Nike Touts Its Climate Initiatives. So Why Is Phil Knight Bankrolling A Logging Industry Ally?

Phil Knight has given an astonishing $1.75 million to timber heiress and former Democratic state Sen. Betsy Johnson’s bid for Oregon governor.
Illustration:Jianan Liu/HuffPost Photo:Getty Images

Nike, the Oregon-headquartered footwear and apparel giant, has worked in recent years to boost ― some argue greenwash — its image via sustainability initiatives.

The company’s “Move to Zero” campaign includes helping to safeguard one of the most important natural tools in the fight against climate change: forests. Through a partnership with WeForest, an international reforestation organization, Nike says it has funded planting more than 1.4 million trees in Brazil and Ethiopia. And in its native Oregon, the company has purchased forest carbon offsets from EFM, a Portland-based investment manager, to make up for emissions associated with shipping its merchandise.

But as Nike portrays itself a champion of forests and an ally in the global climate fight, the company’s billionaire co-founder and chairman emeritus, Phil Knight, is pumping huge money to one of the biggest political allies of Oregon’s logging industry.

Knight has given an astonishing $1.75 million to timber heiress and former Democratic state Sen. Betsy Johnson’s bid for Oregon governor. Johnson, 71, has a long record of catering to extractive industries, namely the logging sector that wields enormous power in Oregon and that made her and her family rich. That deference has recently earned her admiration and even an award from pro-logging activists in the state with ties to several right-wing extremist groups.

Johnson shook up the gubernatorial race late last year when she resigned from the Oregon legislature, where she’d served on the Senate’s powerful joint ways and means committee, left the Democratic Party, and announced her independent candidacy for governor. Johnson officially qualified to appear on the November ballot late last month, after gathering and submitting the required 23,744 valid signatures. She faces Democrat Tina Kotek, the former speaker of Oregon’s House of Representatives, and Republican Christine Drazan, the former Oregon House minority leader.

Oregon has had a Democratic governor since 1987 and only once in its history elected a third-party or unaffiliated candidate. Current Democratic Gov. Kate Brown, one of the most unpopular governors in the nation, is unable to seek reelection due to term limits.

Johnson portrays herself a moderate in a field of extremists, someone who can lead from the middle to find common ground at a time of fierce political division. “To do that, we need to recapture the maverick spirit, break free from the straitjacket of extremism and party politics,” she said during a July candidate debate. “We need to put the people back in charge.”

It might be an appealing message in a polarized state like Oregon. But her climate record and ties to industry has activists shaken.

“We are all a little terrified here in the environmental community,” said Steve Pedery, conservation director at Oregon Wild, a Portland-based environmental group. Oregon Wild Conservation Leaders Fund, a separate but affiliated 401(c)4 nonprofit, is behind an anti-Johnson website called “Corporate Bought Betsy.”

“Her background and political affiliations are with the worst of the worst logging industry players out here,” Pedery said, adding that she has generally shown “contempt” for timber interests that have embraced more responsible and sustainable practices.

Johnson’s campaign did not respond to HuffPost’s requests for comment.

Attempts to contact Knight via a Nike spokesperson were unsuccessful. Nike did not respond to HuffPost’s requests for comment about its founder’s contributions and how they square with the company’s forestry initiatives in Oregon and abroad.

Unaffiliated candidate Betsy Johnson speaks during a gubernatorial debate hosted by the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association on July 29.
Unaffiliated candidate Betsy Johnson speaks during a gubernatorial debate hosted by the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association on July 29.
Jaime Valdez/Pamplin Media Group via AP, Pool

A Potential Spoiler

Johnson is a serious, but long shot, contender for governor. She brings a mixed bag of political priorities: On one hand, she’s vowed to protect Oregonians’ abortion rights; on the other, she has dubbed Portland a “city of roaches” and promised a tough-on-crime approach to criminal offenders and homeless people. She has also pledged to keep “culture wars” out of school classrooms.

