Newspaper That Made Smith Allegations Hosts Party With Democrats

Posted December 18, 2008 at 1:57pm

Down the stretch of the bitter 2008 race that incumbent Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) lost to state Speaker and now-Sen.-elect Jeff Merkley (D), the Willamette Week newspaper wrote a couple of scathing stories on Smith’s business practices at his frozen food plant that Democrats immediately turned into a series of effective political hits.

Now, the Oregon Democratic Party and the Willamette Week, an alternative weekly, are celebrating — together. The two entities have joined forces to co-sponsor a presidential inauguration party set to occur in Portland on Jan. 20, the day President-elect Barack Obama will be sworn in.

Republicans are crying foul, saying it proves what the GOP and Smith’s supporters knew all along — mainly, that the newspaper was on a mission to oust the Senator. Ironically, Willamette Week editor Mark Zusman is equally annoyed, saying the joint inaugural party with the Oregon Democratic Party should never have happened.

“What we’re doing is completely wrong and completely inappropriate, and I don’t like it all,” Zusman said in a telephone interview Thursday afternoon. “We throw parties with a lot of organizations. The Democratic Party of Oregon should not be one of them.”

The party, to be held at a club in Portland called Holocene, was spearheaded and organized by the Willamette Week’s marketing department, Zusman said. The Oregon Democratic Party does not feel as though it has anything to apologize for.

“This is a celebration, no more, no less,” party spokesman Marc Siegel said. “It’s an historic occasion.”

As Smith was fighting for his political life earlier this fall, the newspaper ran investigative pieces that looked at the hiring and employment practices at Smith Frozen Foods, which is owned by the Senator.

In two stories, the alternative weekly alleged that Smith’s company knowingly hires illegal immigrants, a charge the Senator’s campaign vehemently denied. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee used the stories to score political points in a tough campaign ad intended to boost Merkley’s candidacy.

Smith ended up losing to Merkley, 49 percent to 46 percent, with an independent conservative candidate garnering 5 percent of the vote. Merkley’s victory has mostly been attributed to the strong Democratic tide that enveloped Oregon on Nov. 4.

But some Republicans believe the Willamette Week’s reporting — which they argue was faulty and politically motivated, played a large role in the outcome of the race.

“We’ve known for some time that [the Oregon Democratic Party and the Willamette Week] were co-existing,” said one Republican strategist who followed the Senate race. “I’m glad to see that they are not being shy about it anymore.”