Who’s Got the Dough, and Who Is Doing the Hammering?
Vicki Walker’s Challenge to Neil Goldschmidt
By Jim Pasero
Who cares how much Neil Goldschmidt makes, ethically or
unethically, as long as we get the state moving again? From public funds,
private funds, or both simultaneously.
Well, Dem. State Sen. Vicki Walker cared. She cared because
she was still well-intentioned and naïve enough to believe that in a democracy
process is everything. And she’s right. The more Oregon leaders do things
behind closed doors, the more the state shrivels.
Says Sen. Metsger about Oregon’s governing malaise, “We are
going to have better government…and people need to know what’s going on…we have
to be open, to ask questions.”
This of course was not the Oregonian’s attitude when
it accused anyone who questioned Goldschmidt’s integrity of being the worst
low-minded participants in public affairs. According to the region’s largest
paper, covering (much less investigating) corruption in government is
taboo—it’s not a nice thing to do.
Included on the list of the low-minded who covered the
corruption, and now lead the newspaper’s list of “bad actors”–the Portland
Tribune, the Albany Democrat-Herald, KXL radio, KUIK radio, and, of
course, this magazine.
On the other hand, the Willamette Valley’s print media, the Oregonian,
the Salem Statesman Journal and Eugene’s Register-Guard
read like one government press release after another. And how does one possibly
explain the Register-Guard’s refusal to cover hometown politician Vicki
Walker’s “David and Goliath” public dispute with Goldschmidt?
Democrat presidential contender, John Kerry has taken
criticism from his party for remarks he made in ’94 when, after 40 years of
Democrat rule, the GOP took over control of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Kerry said, as reported in The New York Times, that he was
“delighted with an institutional shake-up because I think we need one.”
No state is more in need of an institutional shake-up than
Oregon—the most dysfunctional state in the country. What is maddening about
Oregon’s present day corruption is that it comes with such clean government
gloves, making longtime residents fond of the days when corruption wasn’t
masked in high-minded language, the days when Robert Kennedy indicted the
city’s mayor. Oregon’s worst economy in the country is one measure of our
dysfunction. Another indicator would be looking at the adversaries of the
current old-boy, one-party ruling class.
1—Four years ago, the adversary against the rulers was Bill
Sizemore. In a one-man attempted coup against one-party rule Sizemore filed
seven ballot measures simultaneously. Sizemore’s move was radical, and the
establishment (with the media behind them) easily defeated all but one--Measure
2—Three years ago two Democrat lawyers filed a complaint
with the Oregon State Bar regarding Deputy Attorney General David Schuman’s and
Gov. Kitzhaber’s defense of Measure Seven. Gov. Kitzhaber, who opposed the
Property Rights Measure, participated with Schuman in a meeting about the
Measure Seven case. After failing to defend Measure Seven in court, Schuman
received an appointment to the Oregon Court of Appeals. Aware of the legal
points involved, this was one issue that affable candidate Ted Kulongoski would
have “no comment” on during the ’02 gubernatorial campaign.
3—Two months ago, long-time liberal Portland School Board
member, Sue Hagemeier used the opinion page of The Portland Tribune to
denounce the Portland Association of Teachers. She wrote, “Their goal is to
preserve and strengthen the PAT’s control over operation of the district. They
are willing to compromise the education of Portland schoolchildren to that
end.” When the former spiritual leader of the teacher’s union takes them on in
such dramatic fashion, the dysfunction meter has hit the red zone. One party
rule. One party implosion.
4—This winter, liberal Dem. State Sen. Vicki Walker
challenged the state’s political dysfunction when she challenged Goldschmidt’s
appointment. Of course, when you go to kill the king, you’re not supposed to
miss. Royal retribution is an ugly, ugly thing. Walker’s challenge was probably
a lot more successful than anyone cared to admit--those who rule Oregon, or
those sheepish GOP leaders too stupid or too beaten down to join the fight.
Good government crusaders are becoming harder for the ruling
establishment to ignore. But they’re also getting harder to find because the
consequences of failure are so personally severe.
Why was the fight to stop Goldschmidt’s nomination closer than
many may have thought? Mostly because Vicki Walker is such a compelling figure
to cast in the role of taking on “King Neil.” The Portland Tribune’s Jim
Redden, whose excellent reporting drove the story, described Walker as a
“classic citizen legislator.” Walker, a court reporter and mother of two, grew
up in Reedsport and was the first in her family to go to college. Her husband
is a production worker at the Register-Guard, and her brother is a
firefighter in Spokane. In the legislature she is respected, but she is also
In an interview with Sen. Walker, posted on our website (www.brainstormnw.com) Jan. 19, Walker,
a court reporter, read from her notes about a series of meetings with the ruling
Democrat establishment. Those notes detail the extraordinary steps taken by the
state’s establishment to quiet her. If you’re a Republican and you challenge
the boss, you are ridiculed in the press (Bill Sizemore, Bob Tiernan),
name-called and labeled by the likes of Steve Duin. If you’re a Democrat and
you challenge the boss, you’re asked to attend closed-door meetings where
you’re told to shut up. If you don’t, the whispering campaign begins–“She’s too
combative… too emotional… not that stable.”
Vicki Walker’s crime was that she didn’t believe Goldschmidt
should make $40,000 a month consulting for SAIF without a written contract.