On climate, Johnson only thinly disguises her primarily right-wing agenda that is heavily favorable to timber interests in the state — and many environmentalists are concerned that, even if she never comes to enact it, her presence in the race could tip the contest to the Republican candidate, who in 2020 led state GOP House members in a walkout to block Democrats from passing climate legislation.

These concerns are evidently not shared by Knight, or “Uncle Phil,” as he is affectionately known in Oregon. He is by far Johnson’s biggest backer, accounting for nearly one-quarter of the money she’s raised.

With two months until the election, Johnson has a war chest that tops both main-party candidates. She has raked in more than $8 million in campaign contributions and has nearly $3 million cash on hand, according to state campaign finance data. Kotek has raised $8 million and has $1.8 million on hand. Drazan has raised $7 million, with $1 million in the bank.

It’s not the first time the Nike founder has used his fortune to try to sway an Oregon race. In 2018, Knight gave a stunning $2.5 million to GOP gubernatorial candidate Knute Buehler’s unsuccessful bid — contributions that Rolling Stone reporter Tim Dickinson wrote at the time “seem out of step” with Nike’s progressive campaign ad starring former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Nike Inc. gave $85,000 to Democratic incumbent Gov. Kate Brown that cycle.

Knight retired as Nike’s chairman in 2016. Although his day-to-day activities with the company have ceased, he remains an honorary board member and can attend board meetings as an observer. His son, Travis Knight, has served on Nike’s board of directors since 2015.

Phil Knight, co-founder and chairman emeritus of Nike, has contributed $1.75 million to Johnson's campaign.
Phil Knight, co-founder and chairman emeritus of Nike, has contributed $1.75 million to Johnson's campaign.
Drew Angerer via Getty Images

Joining Knight in backing Johnson’s campaign is a wide array of large timber interests. The Pape Group, a supplier of heavy logging equipment, has donated $750,000. Sierra Pacific Industries, the second largest lumber producer in the U.S., has chipped in $200,000. Roseburg Forest Products Co. has given $150,000. And Johnson received $100,000 each from Hampton Lumber, Robert Freres Jr., the president of Freres Lumber Co., and Paula Teevin, the wife of Teevin Bros. Land and Timber Co. owner Shawn Teevin.

Johnson has walked a fine line in talking about who will be her priority if elected. She has said her campaign is “powered by the people of Oregon,” and that her “loyalty resides with them, not with any political party or special interest.” On the flip side, she welcomed support from Knight and promised to have business executives, including presumably those timber CEOs, on “speed dial.”

“I am proud to have [Knight] and other job creators in Oregon in my corner,” she said in an April interview with KOIN 6 TV in Portland, going on to bemoan Oregon as “unfriendly to business.”

The consensus among political observers in Oregon seems to be that while Johnson is unlikely to prevail in November, she could easily spoil the race in either direction. In a March interview with KOIN 6, then-GOP gubernatorial candidate Bud Pierce said Johnson would draw more Democratic votes, and her candidacy “sets up” a possible GOP victory in November. “It’s our chance,” Pierce said.

A Republican-commissioned poll in June showed Johnson trailing Drazan and Kotek by at least 7 and 8 points, respectively, among likely voters. And in August, the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia changed the race to a “toss up,” noting that the three-way race “sets up an unusual situation where the winner may not need to crack even 40%.” It added that Johnson would be the “the most surprising winner,” and that “Kotek and Drazan both will be working to try to prevent their voters from flocking to her banner.”

Neil O’Brian, a political scientist at the University of Oregon, stressed that while money often correlates with political success, not all campaign donations are equal. He compared Johnson’s fundraising to that of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s unsuccessful bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012, when he received millions of dollars from billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson but failed to garner grassroots financial support.

“I think that’s sort of what’s happening to Betsy Johnson now,” O’Brian said. “She’s attracting high-dollar donors, but she’s not getting a lot of small-dollar donations that matter. Getting a lot of donations from a lot of different sources tends to reflect that you have wide political support. She just doesn’t have that.”

Johnson is confident in her chances and has dismissed the idea that her role is that of a torpedo.

