CHEW ON THIS: Would you still take your mom to McMenamins if you thought some of your money was helping to elect political candidates you don't know about and might not actually like?
Think about it. Because that's exactly what's happening.
According to a Mercury review of campaign finance records, the food and lodging industry has quietly seeded tens of thousands of dollars in contributions to pro-business (read: Republican) candidates ahead of the November 2 election. Many of those gifts are filtered through a tangle of political action committees (PACs) that often blur their sources.
The tally is substantial. Gubernatorial candidate Chris Dudley—who recently promised to rein in Oregon's $8.50-an-hour minimum wage—has hauled in $80,000 from PACs controlled by the Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association (ORLA). And since last Thursday, September 23, another association has spent an additonal $40,000 on close to 20 legislative races.
But when you peel through the onion-like layers of finance filings, the wellsprings of all that cash might surprise you. Since September 2009, McMenamins has given $15,000 to food and lodging industry-associated PACs—including hundreds of dollars that eventually went to Dudley. That places the beer-and-burger empire among the industry's biggest benefactors.
"It certainly would be interesting to learn that some of these folks who consider themselves progressive businesses, or certainly their customers consider themselves progressive, would be contributing to these kind of efforts," says Kari Chisholm of lefty blog Blue Oregon.
McMenamins did not return messages seeking comment this week—but at least one business owner whose company showed up with a $275 gift in a PAC filing said he had no idea that's how his money would be used.
Mark Stell owns Portland Roasting, a coffee company proud of its work helping those who grow its beans. He thought his $275 merely bought advertising at a golf outing. But because that outing was also a political fundraiser, his money made its way into Dudley's $5.2 million war chest.
"That wasn't our intention," says Stell. "That's good to know. That's really good to know. That makes me kind of angry."
Bill Perry, vice president of government affairs at ORLA, however, said businesses ought to know that when they give to a fundraiser—even if they're just buying for a sponsorship—their money will be used for political purposes.
"All our promotional material basically says this is for our political action committees," he says.
The industry is a powerful force in Salem. According to an Oregon Politico database of lobbying spending, the Oregon Restaurant Association spent more than $3.5 million to influence officials from 2001 through 2009, in some years spending more than any other interest group. (The current Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association was created this year when the Oregon Restaurant Association merged with the state's Lodging Association.)
On the agenda: Allowing restaurants to count tips as part of a server's minimum wage; the creation of an entry-level "training" wage, lower than the minimum wage; and maintaining tavern owners' share of Oregon Lottery commissions.
Having a friendly governor and sympathetic lawmakers could make a difference in realizing those aims. Dudley, when he dished about the minimum wage, was speaking at an ORLA event. His campaign spokesman did not return a message seeking comment.
Political observers, however, say that just because a business gives money to ORLA political committees, that doesn't necessarily mean it supports the entire agenda. Banding together to lobby for more higher education funding, or business-friendly tax policies, could be seen as a tradeoff for also attacking the minimum wage.
Jesse Bearden, sharing a pitcher with friends at McMenamins' White Eagle Tavern on the night of Monday, September 27, considered where his beer money was going and called it "definitely a gray area."
"There's a fine line," he says. "It disappoints me. McMenamins has fingers all over this city. But I don't think I'd stop going."