum that met in person and no one was found to have had an illegal “Book Club” or other meetings.

Sorenson says he decided to run again, despite the smears, because not running would “acknowledge that standing up for progressive values would mean you would be attacked, and attacked successfully.” He wants to see the liberals in town not fear that running for office means they will be vilified, he says. 

The lawsuit was not the only attack, and not the only one that was deemed unfounded. That suit was followed by an “investigation,” later called an audit, into the Community and Economic Development Department. 

“Having a review of how public funds are being spent is a good thing,” Sorenson says. But he says to call it an investigation in the paper and call out Handy and Sorenson as “commissioners under investigation,” when in the end the issue had little or nothing to do with individual commissioners was troubling.

Then County Administrator Liane Richardson initiated an investigation into Handy and Sorenson for “harassment.” The investigation, which cost the county thousands of dollars, included allegations that Handy and Sorenson were retaliating against Richardson, calling her a liar and giving questions to an EW reporter. The accusations were all found to be without evidence, and voting on issues such as Richardson’s appointment as “permanent county administrator” was found to be something they were elected to do.

Finally there was yet another investigation into Sorenson, one he wasn’t made aware of as it happened, that yet again looked into the allegations of the Seneca-funded Dumdi case. This investigation by the Washington County District Attorney also ended in dismissed allegations. 

That’s four unsubstantiated investigations into a liberal commissioner who votes against big money interests and for the environment. “It’s ominous to have elected officials be subjected to this kind of harassment,” Sorenson says.

All of these attacks were reported by the R-G in stories focusing on the allegations, not on the conclusions. It could be that wrongdoing is sexier in the paper than innocence, or it could be, as the EW editorial section has argued, that the daily paper still hasn’t gotten over its grudge about the previous, more liberal board voting to make EW a newspaper of record and share in the county’s advertising dollars. The R-G wrote the county and threatened litigation over the issue. 

“He hasn’t just piled on with what the timber company did, or what the right-wing Republicans did or what the daily newspaper has done,” Sorenson says of Stahl, “He’s piled on with all of them.” 


The Supporters

Sorenson’s web page proudly lists unions, environmental groups and local politicians including Mayor Kitty Piercy, and City Councilors Betty Taylor, George Brown and Alan Zelenka.

Stahl has mailed out a colorful card full of praise from state legislators Reps. Val Hoyle, Phil Barnhart, Nancy Nathanson and Paul Holvey and state Sen. Floyd Prozanski. 

Stahl’s campaign money has come from family loans, the legislators who endorse him, the Cato Institute’s Randal O’Toole and includes an in-kind contribution from Ed King of $8,500. King is known not only for his popular King Estate Winery, but also for his business association with the controversial Greg Demers and McDougal brothers, whose companies having been mining Parvin Butte and seeking control over water from the McKenzie River (see News Briefs this issue). Stahl has said he does not support the water grab. 

Sorenson’s money has largely come from unions, environmentalists and local supporters of liberal causes, like  those fighting big timber, gravel companies and pro-sprawl developers. He has spoken out repeatedly against the water grab as well as on Parvin Butte. 

As the Bard wrote, “Nature hath framed strange bedfellows in her time,” and the Lane County Board of Commissioners is a strange bed. May the best man lie in it.