November 01, 2002 11:00 pm

By Ray Linker

Observer Staff Writer

The letter — addressed to Wayne Kinney, who is the point man in Northeast Oregon for Democratic U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden — came in the mail:

"Fellow Citizens," it began, "This letter is to confirm that the Oregon State Council of Senior Citizens has endorsed Democrat John Howard for County Commissioner of Union County."

There was no mention in the letter that the seniors' group had previously endorsed Howard's opponent, Republican John Lamoreau, without giving Howard a chance to present his credentials before the decision on the endorsement.

Neither did the letter discuss the political pressure brought to bear after the seniors endorsed Lamoreau in the


Dated Oct. 22, the letter from Verna Porter, vice president of that Portland group, was the latest epistle in a brouhaha that had been boiling below the surface of the local campaigns of Lamoreau and incumbent Howard.

Howard, who has held the office for 16 years, used the letter as the basis for an advertisement in the Oct. 28 Observer and in subsequent issues.

That ad did not sit well with Lamoreau, seeking his first elective office. He said Friday he had secured the endorsement of the same group in early summer.

Porter acknowledged this week that the group had endorsed Lamoreau earlier although her letter to Howard did not say so.

"The council's board unanimously voted to endorse him (Howard). All

the retirees were supportive of him," Porter said in a phone interview with

The Observer.

But, yes, the group had previously endorsed Lamoreau, who manages the Grande Ronde Retirement Residence in La Grande, Porter said.

"He (Lamoreau) is a very good advocate for seniors. But after that endorsement, we were advised that Mr. Howard had equal commendations and we agreed to support him. We felt we didn't have enough information the first time around. We got more details and were inclined to endorse both," Porter said.

Questioned further, she said, "It is definitely a co-endorsement."

Howard said he was never given a chance to make a pitch to the seniors' board for its endorsement before the board endorsed Lamoreau.

"I was surprised that my opponent received the endorsement without that group giving me an opportunity to seek the endorsement,'' Howard said. "I feel my opponent took advantage of a friendship with Jim Davis. Davis didn't bother to check on my involvement with senior programs."

Davis is a director of the Oregon State Council of Senior Citizens and the treasurer of the Multnomah County Democratic Central Committee.

On Friday, Davis said the senior group unanimously endorsed Lamoreau in late summer.

"There were no objections. It was only when John Howard's supporters came forward that it became an issue. Most of our (Senior Council) endorsements are for statewide races. But we do sometimes offer what I term ‘friendship' endorsements in some other races. Lamoreau has had a history of long service to seniors, and no one knew much about Howard. As far as I knew, he had not been actively involved in seniors issues," Davis said.

Davis called Lamoreau "a friend and colleague I have worked with in the senior community for 15 years." That support for a Republican by a staunch Democrat resulted in a letter from Michelle Laherty, the interim executive director of the Democratic party of Oregon, to the Multnomah County central committee's chairman, Jim Robinson.

The Oct. 4 letter said Davis should "either withdraw his endorsement of Mr. Lamoreau or resign his position with the Multnomah County Democratic Party."

Davis fired back with his own two-page, single-spaced missive. He wrote that the proposed dismissal was "excessive ... more of an attempt to punish me for not agreeing with certain Democratic leaders on the Lamoreau-Howard race."

Davis, an active Democrat for 25 years, ended the letter with: "I do not plan to withdraw my support of John Lamoreau nor will I resign (from the Democratic committee)."

Davis, in his letter, said the "escalation" of the endorsement controversy "was apparently orchestrated by Mr. Kinney."

Kinney, from La Grande, is a Democratic party national committeeman from Oregon in addition to being the Eastern Oregon representative for Wyden.

Davis said the initial endorsement of Lamoreau "precipitated a strong, well-organized response from Wayne Kinney."

Davis said in the letter to Laherty he had had two conversations with Kinney and state Rep. Dan Gardner "in which they

tried to convince me that the OSCSC PAC should co-endorse both candidates."

Davis said Friday the Multnomah County Democratic Party had tabled the issue of his dismissal and that several Democrats were appalled at Kinney's part in seeking the co-endorsement for Howard.

"I still feel it was a vindictive effort on the part of Wayne Kinney to get involved like that," Davis said Friday.

Davis said he stood by the statements in his Oct. 10 reply to the party. He said the senior group gave the co-endorsement to Howard on Sept. 27 when Gardner made a plea to the group after Davis had left the meeting of its board. Davis said he disagreed with the co-endorsement and "the pressure applied by the party."

Gardner did not return phone calls seeking comments for this story.

Kinney declined comment for this story.