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BACKGROUND: The “Freedom” Foundation’s Failure to Change the Political Landscape in Oregon, California, and Washington

In no uncertain terms, the so-called “Freedom” Foundation’s mission is to take out unions in order to win elections for right-wing candidates (in violation of their non-profit tax-exempt status). They have set their eyes on turning the “blue states” of Washington, Oregon, and California “red”, and have spent tens of millions of dollars and years of staff time trying to do it. And what do they have to show for it? Following the 2020 elections, all three states have pro-union Democrats in the governor’s mansion and increased majorities in the state legislature, including supermajorities in the legislatures in Oregon and California, and continue to be reliably blue for Democratic Presidential candidates. We think it’s fair to say the “Freedom” Foundation’s dream of Republican dominance has failed completely.

In a recent newsletter to donors, Freedom Foundation CEO Tom McCabe explained the origin of their ulterior political motives. Recounting his 2013 master plan to oust “left-wing politicians” from Washington state, he bemoans the “woeful lineup” of Democratic governors he’s had to live through – “Lowry, Locke, Gregoire, Inslee.” McCabe recalls how he took the helm at the “Freedom” Foundation and drove it forward with the goal to defund public sector unions and defund Democrat politicians – to “replicate [Gov. Scott] Walker’s remarkable successes in Wisconsin…”

Despite what the Freedom Foundation’s CEO and the rest of their leadership might want you to believe, this notion of taking out unions for right-wing gains was not his idea. The 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) hosted a who’s who panel of right-wing activists including Grover Norquist, Reince Priebus, and the head of Americans for Prosperity, the Koch’s “grassroots” front group. The topic of the panel was how to turn “blue states” into “red states.” The consensus was that the first step for any state is to attack and weaken labor unions who the right-wing view as a major funder of progressive candidates and causes.

CPAC Conference: On Turning Blue States Red

The “Freedom” Foundation is trying (and failing) to follow this blueprint along the West Coast. And while the “Freedom” Foundation misrepresents their mission to union members, McCabe didn’t hide his true intentions when he said: “[a]nother reason we have to take [Labor Unions] on is because we as conservatives want certain things–we want education reform and we want pension reform and we want less taxes and we want smaller government and you’re never going to get those things with unions standing in the way,” adding that “[w]hat Scott (Former “Freedom” Foundation Vice President) and I and the staff at the “Freedom” Foundation want to do is limit their sphere of influence and reduce their sphere of influence down to something that’s proportionate to their size and allow the conservative voice to be heard so we have a plan to do that.”

In 2014 in the wake of the Harris v. Quinn supreme court decision, national right-wing donors including the Bradley Foundation devised a plan to convince home healthcare providers in Washington State to quit paying union dues to their union and decided to use the “Freedom” Foundation as the vehicle. The Harris decision allowed these providers to quit paying any dues or fees to their union and still reap the benefits of the union-negotiated contract. In the fall of 2015, nearly a year and a half after the Harris decision the “Freedom” Foundation moved into Oregon to target their homecare workers. After only persuading a small number of individual providers (IPs) and failing to do any noticeable damage to any union, the campaign failed.

Nevertheless, they set out to implement a similar effort in the wake of 2018’s Janus v. AFSCME decision which applied the same principle in the Harris decision to all public sector union members including educators, state workers, and county and city workers. Below are just a few more examples of how the staff and leadership of the Freedom Foundation have crossed the legal line of using their tax-exempt dollars to push a political agenda on behalf of right-wing candidates and causes.

“Freedom” Foundation CEO Tom McCabe recapped the formation of his group’s political agenda in a November 2020 newsletter to funders.

In a memorial written for a recently deceased board member, McCabe discussed the political agenda they crafted together years ago. McCabe bemoaned the succession of Democratic governors and other “left-wing politicians” in Washington state, characterizing them as “pawns of the public-sector employee unions.” He recalled the “awe” they had for then-Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin’s attack on public sector unions and helping boost Republican power in that state. They decided to drive the “Freedom” Foundation forward with the same goal, to “replicate Walker’s remarkable successes in Wisconsin…” and they would attack unions “in order for conservatives to ever have a chance.”


McCabe discussed the need to reduce the power of unions as a means to counter the fact that unions have made Washington the “bluest” state in the country.

On January 6, 2015, McCabe explained the organization’s rationale for attacking labor unions to a group of attendees at the “Freedom” Foundation’s Free Washington Tour event in Shelton, Washington. According to those in attendance, he told the audience that taking down unions would be a blow to the Democratic Party and a boon for Republicans: “When I got to the Freedom Foundation – it was about 13 months ago – I told my staff, ‘we need to fight unions.’ Because unions have corrupted our state, they have ensured that we’re the bluest state in the country. And I told my staff, all these things we’re fighting for, whether it’s property rights, whether it’s lower taxes, whether it’s less government spending, whether it’s agencies that are duplicating efforts – all of that stuff cannot be accomplished until the power of unions has been dissipated, until we reduce that power of the union, until frankly we defund it.”

