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Why Is Nike’s Founder Putting Millions Behind a Trump-y Republican During the Kaepernick Campaign?

Billionaire Phil Knight’s political contributions seem out of step with his brand’s progressive agenda

Colin Kaepernick in Nike's 2018 'Just Do It' campaign

Colin Kaepernick in Nike's 2018 'Just Do It' campaign

Nike

Is billionaire Nike founder Phil Knight trying to buy a Republican governor? If that question sounds outlandish, so are the facts. Knight has directly given the campaign of Oregon gubernatorial candidate Knute Buehler $2.5 million dollars. Knight has also given $1 million to the Republican Governors’ Association, which steered nearly that amount into Buehler’s campaign.

Knight’s backing of a member of Donald Trump’s Republican party creates dissonance at a moment when Nike has launched its new “Just Do It” campaign featuring blackballed quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Trump has maligned Kaepernick as a “son of a bitch” and derided other athletes who kneel during the national anthem to protest police violence. Nike’s top star, NBA titan LeBron James, has also feuded with Trump on Twitter, blasting the president as “U bum.”

The 80-year-old Knight, who is worth more than $30 billion, stepped down as Nike chairman in 2016, but remains “chairman emeritus” at the footwear and apparel giant, and the Knight family controls two seats on the Nike board. Knight is donating his own riches to boost Buehler.

But the money trail also leads back to Nike. On declarations with the Oregon Secretary of State, Knight lists his address as Nike’s global headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon. He lists Nike as his employer and his occupation as “chairman.”

Nike Founder Phil Knight

Nike Founder Phil Knight. Photo: John Gress/AP/REX/Shutterstock

“Mr. Knight isn’t commenting on his contributions,” Nike spokesman Greg Rossiter tells Rolling Stone.  

In quiet contrast to its founder, Nike Inc. has given modestly, $85,000, to Democratic incumbent Gov. Kate Brown, who, as the nation’s first elected openly LGBTQ governor (Brown is bisexual), is more in keeping with Nike’s corporate wokeness. Beyond confirming Nike’s donations to Brown, Rossiter would not answer questions about Knight or Nike’s stakes in the gubernatorial contest.

The size of Knight’s political investment is unprecedented in Oregon, which does not limit personal campaign contributions and has only 2.7 million registered voters.

What is Knight hoping to get from a GOP governor?

Rolling Stone emailed Buehler — currently a GOP state representative — with a list of questions, including: “Have you met with Knight?”; “How do you explain his extravagant investment?”; and “Have you promised him anything in return?” Monica Wroblewski, Buehler’s communications director, replied: “We don’t discuss our donors or donations.”

Governor Brown’s communications director, Christian Gaston, was more forthcoming: “Phil Knight is absurdly rich and used to being able to buy whatever he wants. But no one should be able to buy the governor’s office,” he said.

With his backing of Buehler, Knight may be announcing his arrival as a new GOP mega-donor. “He’s made substantial contributions before, but nothing like this,” says Bill Lunch, a professor of political science at Oregon State, who suggests Knight has leveled up into a donor class with casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and the energy-baron Koch Brothers. “Part of what may be going on here is that Phil Knight, himself, is shifting more to the right.”

A surgeon from Bend, Oregon, who wears a goatee, Buehler pitches himself as “a fiscally responsible, pro-choice moderate with an independent streak.” But while Buehler has sought to distance himself from Trump, many of his positions are pure MAGA. Specifically:

Buehler and Knight appear most aligned on economics. Like many states, Oregon has a pension deficit; its Public Employee Retirement System (PERS) is underfunded by more than $20 billion. In an obscure 2017 interview unearthed by Willamette Week, Knight lamented that absent reform, “PERS will just, very simply, sink the whole state.” Knight longed for Oregon to emulate red states. “Why is Oregon so worse off fiscally than Arizona or Indiana?” he asked. “I conclude it is due to political leadership.”

Buehler seeks to slash billions in benefits by capping pension payouts and moving state employees to a 401(k) plan. Brown has been vague on PERS, but previously endorsed corporate tax increases to fill Oregon’s budget gap. Corporate taxes currently bring in less money than the Oregon lottery. And raising receipts could hit both Knight — and Nike —  where it hurts.

Oregon is often parodied as a blue state, but the governor’s race is competitive — Brown leads Buehler 40-to-35 percent in the most recent public poll, and Cook Political Report recently shifted the race to a “toss-up.”

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