The Three Amigos
Are they analysts or advocates?
By Lisa Baker

In 2005, Russ Dondero’s blog went live.

With that, the sought-after political analyst was out of the closet…Out of the closet, down the street, running naked with a banner: “I’m a screaming liberal.”

Metaphorically speaking.

The blog, located at, is a smattering of Dondero’s personal positions on both national and Oregon political issues, which run to the Air America side of the ideological spectrum, with anti-Bush screeds and even a campaign endorsement for a Metro candidate.

It is an offering made surprising not by its content but by the fact that Dondero is one of a small, elite cadre of Oregon commentators called on specifically to provide apolitical, un- spun interpretations of political events and issues. On election night, you will usually find Dondero and his closest contemporaries, Oregon State’s Bill Lunch and Pacific University’s Jim Moore, providing what is supposed to be decidedly academic, background observations about voters and issues on local television and radio shows.

But Dondero, a part-time political science professor at Portland State University and professor emeritus at Pacific University who has appeared on television, on radio and in nearly every newspaper in the state, wouldn’t say he was out of the closet.

He would say he was never in the closet.

“I’m very open about what I’m about. Everyone who knows me knows where I’m coming from. I am a flaming-hearted, even bleeding-hearted liberal, and I’m honest about where I’m coming from,” Dondero says. And while journalists continue to ask him for objective analysis, they all know about his blog and about his political activism, which dates from long before the blog.

Indeed, it would be hard for any journalist not to know. Dondero’s blog pops up on any Internet search of his name. It is a cross reference given in high-profile political blogs that reporters often use to keep tabs on local political debates. Additionally, Dondero has appeared at publicized meetings and events as an activist for some of the same causes he is asked to comment on objectively as an analyst.

Despite his willingness to be identified as an activist, even a liberal activist—“It is what what I am,” he says—journalists have chosen to describe Dondero simply as a political scientist, analyst or professor. None has ever identified him as an activist, advocate or political player, which means voters who hear him speak on political issues or who read his comments on the gubernatorial contest between Ted Kulongoski and Ron Saxton are likely the only ones who don’t know.

Philip Romero, an economist and University of Oregon business professor (and former business school dean), also has experience commenting on both national and regional political issues, having spent the 1990s as chief economist to Republican California governor Pete Wilson. He isn’t surprised at the three amigos’ liberalism, but at the media’s naivete. “Liberals outnumber conservatives among university faculty by ten to one, and probably 20 to one in political science departments,” says Romero. “And Dondero, et al, are forthright about their biases: they are there for anyone to see. Shame on the media for failing to note that they are not entirely objective. I suspect that most reporters, who are equally liberal, simply do not recognize that liberalism is not synonymous with impartiality.”

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They are friends as well as colleagues, but Moore, Lunch and Dondero have wildly different styles.

Lunch is the most bookish of the three, couching his analysis in discourse so lengthy and thick with obscure historical facts and asides, research bits and terminology that people he insults may take several minutes to realize they were insulted at all. He’s the analyst only OPB could love.

A regular on KOIN-TV, KXL radio and KINK radio, Moore belies his ever-present bowtie with a rapid-fire wit and sound bite responses to complex questions. He is a broadcast media favorite, popularity that Dondero says is a natural outgrowth of Moore’s “sizzle… He’s more likely to make a flamboyant comment to get people’s attention. He has a way of being pithy and to the point and hitting it out of the park.”

Dondero describes Lunch as “a liberal fellow, like most political scientists,” but says Lunch tries to remain true to the goal of objective commentary. “I don’t think he treads too far into the line of his own opinion. But if you listen, you can get between the lines.”

Dondero himself is the most effusive, even eccentric, of the three. In his blog, he refers to himself in the third person, by his initials, “RAD.” He admits to prompting some amount of discomfort in the other two, laughingly lamenting that the two edited out particularly provocative comments he made in their shared book project, a chapter in “Oregon Politics and Government: Progressives versus Conservative Populists,” published last year.

All three claim that they’re fair to both ends of the political spectrum, regardless of how they may feel personally. Dondero tells how he obtained internships for two former students—one at the National Rifle Association and the other at the National Abortion Rights Action League. “I sound like a liberal on KXL because it’s so conservative, and on KINK, I sound conservative because it’s so liberal.” But only Dondero is comfortable revealing his biases, calling it “liberating” and “like jumping into freedom.”

Lunch admits to an occasional temptation to blurt something out, “but one restrains oneself. If you don’t, you lose credibility as an honest broker. In the short term, it might seem understandable, but it is a terminal approach.”

His example: Russell Sadler, whose commentaries once appeared statewide in mainstream media outlets but now tend to appear only on liberal activist websites. “Russ is well-informed, but he greatly reduced his effectiveness as an analyst by being out front with advancing his own views. I try to avoid that, to be more even-handed, balanced.”

But Romero notes, “Commentators can’t be simultaneously opinionated and impartial. Many academics try to have it both ways. The media who identify them—or me, for that matter—as simply an “academic” are doing a disservice to their audience, implying a degree of objectivity rarely present in political commentary during these highly polarized times.”

Of Dondero’s blog, Lunch says he will withhold judgment on its effects for now. “It’s a work in progress. I don’t know how much it’s going to make his standing as an analyst suspect. I hope it doesn’t endanger that.”