Walker saw a possible pattern in the former governor’s lack of accountability
for public money. Walker also believes that SAIF, a quasi-state agency, is
spending hundreds of thousands of dollars for lobbying and political purposes
with money that is essentially public. Walker remembers in the ’01 session when
legislators were looking to reform SAIF. She says, “I got a ton of faxes and
emails and letters from businesses in my community who are members of SAIF.
They all started coming because we in the legislature were aggressively looking
at reforming SAIF in the ’01 session.” But because of lobbying pressure, says
Walker, the ’01 reforms went nowhere.
In the midst of Walker’s charges, the Portland Tribune’s
Jim Redden detailed how a decade ago the same pattern emerged when Goldschmidt
created and then directed the now defunct Cascade Center for International
Business and Policy. A million and half dollars was spent on the Center with
little or no financial oversight. For her doubts and questions, Walker was
invited to a series of closed-door meetings with the state’s rulers. It began
at U of O’s Johnson Hall.
U of O President Dave Frohnmayer invited Walker to talk
about the Goldschmidt appointment and why he felt it should go forward. In
Frohnmayer’s view, only a heavyweight like Goldschmidt would have the
power/influence to handle all the competing egos in the state’s redundant higher
education system and, therefore, make a better product. But for Walker, the
impression sent by the respected university president was that questions about
Goldschmidt’s ethics were immaterial compared to getting a friendly “power” in
as head of higher-ed. Right or wrong–Message: Never mind character–we want
power and results. During the meeting, Frohnmayer asked Walker to meet with the
governor. She accepted.
At the meeting on December 11th, Walker and
Kulongoski discussed a letter the governor has written to Jon Egge,
Chairperson, SAIF Corporation Board of Directors. Walker told the Kulongoski
that she was “insulted” by his letter because it “minimalized and trivialized”
the issues. She asked for an apology, and the governor, ever the peacemaker, apologized.
Walker also told the Kulongoski to clean house with the “SAIF Board.” A few
days later Kathleen Keene, head of SAIF, was fired.
But in return for the apology, Kulongoski had one
request--for Walker to meet privately with Goldschmidt about the higher-ed
appointment. She agreed. Peter Bragdon, the Governor’s Chief of Staff called
Walker to set up the meeting. All may have proceeded on course if Goldschmidt
hadn’t appeared in early January before the editorial board of the Salem Statesman
Journal and accused Walker of basically being on the take. “There’s no
disconnect here between who’s got the dough and who is doing the hammering,”
Goldschmidt told the editorial board. He was referring to a campaign
contribution of $2,750 that Walker received from SAIF’s private sector
competitor, Liberty Northwest.
Pocket change compared to the amounts in question with
Goldschmidt’s accusation convinced Walker to say no to the
governor’s request for a meeting. Walker then told KXL Radio that from now on
anything that she had to say to Neil Goldschmidt she would say “in public.”
No, thought Democrat Senate President, Peter Courtney,
better to keep this process closed. Courtney invited Walker to another
closed-door meeting with Goldschmidt to heal wounds. Walker accepted. The three
met on January 9th in the Capitol—the meeting went badly. Walker and
Goldschmidt ended it by agreeing to disagree. “Peter Courtney asked if this
could be a locker room discussion (meaning closed doors),” Walker recounts. “He
said Democrats shouldn’t be going against Democrats … Neil stood up and said,
‘I hope so too.’ But I didn’t say anything because this wasn’t going to be my
Five days later, Democrat Senate Leader Kate Brown was in
Eugene asking Walker, “Vicki, what do you want out of this?” Walker replied, “I
want Neil to be accountable.” Brown asked, “What does that mean?”
If you’re Vicki Walker, you’ve come to the part of the
conversation where the answer seems too simple, too obvious–good government.
But what was really important, at least to Kate Brown and the Democrat Party,
was for Vicki Walker to quit being an obstructionist.
By mid-January, Democrats were running out of heavies to
throw in Walker’s path. Meanwhile, a number of Senate Democrats were quietly
letting Walker know that there was some support in the Democratic caucus for
her quest for openness and accountability. Both Sens. Metsger and Ringo were
sympathetic and Sen. Dukes sent Walker a note of support. Days before the
confirmation hearing, Sen Metsger told BrainstormNW: “I want to make
sure questions are answered. I am not looking for ways to vote against Neil. I
don’t intend to, but I am not going to vote without answers. Maybe some people
are ready to vote without answers, but I won’t vote until I get answers.”
Democrats were looking to support Walker, but they were also looking for
leadership from the Republicans on the issue, because as Walker put it, “I am
uncomfortable being an adversary to another Democrat in public. It is not appropriate.”
But there was no leadership from the Republicans. Zilch.
On January 22, by a vote of 25-4, Neil Goldschmidt was
confirmed as head of Oregon’s Board of Higher Education. Democrat Sen. Vicki
Walker stood alone on her side of the aisle in her “No” vote against
confirmation. Alone in her fight for open, clean government.
In the days before the vote, with a number of Democrats
considering the possibility of voting against or at least delaying
Goldschmidt’s confirmation, Republicans began announcing their intent to
confirm. GOP ineptness was epitomized by Republicans who voted against
Goldschmidt in the hearing the night before, but turned around and voted for
his confirmation the following day on the Senate floor.
In the last generation, the Oregon GOP has had a lot of sad
days, but January 22nd may have been the saddest.
BrainstormNW - February 2004