“Whoever finishes third in this race is going to be the spoiler, but I fully expect that I’m going to be the next governor of the state of Oregon,” she told KOIN 6.

The ‘Biggest Obstacle To Climate Progress’

Johnson’s campaign website includes an entire section about climate change being one of her priority issues. In it, she calls climate change “the greatest threat to our environment” and says Oregon has “a responsibility to ourselves and the next generation to do our part to protect our climate and planet.”

But her proposal for confronting it, while vague, reads like something crafted in an industry boardroom or taken straight from a Republican climate strategy: fewer regulations, prioritizing private sector innovation to cut emissions, and increased logging as a solution to extreme wildfire.

“I’ll put Oregonians to work in the woods to better manage our forests, with thinning, controlled burns, and sustainable forestry practices,” her website reads.

An aerial photograph of logging clear-cuts in the forest near Yachats in Lincoln County, Oregon.
An aerial photograph of logging clear-cuts in the forest near Yachats in Lincoln County, Oregon.
halbergman via Getty Images

It’s true that decades of aggressive fire suppression have left America’s forests overgrown and prone to extreme fire, and that better management can reduce wildfire risk and make forests more resilient. But talk to any climate expert or forest ecologist, and they’ll tell you America can’t simply log its way out of its wildfire problem, which is being exacerbated by rising temperatures and drought.

Johnson’s website says little about addressing the fossil fuel emissions that are driving the global crisis, other than that she’d “continue pushing Oregon into a green energy future, including protecting the 100% carbon free hydro.”

It’s a platform that would, however, benefit Oregon’s timber industry. Johnson hails from a logging family. Her late father, Sam Johnson, was a third-generation timber man who for decades marketed and sold wood from his family’s vast timber holdings. He served seven terms as a Republican state representative and later as mayor of Redmond, a small town north of Bend.

Around the time of her father’s death in 1984, Johnson began inheriting her chunk of the timber family fortune — at least $11 million, The Oregonian reported last month. She has refused to release her tax returns, arguing she has a constitutional right to privacy. Still, it is clear she would enter the governor’s office with myriad potential conflicts of interest. Johnson maintains an extensive stock portfolio, including investments in timber company Weyerhaeuser, aviation giant Boeing and oil company Global Partners, all of which have operations in Oregon, according to a 2021 financial disclosure statement.

Family timber fortune and personal investments aside, Johnson has played an outsized role in blocking climate action at the state level. In 2019, Oregon Republican state senators fled the Oregon State Capitol in Salem to deny the Democratic majority the quorum needed to vote on and pass a sweeping cap-and-trade bill. During the weeklong standoff, Gov. Brown dispatched state troopers to track down the lawmakers, and law enforcement was forced to close the capitol in response to threats of violence from militia groups.

In the end, Democrats fell short of the 16 votes needed to pass the bill, despite their 18-11 majority in the Senate. Johnson was one of three Democrats who opposed the measure.

The following year, a second iteration of the climate bill came up for a vote. Again, Republicans fled town to protest what Drazan, now the GOP nominee for governor, at the time called a “rigged” process. Days later, in response to legislative inaction, Brown signed an executive order that established more ambitious state climate goals, capped greenhouse gas emissions from industrial and energy sectors and directed state agencies to aggressively curb pollution and improve energy efficiency.

If elected, Johnson and Drazan have both vowed to repeal Brown’s climate order. At the July debate, Johnson called it a “complete usurpation of the legislative process.”

“Climate change is real and Oregon has to do its share to lower our carbon footprint,” she said. “But I reject the premise that the progressive bills that were brought forward — that the economic burden should fall on hard-working Oregonians.”

Demonstrators against a cap-and-trade bill aimed at stemming global warming protest on Feb. 6, 2020, at the Oregon State Capitol in Salem.
Demonstrators against a cap-and-trade bill aimed at stemming global warming protest on Feb. 6, 2020, at the Oregon State Capitol in Salem.
AP Photo/Andrew Selsky

On her climate page, Johnson touts her 64% lifetime score from the left-leaning Oregon League of Conservation Voters. “I am proud of that,” she writes.