Dondero says he understands why his colleagues would prefer to remain in the closet. “The atmosphere in politics in this state is so poisonous that the fear is the minute you have a label, the audience will tune you out. If there’s a reluctance to be labeled, it’s because you know people may not like what you say. Maybe they’ll say, ‘Let’s go on to the sports page.’”

At the same time, Dondero does not believe the blog or any of his political activities will have any effect on his attraction as an analyst. “I don’t see any harm in being honest. Oregonians have a history of respecting people who are direct.”

Another factor: “I’m retired,” Dondero points out. “I get my share of calls, but I’m not on the Rolodex like Jim and Bill are.”

Retired or not, in the past year since the blog went live, news organizations continue to contact Dondero and use his quotes as objective analysis just as they have in the past. The Register-Guard, the Statesman Journal, the Medford Mail Tribune, and the Associated Press have all cited him as a source in recent political coverage, identifying him as a professor, a political scientist and even a “political blogger,” but not attempting to label his political advocacy.

“I think most journalists are caught in this sort of nexus of wanting to be neutral and objective,” Dondero says. “They tend to avoid that (labeling) given my academic credentials and Ph.D.” KGW-TV News Director Rod Gramer says his station uses different kinds of commentators for different things. On election night, he says he prefers to use former players in the political game—people who have worked inside politics and can give “the inside story.” But there are times, he says, when an “independent, statistical point of view” is called for.

All three analysts say their aim is to do just that when required, but they believe their roles as analysts go further.

“A lot of what Bill, Jim and I do is educate,” Dondero says. “I don’t want to seem paternalistic, but the role of an academic pundit is to clarify the important questions. There will be entire stories where I’ve not been quoted but what I told (journalists) is in the story giving it context. The rewards of being a pundit do not always appear in quote form but in the fact that you helped shape the way journalists look at something.”

Lunch says he sees political analysis as “on a continuum” between simple reporting and editorializing. “For me, that involves filling in the blanks, giving background to a given policy choice.”

For Moore, it’s not enough to inform. “My aim is to tick off extremists on both sides,” he says. “I figure if I can say something that makes some think I’m a Republican pollster and others think I’m a Harry Lonsdale tree hugger, I’m doing my job.”

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Lunch initially calls himself a “follower of James Madison,” describing Madison as an “institutional conservative but a policy liberal,” both terms less than helpful in defining Lunch’s politics on current issues. More helpful, Lunch says it is former President Bill Clinton who most closely resembles Madison’s political spirit. Lunch believes: Oregonians should pay more in taxes, in part to reflect the state’s mid-pack population density and economic strength; that it’s too easy for Oregonians to get initiatives on the ballot; and that Canada has proven that universal healthcare is worth the tax burden it would impose.

On abortion, Lunch says anti-abortion groups are led by people who simply want to “turn back the clock to a time when women were unable to control their reproductive lives…not just to ban abortion but also birth control,” he says. “They want to go back to a past in which the societal structure and rules would not allow women to do any of the things they do now. I think it’s impossible, but keep in mind, Iran is trying to do that.”

Moore is a registered independent. More tellingly, he prefers to call himself an “internationalist” whose personal politics, he says, are most inclined toward European political thought. “I prefer Europe,” he says. He says he doesn’t mind sparring on the left side against KXL conservative Lars Larson in radio debates but explains, “Sometimes Lars wants me to be a political analyst and sometimes he needs someone to fight with.”

Moore believes that Oregonians’ ease in getting complex issues to the ballot has resulted in a “stupid Constitution.” And he loves vote-by-mail. Moore believes school districts should let voters choose a tax rate that corresponds to the level of success they want for their children. He thinks Bill Sizemore should “get a life.”

While Moore will cop to some non-litmus policy views, he doesn’t like the idea of labeling pundits, believing it will lead to more of a dueling-analyst approach seen on various cable networks. “I’ve seen it on Fox and CNN, and there’s just so much verbiage. It’s unwatchable.”

Others in academia don’t agree that shedding labels guarantees shedding biases. Says Romero, “When academics imply Olympian detachment, they can shut off debate—not coincidentally (in light of media bias) in favor of a liberal perspective, which becomes the received conventional wisdom. Working for a university is no guarantee of objectivity—quite the opposite, since activism is again in fashion. You can’t simultaneously push your line, and then retreat behind an academic title to shield yourself from dispute. Again, I don’t fault these analysts; I fault the media, which fails its audience by ignoring the partisan perspective of most of the commentators it quotes.”

In the end, Dondero says he believes the personal views of analysts don’t matter because they don’t preclude objective thought. “I don’t try to bamboozle people and make them think I’m not who I am, but I can be equally critical of both parties, both candidates. The fact is everyone has an angle and at some point, it will come out. There really is no neutral. It’s why honesty is important.”

Ross Day, spokesman for Oregonians in Action and co-sponsor of Measure 37, the property rights law, says voters should know that what they hear from some analysts is tainted by ideology even though it is presented as fact rather than opinion.

“When they cross the line into editorializing, at that point, their proclivities will influence how we view what is occurring. Let’s say Saxton spends $800,000 on television buys. One analyst will say he’s desperately trying to gain traction and another will say he’s trying to pull away. The question is, what color are your glasses?”

“The problem is that the audience thinks these guys are unbiased.”

BrainstormNW - October 2006

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