Melissa Unger isn’t on the ballot this election. But the labor leader is everywhere in Oregon politics

Melissa Unger is loud. The longtime Oregon organized labor leader has a voice and presence that fill a room, including for years almost any room where the state’s most powerful elected leaders forge major policy decisions.

“She’s got a loud voice and a great laugh,” said Kalpana Krishnamurthy, who has known Unger since they both attended University of Oregon two decades ago. “This whole time she’s been the fastest talker and the fastest thinker I know.”

Unger has already made a huge impact in Oregon, from playing a key role in electing a pro-union secretary of state to helping raise corporate taxes for schools.

The native Oregonian is poised to play an even larger role in state politics if Democratic candidate for governor Tina Kotek, a close confidant, wins election on Tuesday.

But Unger would also likely continue to have a big impact if Republican Christine Drazan wins, given the leader of the state’s largest union’s ability to get measures on the ballot. She and her allies could use that power to thwart a Republican governor and expanded Republican power in the Legislature.

Unger, executive director of Service Employees International Union Local 503, was at the center of a yearslong push by public employee unions to add a big corporate tax to Oregon’s government revenue stream. That drive culminated in 2019, when Democrats and some big businesses pushed through a plan to inject roughly $1 billion a year into schools.

The next year, Unger and SEIU Local 503 backed Shemia Fagan’s last-minute decision to enter the race for secretary of state, joining a three-way contest against two more centrist Democrats. Unions largely bankrolled Fagan’s primary win.

And in 2021, during redistricting, Unger advised then-House Speaker Kotek how to pass new legislative and congressional district maps favorable to Democrats in the face of Republican and business groups’ opposition.

Unger is known for being extremely driven; one former longtime insider said some politicians described her as a “blunt force power” whose approach can be off-putting.

Julia Brim-Edwards, a policy and business strategy consultant who was previously a Nike executive, said Unger’s political power largely derives from the sheer size of SEIU 503′s membership and its political fundraising capabilities. “She’s one of the few people who can just put something on the ballot or be a very big influence in a political campaign,” said Brim-Edwards, who is also a member of the Portland Public Schools board.

A year ago, Unger briefly considered running for governor, a remarkable move for anyone with no prior elected government experience. She ruled out running soon after Kotek announced her bid for governor, Willamette Week reported.

Unger, who is married and has two children ages 6 and 9, has spent nearly all of her career in organizing and labor. Her one detour into political campaigning was in the 2012 election, when she served as executive director of Oregon House Democrats’ political action committee. At the time, Kotek led the Democratic caucus.

Nick Smith, who was executive director of the House Republican caucus PAC in 2012 and now works at American Forest Resource Council, said Democrats’ success retaking a majority in the state House in 2012 reflected Unger’s political chops.

“She’s certainly a skilled political operator,” Smith said. “Perhaps one of the most powerful Oregon Democrats that nobody’s heard of outside of state politics. And from what I saw, someone who really worked seamlessly among the funders, the political institutions, the grassroots to really build this machine that delivered a decade of dominance for her party.”

Unger grew up in a large Catholic family with branches around the state, one of four children who lived on the family’s farm in Cornelius. Her father, a Republican, ran the farm, and her mother, a Democrat, worked for the Catholic church in a capacity that often involved community service, Unger said in an interview. She and her siblings recently purchased the farm, after her father retired.

Her uncle Matt Unger, who recently retired from running a berry farm, remembers Melissa as “just a typical kid, I guess. Funny, outgoing, very family oriented.”

Unger had hearing problems and a speech impediment and was in special education during her early elementary years. “Public school played an important role in getting me through all of that,” Unger said.

Felisa Hagins, the political director for SEIU Local 49 and a longtime friend of Unger, said they attended high school together but did not become friends until their time together at University of Oregon.

Melissa Unger, wearing a purple shirt and standing in the center back of the group, joined other union leaders, climate activists and Democratic lawmakers on the Capitol steps in 2020 to demand that Republicans end their walkout.

Both attended the Eugene university with the help of need-based assistance now known as the Oregon Opportunity Grant. Unger got her start in politics as a student lobbying against tuition increases and in support of continuing the need-based assistance program, she said.

“Politics was telling my story in front of the Legislature,” she said.

After a brief stint working in student organizing in California, Unger moved back to work at the Oregon Student Association. There, Unger met Aimee Wilson, who is now married to Kotek. “I knew Aimee for 20 years,” Unger said.