The feeling is not mutual. The organization’s executive director, Doug Moore, told HuffPost that Johnson has been “terrible” on climate, voting against every significant piece of climate legislation over the last decade. He called her score “artificially inflated,” citing how her support was often necessary for legislation to make it to the floor for a vote.

“She was constantly seeking to undermine those efforts, voting against them, speaking out against them in caucus trying to stop them, trying to persuade other colleagues to oppose it, holding her vote for ransom on unrelated pieces of legislation in order to kill things,” Moore said. “A lot of that stuff is more qualitative than quantitative. It doesn’t show up necessarily on a scorecard. But I would absolutely say that the single biggest obstacle to climate progress was Betsy Johnson being that key vote in the Oregon Senate.”

One of Johnson’s final acts in the state legislature before her resignation was voting against an ambitious bill that requires the state’s largest power companies to reach 100% clean energy by 2040. Brown signed the bill into law last July.

It’s an anti-environment, pro-industry record that has earned Johnson fans in far-right circles.

‘One Of Us’

In February 2020, Timber Unity, then a fledgling pro-logging, anti-environmental group, organized a rally outside the capitol to oppose the second cap-and-trade bill. As has become the norm for Timber Unity events, the rally drew far-right extremists, anti-vaxxers and QAnon conspiracists. Members of the anti-government militia Three Percenters (also known as III% or Threepers) flew the organization’s flag and wore sweatshirts that read “When Tyranny Becomes Law — Rebellion Becomes Duty.”

It was largely a right-wing affair to push back against Oregon’s latest attempt to confront the undeniable and mounting climate threat. Yet, there in the thick of it was Johnson, then still a powerful Democratic state senator. Photos from that day show Johnson proudly hoisting above her head both a #TimberUnity sign and a chunk of wood emblazoned with a loaded logging truck in front of the state capitol building — a “courage and conviction award” that the group bestowed on Johnson for her outsize role in killing the same legislation the previous year.

“This woman here is a Democrat, but she is one of us,” Jeff Leavy, the founder of Timber Unity, said in his introduction. Johnson thanked the crowd for “standing strong” against what she dismissed as a “bad bill.”

Timber Unity has numerous connections to far-right militias and other extremists, as Mother Jones and other outlets have detailed.

What recently looked like a budding relationship between Johnson and Timber Unity appears to have fallen apart, as Johnson seemingly works to distance herself from her most extreme supporters. In a post last month to Facebook, Angelita Sanchez, the Timber Unity spokeswoman who marched on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, but later condemned the violence, wrote that she had been in frequent contact with Johnson, and that Johnson had asked for Timber Unity’s endorsement. But when Sanchez approached Johnson to talk face to face during an event in the town of Sweet Home, where Sanchez serves as a city councilwoman, Johnson repeatedly “turned her back,” Sanchez claimed.

Rolling Stone recently asked Johnson about her connection to Timber Unity. Sanchez is “no friend of mine,” she told the magazine. Timber Unity has since snubbed Johnson back. This week, the group endorsed Drazan in the race.

Johnson recently received and rejected an endorsement from Mike Nearman, the former Republican state lawmaker who was expelled from the Oregon House after he helped a group of armed, violent, far-right protesters breach the state capitol in December 2020 — a sort of prequel to the attack on the U.S. Capitol a month later.

“I didn’t ask for his endorsement, I don’t want his endorsement and I reject his endorsement,” Johnson said in a statement to The Oregonian. “He broke the law, he incited violence at our Capitol and he’s an extremist.”

Nike did not respond to numerous requests for comment for this story. When the company announced its plans to purchase carbon offsets from EFM’s two forestry projects in Oregon, Bert Stevens, the vice president of Nike’s North American supply chain, said Nike hoped “to elevate the critical importance of Pacific Northwest forests in reducing global emissions and highlight the potential that climate-smart forestry has to contribute to mitigating climate change in a meaningful way.”

But if Betsy Johnson manages to win or spoil the November election, Oregon will have Nike’s billionaire founder to thank in part for the backward steps on climate that will likely follow.

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