The 2020 Wilsonville election for City Councilor and Mayor will undoubtedly go down as one for the record books! At least in terms of the amount of outside money coming in and the brazen manner in which Aurora Airport interests are funding candidates to take control of the City Council.
Most, but not all, of the money is flowing through Jobs Political Action Committee (ID#16428) set up and run by lobbyist JL Wilson of Public Affairs Counsel. In addition to local airport real estate interests (who have been pushing for airport expansion for a decade) financial supporters include politicians like Sen. Betsy Johnson and Knute Buehler.
The amount of outside money has caught the attention of at least one major news outlet, namely OPB, who’s Jeff Mapes did the first story on it. This was followed by local coverage in the Wilsonville Spokesman by Corey Buchanan (articles in PDF at bottom of page). On top of the amount of money being spent to flip the City Council, is the absolute brazenness with which the funders, the lobbyist and the candidates talk about it in public and to the media.
Here are the eight most eye-opening facts and disclosures in this campaign so far:
- As documented in the State’s campaign finance reporting system, almost $20,000 is contributed to the campaigns of Ben West, John Budiao and Imran Haider by JL Wilson’s Jobs Political Action Committee, funded by contributions received from TLM Holdings (Ted Millar), Aurora Aircraft LLC (Bruce Bennett), MB Holdings (Maletis brothers), and Senator Betsy Johnson.
- As Jeff Mapes wrote in an OPB story on the campaign: “West has received at least $14,000 from airport interests, more than a third of the $39,000 he’s raised. In the last contested mayor race, in 2012, current Wilsonville Mayor, Knapp raised less than half that, $16,000. His opponent that year didn’t show any fundraising. This year, Budaio received at least $5,000 in airport-related money – also just over a third of his fundraising – and Haider received at least $2,000, which represents almost all the money he’s raised.” One special interest is dominating the funding of these three candidates.
- Mapes also reported that “Bennett and Millar said they hired Salem lobbyist J.L. Wilson, who controls JOBS PAC, to work with them on airport issues. And they gave Wilson the flexibility to decide how to direct the money to the three candidates. Such campaign-finance maneuvers are legal under Oregon law.” But it raises ethical issues about undue influence by a lobbyist for a special interest with legal and policy decisions pending before a governing body.
- In spite of Bennet and Millar’s denials about airport expansion bringing in more, larger aircraft, Mapes asked Senator Johnson the question: Would the runway expansion make Aurora a major corporate jet airport? Her answer: “I hate to break it to you,” said Johnson, the state senator, “but it already is.” Still, she also downplayed the notion of a big increase in private jet traffic, saying the facility just isn’t big enough for that.”
- Corey Buchanan reported in a Wilsonville Spokesman article on the campaign finances that “The treasurer of the Jobs PAC, James Wilson, is a principal of the Public Affairs Counsel and one of his clients is the Aurora Airport Improvement Association, which recently started a Friends of the Aurora Airport initiative designed to highlight the positive contributions of airport businesses. Wilson was also involved with a failed attempt to get the runway extension funded through a Federal Aviation Administration grant program.” Are oversized campaign contributions to a local city council race an acceptable practice when that body makes land use decisions which benefit that lobbyists clients? This strategy threatens all future local control of Oregon’s Land Use system.
- Buchanan also reported that JL Wilson stated, “We want positive change in Wilsonville. That hasn’t been a top-of-mind objective until now…airport leaders had been a ‘dormant group’ that ‘let the naysayers run over them’ until becoming more active recently.” Alternatively, local citizens have asked their city council to protect their interests, now outside interests are trying to take control of that city council to get the development policies the outsiders want.
- During a Candidate Forum sponsored by the Wilsonville Chamber of Commerce and the Wilsonville Spokesman, in response to a question asking candidates to explain their campaign contributions and “what ties to business, special interest or PACs they have,” and “should citizens be comfortable with candidates getting big donations?” Both Ben West and John Budiao described the contributions they’ve received from family, friends and small local businesses, but neither said a word about the larger and policy changing aims of Wilson’s Jobs Political Action Committee contributions.
- In answer to that same question, Imran Haider said, “When I first signed up to run for City Council, I received a call asking, ‘Hey, would you support possible extending the runway at Aurora Airport since it might create jobs. I said, Yeah!’” The result was $2,000, as Mapes reported, almost all the money his campaign has raised. This statement is an admission of a quid pro quo and should concern all citizens who care about transparency in government.
It is worthy of note that in the previous 2018 City election, the major campaign donations to Ben West and John Budiao came from Ted Millar (TLM Holdings), and that resulted in Ben West being elected to City Council where he has been the standout “No” vote on all decisions concerning involvement of the City in expansion of the Aurora Airport—where the City has a real interest due to the absence of infrastructure like transportation, storm water, sewer and water.