On Thursday afternoon, the Democratic leadership that controls both houses of Oregon’s legislature conceded that their Republican colleagues who had staged a walkout were not going to return and decided to formally adjourn the current session. It was only the latest such confrontation taking place over the last year that has repeatedly brought the state’s politics to a standstill. Timber Unity, a right-wing group that was established last June and claims to represent a loose coalition of truckers and loggers, has received most of the credit for the walkouts by organizing its members to swarm the state capital, sometimes by the thousands, backing the recalcitrant legislators with logging trucks and tractors in tow.
A nine-day Republican standoff last summer over a climate bill only ended once Democratic Gov. Kate Brown deployed state police to round up lawmakers who had left the capital. Since then, Republican legislators who mostly represent rural areas have staged at least four other such boycotts—three with support from Timber Unity—taking advantage of a state constitutional provision that requires a two-thirds quorum in each house to conduct business. The bulk of the walkouts, including this week’s, were sparked by bills aimed at addressing climate change.
While the group has been hailed by state and national Republicans, and includes at least one former Oregon GOP lawmaker among its leaders, its participants have had no qualms associating with violent extremists and far-right groups. Several senior members have been photographed alongside members of neofascist or militia groups, and when pressed, its leadership has failed to disavow such ties. Its rallies have prominently featured messages backing QAnon, the sprawling internet conspiracy theory that posits a cabal of liberal elites are running a pedophile ring, and that has spurred real-world violence.
“While Timber Unity has sought to downplay these links, an investigation of its social media channels has found extensive ties between its leaders and Far Right figures, as well as the use of racist, homophobic, Islamophobic, and violent rhetoric by its supporters,” explained Spencer Sunshine, a sociologist who researches right-wing extremists, in a report he compiled for Oregon environmental groups. “The organization already has a history of and association with groups who have either made violent political threats or have supported violent actions.”
The walkouts have been effective, preventing Democrats from passing legislation or forcing them to make key concessions. Ten days ago, when Democrats introduced a compromise version of the 2019 climate bill that would cut state emissions in half by 2035 and set a 2045 target for 100 percent renewable energy, 11 Senate Republicans staged their latest walkout, joined by all but one House and one Senate Republican. The shutdown they triggered stretched into a second week, halting all legislative progress on the bill and dozens of others involving health care, gun control, and education.
Timber Unity’s presence in a state dominated by Democrats has convinced Republicans lawmakers that the group “has their back; that there is this grassroots out there that’s going to support them in the next election,” says Brad Reed of Renew Oregon, a organization that supports the climate bill.
To most Oregonians, Timber Unity’s success in thwarting climate legislation has been supported by its presentation as a grassroots, seemingly organic backlash by rural residents connected to logging, trucking, and farming—something like a Pacific Northwest version of France’s yellow-vest protests. Its website plays to that image, boasting that “we’re not just standing up for the men and women who work in our NW forests. Every one of us who is connected to working the land has a voice in #TimberUnity.” But the group has forged connections with corporate logging interests—state records show the largest early donation to its PAC came from Andrew Miller, the CEO of Stimson Lumber—and even President Donald Trump. In July, its leaders were invited to attend a White House speech by the president on his environmental record, and this fall they participated in a listening session in Oregon with his campaign manager and daughter-in-law. In January, they were presented an award by the state’s Republican party.
Mother Jones has reviewed screenshots of members’ posts to Timber Unity’s private Facebook group that were assembled by Sunshine and local advocacy groups for his report. They document a forum awash with violent threats, conspiracy theories, and sometimes racist messages that likely violate the platform’s terms of service.
Members have repeatedly posted about physically harming or even killing people with whom they disagree. “When you thought you hit a dog, but realize it’s just climate change protestors” read one meme shared in the group involving a picture of Robert Downey Jr. standing outside a stopped car expressing relief. Threats about using guns or hanging to target political opponents are common. We also reviewed posts making unambiguous threats to Gov. Brown’s life.
Timber Unity’s supporters have used the group to spread conspiracy theories. In the last week, a post alleging “china/Oregon collusion to take over…timber and rural Oregon communities” accrued hundreds of likes and comments, including ones backing an “insurgency” in response or blaming coronavirus on Democrats and the Chinese. Messages have included hoaxes about George Soros, the liberal megadonor who is a frequent target of anti-semitic conspiracies, and misinformation about vaccinations and baseless claims of their harmful effects.
Other posts have disparaged Native Americans and deployed racist slurs. One suggested that a “nicka” (a sanitized version of the n-word) should be tased, while another joked that the NAACP stands for “Negroes Are Actually Colored Polaks.” Sunshine’s report documents Islamophobic messages including “The Muslims who are getting stronger every day in silence [are] the real enemy,” and “Tennessee, unfortunately, is becoming liberal to the point of Muslims running for offices.”
