State Rep. Mike Nearman — one of the Legislature’s most conservative members — is the new state director of the anti-union group Freedom Foundation.
The Republican from Independence started last week and was a natural fit, said former director Aaron Withe.
“Mike’s been very on board with what we do at the Freedom Foundation, and has assisted in giving us ideas in the past,” Withe said. Withe was promoted from the state job to lead a national push for the foundation.
The Freedom Foundation is a conservative nonprofit based in Olympia, Washington, devoted to undercutting the power of labor unions through lawsuits. It claimed victory in 2018 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a lawsuit the foundation supported. The so-called Janus decision held that public sector labor unions can’t force nonmember workers to pay dues.
Until that ruling, public employees typically faced union assessments because they were seen as benefiting from the work of unions regarding pay and benefits.
“This is an important organization,” Nearman said. “This is the only organization of its type that does what we do.”
Nearman declined to disclose his salary. He will continue serving in the Legislature.
Pro-union organizations contend the Freedom Foundation works to dismantle organized labor to the benefit of large corporations. The foundation describes itself as a nonpolitical group focused on informing workers of their rights.
Journalists have tied the group’s funding to conservative groups such as the Koch Foundation and The Bradley Foundation.
Nearman’s ideology squares nicely with the foundation’s efforts. In 2016, Nearman’s wife, Debora, sued her union for collecting dues, then funding political efforts such as spending $50,000 to unseat her husband, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported at the time.
Withe said that’s part of why Nearman was a natural choice.
“He’s seen firsthand what the unions can do,” Withe said.
Nearman said he doesn’t see a huge difference between his work at the Freedom Foundation and as a legislator.
“It’s kind of the same goal,” Nearman said.
Nearman was elected to the House in 2014 and has one of the most conservative voting records in the Legislature. He won the informal “Dr. No” award in 2018 — a playful accolade given by the chamber’s more conservative members to the representative who votes “no” more than anyone else. Nearman came in third this year.
Prior to taking office, Nearman worked as a cab driver, dishwasher and gravedigger, according to his legislative biography. He was also chair of the Polk County Republican Central Committee and vice president of Oregonians for Immigration Reform.
Nearman’s role in the reform group caught public attention in 2018. He denied he was an officer despite confirmation from the group itself that he was vice president. He subsequently stepped down from Oregonians for Immigration Reform.
Nearman’s role in the group returned to focus this week with word of his new position with the Freedom Foundation.
“In addition to being rabidly anti-worker, he sits on the fringe of Oregon politics and has been a key leader of an anti-immigrant hate group,” Peter Starzynski, executive director of the pro-union Northwest Accountability Project, said in a statement Wednesday. “He once called developmentally disabled workers ‘subsidized workers,’ has opposed expanding health care to low-income Oregonians referring to it as ‘candy’ and even opposed making insurance companies cover people with pre-existing conditions.”
Nearman said Starzynski presented his quotes out of context. He doesn’t recall the “subsidized workers” comment or the “candy” one but said he did vote against expanding health care. On pre-existing conditions, Nearman said he thinks the government should step in to cover those people, rather than insurance companies.
“When this guy is trying to sift through several years of policy from me, that’s probably not the best way to have a policy discussion,” Nearman said.
Withe said anything Nearman did as a legislator was separate from his role with the Freedom Foundation.
“What he said in the past is what he said,” Withe said.
The Northwest Accountability Project is staunchly opposed to the Freedom Foundation and supports organized labor.
Nearman said any notion of his work with the foundation conflicting with being a lawmaker is incorrect. He likened it to state Reps. Rob Nosse and Brad Witt, both Democrats working for unions. Withe said legislative attorneys said there was no issue with Nearman taking the job.
“I don’t see any problem keeping it separate,” Nearman said. “I have a job supporting workers, and I just don’t think there’s any big conflict there.”