Scott Roberts, former Vice President of the “Freedom” Foundation laid bare their mission at one of their Freedom Academies, a series of events they hosted to train potential Republican candidates for office.

Among many of Roberts partisan statements at this event, the most telling was when he said the following: “The Freedom Foundation has decided that in order to advance anything that we want on the conservative side we first have to undo this undue influence cycle, the cycle of public sector unions giving money to politicians, politicians being elected and then giving the unions more monopoly power.”

The “Freedom” Foundation sent a letter to individuals in Oregon soliciting contributions and discussing their motivations as defeating “left-wing radicals.”

 On August 31, 2015, the Freedom Foundation sent out a fundraising email signed by McCabe who described the current environment in the Northwest as under “one-party rule.” A few quotes from the letter:

“Are you tired of the Pacific Northwest being dominated by left-wing radicals?”
“Freedom Foundation is leading the most aggressive push in twenty years to take back the Pacific Northwest.”
“…the takeover of the Pacific Northwest by the Left took a lot of money and sophistication, as well as the raw determination to co-opt the region’s political machinery…the Freedom Foundation is the only group working on a region-wide basis to mount such a response.”
“If this goal seems a little too ambitious or farfetched to you, just consider what’s happened in Wisconsin – another “blue” state, that is, until it suddenly wasn’t – where men and women of courage stepped up and took bold actions.”
“To put it simply, the union bosses bankroll the left-wing establishment in our region…”

Aaron Withe, the current National Director for the Freedom Foundation has revealed their true, partisan agenda on a number of occasions when talking to right-wing activists.

In July of 2018, as he was thanking the activists for the Oregon Executive Club, he said of the Freedom Foundation’s tactics: “…and how we’re going to implement our plan in Oregon to remove the unions, government unions, political influence.”

On January 7, 2019, Withe said to a group of activists in Hillsboro, OR: “It’s no secret to us that our goal is to remove government unions influence from politics. One of the ways we do that is by telling people that they can leave their union and remove their funding at the source.”

The Results

The last two elections are overwhelming indicators of the Freedom Foundation’s failures. Not only have pro-labor candidates won races up and down the ballot along the West Coast, but unions played a major role in influencing the outcome. In 2020, union ally Joe Biden won California, Oregon, and Washington by even wider margins in 2020 than Hillary Clinton in 2016.

How has the political landscape changed in each state since the “Freedom” Foundation began their attack?

Oregon:  In no uncertain terms, pro-labor Democrats continue to win everything they need to in Oregon and increase their power in the state. Pro-labor Governor Kate Brown won her election and signed historic minimum wage and paid scheduling legislation into law. The Democrats now have supermajorities in the legislature and four destructive ballot measures were soundly defeated in 2018 while four progressive ballot measures passed overwhelmingly in 2020. In 2020, union ally Shemia Fagan handily defeated longtime Republican Sen. Kim Thatcher for Oregon’s powerful Secretary of State race, flipping the seat from Republican to Democrat. Fagan entered the primary late but won on an impressive grassroots victory, backed by Oregon’s largest unions.

Washington: In 2018, pro-labor Democrats increased their seats in the legislature and now have comfortable majorities in the legislature and control of the Governorship. Additionally, pro-labor candidate Kim Schrier flipped CD 8, a longtime Republican-held district, beating “Freedom” Foundation ally Dino Rossi by four points. In 2020, Washington Governor Jay Inslee easily won re-election to a third term, backed by the states’ labor unions. In Washington legislative races, one of the last political allies of the “Freedom” Foundation, Steve O’ban, was defeated by labor-endorsed candidate T’wina Nobles, adding even more Dem seats in the legislature.

California: In 2018, Gavin Newsom, a progressive, pro-labor candidate, easily won his election while the Democrats won supermajorities in the state legislature. Orange County, a Republican bastion, and the county in California where the “Freedom” Foundation has spent the most time went all blue for congressional races for the first time. 2020 saw the Democratic state government trifecta continuing in this state with the party poised to make historic gains in the State Senate. The California Labor Federation also launched a massive GOTV operation into battleground states, helping Biden/Harris win the race. (Not to mention California had one of the highest Biden vote margins in the country.)

After more than five years, and over twenty million dollars spent, the “Freedom” Foundation and their funders simply have not had the impact they wanted. Oregon, California, and Washington remain strong labor states. Working families keep winning well-deserved compensation increases like the recent Los Angeles teachers strike, pro-worker policies keep passing and pro-worker candidates keep winning. California, Oregon, and Washington have led the nation in progressive, pro-labor policies. In that timespan, these states have passed historic minimum wage increases, fair scheduling laws, and paid sick leave for all while protecting the retirement security of public workers.

In summary, the political climate along the West Coast is moving in an entirely opposite direction from the “Freedom” Foundation’s vision. Instead of seeing more Republicans elected, the West Coast states are getting bluer each year and public sector unions are playing a central role in all of these victories. The “Freedom” Foundation’s plan to manipulate public workers into dropping their union membership and thereby “defund unions” is simply not working. Unions and their members have beat back every cynical and partisan attack, remaining a powerful voice for the interests of working people and a staunch ally of pro-labor elected officials.


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