The Facebook group’s moderators, who have the power to remove and censor such posts, include one of Timber Unity’s board members, Tasha Webb, and other leaders in the organization like Todd Stoffel and former Republican state Rep. Julie Parrish. While some of the posts and threats appear to have been deleted, plenty remain. Searching “rope” in the group will return many examples of violent threats. Anti-China conspiracy theories were also still accessible.
Parrish said in a text message that she “absolutely” disavows these sorts of hateful comments, and elaborated in an email that it’s hard to moderate a large Facebook group.
“There is nothing productive that comes from political debate which devolves into personal attacks based on race, gender, etc.” she wrote. “We work hard to keep our community on topic about economic issues and in a group of almost 60,000 very different opinions, we rely on the community to report violations of community rules so our moderators can remove content that violates our terms of service.” She claimed her focus in the organization was elevating “rural voices” and “working class” members who in her view, are not extremists.
Offline, Stoffel has been photographed alongside at least one member of the neofascist Proud Boys and Angela Roman, a U.S. congressional candidate whose own attorney has identified her as a member of the Three Percenters. That right-wing militia was founded in 2008 in response to Barack Obama’s election as president, and offered to provide “security” in 2019 to Oregon lawmakers who were in hiding after they had walked out and fled the state. In the photo, Stoffel and Roman appear with a Proud Boy flashing the “okay” hand-sign, which, in the context of right wing extremist groups, is an explicitly white supremacist symbol.
Other members of Timber Unity’s leadership have been photographed with Roman, including board member Angelita Sanchez and spokespersons Adam Lardy and Mike Pihl.
Roman didn’t directly respond to a request for comment, but provided a link to a nearly 15-minute video released on Thursday in which she denied being a racist but didn’t distance herself from the Three Percenters or the Proud Boys. When asked about Timber Unity’s associations with QAnon followers and groups like the Proud Boys and Three Percenters, Parrish noted that “None of our board attends or belongs to either of those groups,” but declined to disavow any association with such groups when pressed, saying “We’re not the free speech police.” Stoffel did not return an email requesting comment, but Parrish said on his behalf that it “would be shameful if you choose to dishonor a man,” she wrote, “with biracial grandchildren.”
Local green activists complain that Timber Unity’s associations have had a chilling effect on their own political activity. “Environmental groups have watched this trend and worry about retribution,” says Steve Pedery of Oregon Wild, one of the organizations that funded Sunshine’s report. “We learned lessons from Bundy opposition. We paid a price for that,” he added, referring to harassment that took place after the organization opposed Ammon Bundy’s 2016 armed occupation of the federal Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon.
Pedery explained that local environmental groups have been intimidated from speaking with the press, even anonymously, and that allied organizations outside of Oregon’s cities feel particularly vulnerable. “Rural groups came to us asking for help in exposing these far-right ties,” he said. “Those rural activists are more vulnerable than we are, and they have legitimate reasons to be concerned.”
Timber Unity has associated with unpalatable and dangerous right-wingers from its inception in 2019. A week after their first rally in Salem, early member Loren Hutnick was photographed with Joey Nations, a prominent Oregon nationalist who has teamed up with the violent far-right group, Patriot Prayer, to attack anti-fascist counter-protesters on the streets of Portland. (Nations is a member of Timber Unity’s Facebook group, in which he’s posted on several occasions.) Other extremists with notable profiles in the state have participated in the movement, including Jason Patrick, Kenneth Medenbach, and Maureen Peltier, all three of whom took part in the occupation of the Malheur refuge. According to Sunshine’s report, they have each attended Timber Unity rallies or posted in its Facebook group. Patrick and Medenbach were respectively imprisoned and jailed over their Malheur involvement.
Thursday’s adjournment demonstrated once again that the walkouts have been an effective tactic for Republicans, and for groups like Timber Unity that support them as a tool to subvert democratic norms and win legislative battles opposing climate change legislation, gun safety reforms, and other progressive policy goals despite being in the minority. While walkouts have been used by legislators of both parties in several states, they are usually reserved for extenuating circumstances, and rarely deployed with the frequency that Oregon Republicans have recently undertaken.
The Republicans’ use of the tactic has not been popular in Oregon, according to polling commissioned in January by public sector unions and reported on by Willamette Week. Sixty-three percent of respondents who said they were likely to vote in November indicated they were disinclined to support incumbents who took part in the boycotts, with 42 percent saying they were much less likely to do so.
In his report, Sunshine recommends that elected officials and Oregon news media not turn a “blind eye to Timber Unity’s connections to Far Right organizations and conspiracy theories, nor should they ignore the group’s tolerance for its supporters using bigoted language and advocating actions that the overwhelming majority of Oregonians would find abhorrent.”
“They’re both profiting off of an extremist space and refusing to distance from it while posing as mainstream organization,” says Sunshine.
This post has been revised to correct Parrish’s title and the composition of the legislators who remained in Salem. It has also been updated with more information on Timber Unity members’ associations.