Her next job was as a political organizer at SEIU Local 503.

Arthur Towers, SEIU Local 503′s former political director, said Unger “was one of the best hires I ever made. She has a real passion for the members … She understands that she works for them, she understands the struggles that low wage working women go through and really that’s her guiding light.”

Unger was director of the SEIU Oregon State Council in mid-2014 when her older brother Ben, who had won election in 2012 to a Hillsboro state House seat, was hired as executive director of the political nonprofit Our Oregon, which is largely funded by public employee unions and plays a big role supporting and opposing ballot measures.

Both Ben and Melissa Unger were highly involved in the hugely expensive but unsuccessful 2016 campaign to pass Measure 97, public employee unions’ attempt to pass a business tax that could have yielded double the amount of revenue as lawmakers approved in 2019. Ben Unger stepped down from Our Oregon the following spring; after moving to Georgia, he has generally been out of Oregon politics.

In 2018, the beverage industry, grocery chains and the Oregon Association of Realtors put two ballot measures before voters that would have prohibited taxes on groceries and made it more difficult for lawmakers to raise taxes. Public employee unions and their allies campaigned against the two measures, which went down to defeat.

A group of odd bedfellows helped convince voters to reject the anti-tax measures: unions, Nike and the Oregon Health Care Association, which represents long term care facilities. The alliance took shape after SEIU Local 503 and other unions agreed to drop a proposed initiative that would have forced publicly traded companies such as Nike to disclose their tax payments.

The groups got to work shaping a new proposed tax to boost school funding, a version of which lawmakers passed in 2019 as the Student Success Act.

Brim-Edwards, who worked for Nike at the time but was not authorized to speak about that work, said passage of a large corporate tax for schools was a testament to Unger’s political skills. Supporters of the deal had to push through small public pension trims in order to get it passed, which is still a source of anger for many public employees who Unger represents.

“Being open and transparent about what everybody’s interests were, and agreement on the final goal, is what made the Student Success Act — and the largest investment in public education in more than 50 years — happen,” Brim-Edwards said. Unger tends to be open to any solution that meets the needs of her members, the former Nike executive said. But, Brim-Edwards noted, she does not give up.

“Melissa gets her elbows out. She’s smart, she’s tough and she’s also unafraid to take risks, which is what makes her effective. If you’re on the other side of an issue from her, that’s a very powerful combination. Get run over or get onboard.”

Melissa Unger, executive director of SEIU Local 503, speaks at a union event in 2022.

Melissa Unger, executive director of SEIU Local 503, speaks at a union event in 2022.

SEIU Local 503′s roughly 70,000 members are split among state government, higher education, the home care workforce, childcare, nonprofits, adult foster care and local governments, including school districts like Portland where they run nutrition services. Union members elect the executive director.

“She loves to build a really smart and strategic team and that’s huge part of her political success,” said Hagins, the labor union leader who is Unger’s friend. “It’s being a really collaborative person to solve problems.”

“She always centers herself on ‘Who are the folks we’re representing?’ and I think that’s a really central core piece, and has been ever since she was doing that for students 25 years ago when I first met her,” said Krishnamurthy, who like Unger went into student organizing after college.

That’s how Unger explains her union’s role in Fagan’s 2020 decision to enter the secretary of state’s race, not long after another union-favored candidate, former House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson, dropped out. Oregon has no lieutenant governor and the secretary of state is an office that can serve as a stepping stone to run for governor.

“I’m not denying that Shemia Fagan, when she was deciding to run, definitely had conversations with us,” Unger said. “There’s one thing our members have learned is not all Democrats are the same. It’s about who will be a true champion for workers.”

Months later, Unger called around to House Democrats to track their level of support for another longtime champion of organized labor, Tina Kotek, who was seeking reelection as House Speaker. Kotek faced a challenge from Rep. Janelle Bynum, a Happy Valley Democrat and the only Black woman in the state House. Bynum dropped her bid after reaching an agreement with Kotek for changes that could address barriers to lawmakers of color rising to leadership positions.

As for Unger’s own brief flirtation with the idea of running for governor, it led to some joking by her uncle Matt Unger, a Republican. “I said I was going to run against her,” Matt Unger said.

Unger said she “seriously considered it for a minute but it was more about filing a void than considering whether I should run for governor.”

— Hillary Borrud;; @hborrud

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