11/23/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Channeling His Inner Obama

Oregon's U.S. Senate race is one of the most hotly contested, and quirky, in the country. The Democratic nominee, Jeff Merkley, is ahead in the last five polls by about 5 percent but is being outspent 2-1 by the Republican incumbent, Gordon Smith. Now Karl Rove's independent smear operation, Freedom Watch, is shifting its focus from Colorado to Minnesota and Oregon, and the mud's beginning to fly.

Merkley, the Speaker of the Oregon House, led the most successful environmental legislative session in memory here and demonstrated his leadership ability to get things done. Smith, in two terms in the Senate, has left barely a footprint in the sand. He's got a pro-environment voting record of 25 percent and has supported the Bush administration about 90 percent of the time.

So it's weird that Smith's television ads make him sound like a bipartisan green Republican -- think former Senator Lincoln Chafee. They feature pictures not of Bush, or even of John McCain, but of Barack Obama, Ted Kennedy, and Oregon Democratic Senator Ron Wyden.

Smith has a lot to gain by confusing voters. Doing so might distract voters from the continuing water-pollution violations at the frozen-food business that is the basis of his fortune and from the reality that he's never voted with the environment and against the Bush administration when it mattered. All of his pro-environmental votes were cast when the party leadership didn't need him, so he got a pass. He voted to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, for example, only when his vote didn't matter. But when the Refuge was really on the line, he repeatedly voted to help turn it over to Big Oil.

The front page of Tuesday's Oregonian illustrates how someone who is as hostile to the environment as Gordon Smith can plausibly portray himself as being relatively green. According to this story, Oregon's most prominent anti-tax, anti-environmental-protection activist, Bill Sizemore, appears to have siphoned off as much as $721,000 from a foundation that he ran.

Sizemore, who's been in trouble over his improper use of charitable funds before, authored Oregon's infamous Proposition 7, which would have made it virtually impossible for communities to protect themselves from developers or to establish environmental standards for land use (the proposition passed but was later thrown out by the courts). Sizemore admitted that to finance his work on initiatives, he channeled charitable donations from big right-wing donors to his sham foundation, earmarked illegally to pay Sizemore's salary. Bill Sizemore is no fan of Gordon Smith, so he does make Smith look moderate.

This year Sizemore has been a prominent backer of initiatives designed to weaken workers' rights to organize unions, so he's clearly unrepentant over his lawlessness. But his latest legal troubles should remind voters that Oregon's property-rights movement disproves Eric Hoffer's famous comment: "Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket." Oregon's anti-environmental, anti-tax, and anti-labor property-rights movement simply skipped the first two phases -- and began as a racket. Which, Hoffer would argue, proves that it wasn't really a great cause after all.

Paid for by Sierra Club Political Committee,, and authorized by the Jeff Merkley for Oregon Campaign.

Subscribe to the Politics email.
How will Trump’s administration impact you?