PORTLAND — Bernie Sanders’ barnstorming tour to rescue the 2022 midterms for Democrats took a spicy turn in Oregon on Thursday. The populist Vermont senator and serial Democratic presidential candidate appeared at a downtown Portland concert venue to stump for Democrat Tina Kotek, who is locked in tight race for governor — thanks largely to the political spending of one billionaire, Nike co-founder Phil Knight.
Sanders called out Knight by name for the corrupting influence of his campaign cash. “Democracy is not billionaires — Phil Knight or anyone else — buying elections,” Sanders insisted.
Knight is Oregon’s richest man. He’s made a habit of trying to buy the governor’s race in a state that does not limit individual political donations. In 2018, he spent more than $4 million in a failed bid to install the Republican nominee in Salem. This year, Knight began by backing an unaffiliated candidate, former state senator and machine gun owner Betsy Johnson, staking $3.75 million to a politician who has vowed to keep the state’s CEOs on speed dial.
After a strong start, Johnson has faded in recent polling. She’s no longer a threat to win the race, but she is playing an effective role as spoiler. The former Democrat is drawing enough support from Kotek to give the pro-Trump, anti-choice Republican nominee, Christine Drazan, a shot at the governor’s mansion. Republicans have been shut out of that office since the Reagan era. Knight has recently given Drazan’s campaign $1.5 million — explaining himself in a rare interview to The New York Times that he’s “an anti-Tina person.” Knight has also given $2 million to a PAC that seeks to elect GOP legislators in the state.
Knight has ignored repeated requests from Rolling Stone to discuss his donations. Nike has done likewise. Knight is chairman emeritus of the sportswear giant, and no longer an active company employee. Yet in the paperwork he files with the state, Knight lists Nike’s global headquarters, outside Portland, as his home address.
Knight’s backing of far-right, NRA-backed candidates stands at stark odds with Nike’s progressive branding. For example, Johnson has refused to condemn Confederate flag wavers at her political rallies. By contrast, Nike made Colin Kaepernick the face of its “Just Do It” campaign after he was blackballed by the NFL for kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial injustice. Aligned with Koch Industries, state representative Drazan helped lead an anti-democratic walkout by GOP legislators that foiled passage of a cap-and-trade climate bill in Oregon. Nike touts itself as a climate leader. Drazan is fiercely anti-abortion; Nike covers travel expenses for employees in need of abortion care.
The Democrat, Tina Kotek is an accomplished progressive who served as the speaker of the state House, where she passed legislation raising the minimum wage and limiting the state’s power plant emissions. She also championed some of the most expansive pro-choice legislation in the country. If elected she’d be America’s fist lesbian governor.
At the Thursday rally, Kotek took a dig at Knight, though not by name. “There’s one guy in our state, this billionaire. And he’s investing a lot of money — like $8 million — to turn our state red. He’s trying to but the governor’s mansion and the Oregon legislature—” The boos from the crowd turned to laughter when a member of the audience shouted out: “And the Blazers!” — a reference to Knight’s reported quest to purchase Portland’s NBA franchise.
Kotek addressed the sour mood of state voters, describing a litany of challenges that are “tearing our community apart,” including the lack of affordable housing and homelessness as well as the scarcity of addiction treatment and mental-health care services. “We know the challenges are real,” Kotek said. “But we don’t need to take a right-wing turn to fix them.”
Kotek knocked Drazan for the “new direction” the Republican has vowed to lead the state in: “That new direction is: We’re gonna ban abortion. We’re gonna stop fighting climate change, and ‘I’m gonna hang out with people who went to the insurrection on Jan. 6.'” (Drazan has been tied to several extremists who rallied for Trump in Washington on the day the Capitol was overrun.)
If Sanders’ aim was to fire up the faithful, he succeeded. The 81-year-old received a rock star’s reception in the packed venue. And Sanders’ stump speech didn’t hold back — blasting the widening disparities of wealth and income that only accelerated during the pandemic. “The billionaire class is making off like bandits,” he said. “Because they are bandits!”
Sanders recognized the pain of inflation, but painted it as a global problem, to be blamed on disrupted supply chains and “outrageous” corporate avarice. “These are greedy bastards who have no shame,” he insisted.
Sounding more than a bit like a candidate himself, Sanders outlined a populist national agenda for working families including free college, universal health care, cheap child care, and federally legal marijuana. He touted that these policies enjoy broad support, exclaiming: “We ain’t fringey!”
Sharing that his top goal was electing more progressives to the Senate — to circumvent the influence of two unnamed “corporate Democrats” he blamed for hobbling president Biden’s agenda — Sanders also said he looked forward to working with state leaders on issues like homelessness. “Let’s do everything we can,” he implored the crowd, “to make Tina Kotek the next governor of Oregon!”