Free Oregon – A Group that Preys for Power, or is it Prays?
A recent episode of This American Life titled “Watching the Watchers” reported on a surge of far-right and MAGA-aligned activists gaining traction within conservative groups across the country, focusing specifically on Arizona.
“The person who first reported that there’s this surge of new Stop the Steal recruits becoming precinct committeemen around the country for the Republican Party was Isaac Arnsdorf. He was at ProPublica when he did that. These days, he’s a politics reporter at the Washington Post. And he’s been tracking this takeover of the Republican Party in swing states all over the country.
He allowed us to tag along with him. We were happy to go. He and one of our producers, Zoe Chace, hit the road together to see how the presence of these Stop the Stealers is changing things. If they get their way, it’s going to shift the party and the way we do elections pretty fundamentally for years to come.
So today on our show, we’re going to look at how all this is playing out in Arizona, a place that some MAGA people like to call ‘Magazona.’ And we chose Arizona because the movement there has really been setting the pace for the rest of the country.”
According to Isaac Arnsdorf, the precinct committee person surge was created by Steve Bannon. The idea is to fill as many seats as possible with MAGA supporters, people Bannon believes will prevent the stealing of an election from happening again whilst trying to prove that it did, according to them, happen. The goal is to remove the corrupt politicians who allowed the election to be stolen in 2020, according to Bannon.
”What they’re talking about is the mainstream Republicans in Arizona and Georgia and Michigan, people who went ahead and certified the election results for Joe Biden, accepted that Trump lost, did not stand by him in his neediest hour. To prevent that from happening again, Dan Schultz and Steve Bannon want an army of MAGA enthusiasts to be in place and be ready for the coming election in just a few weeks.”
All over the country, people began to sign up answering Bannon’s call to take over the Republican party from below. But this is not a new attempt by the Christian Right to try to take over, these same tactics are rooted farther back in history.
Here in the Pacific Northwest, one group has taken this approach and run wild with it: Free Oregon.
Rhetorical Roots Run Deep
Certain rhetorical devices have been used by the Christian Right to broaden their audience for a very long time. In the late 1980’s and 1990’s, the New Christian Right movement attempted to take over the Republican party in a similar fashion.
Mass broadcasting has been one of the ways that both fascist capitalism and white Christian supremacy continued to spread in society.Through the use of language many studies have looked at the way Christianity has shaped rhetoric and how it has changed over time. One such study from 1995, published in the journal Review of Religious Research, looked at the way the movement began to adapt its language after in the late 1980’s and 1990’s. Vernon L. Bates focused on a subgroup of the NCR, an official Oregon Political Action Party, the Oregon Citizens Alliance. Bates analyzed data collected through field research; from in-depth interviews, participant observation, movement literature, review of the state records registered for the PAC, and media. In his study he analyzed whether or not the OCA was actually transforming into a more tolerant group.
He found that, after the failed presidential campaign of the NCR movement leader, Pat Robertson, Christian leaders began using language that moved away from explicit exclusion and, apparently, more towards accommodation.
“The movement can be characterized as primarily rural and suburban, white, working class/blue collar, high-school educated, and conservative Christian (fundamentalist, charismatic, Pentecostal, Evangelical).”
The PAC considered itself a principle based grassroots organization, one with an army of organized volunteers, paid leadership, and a one million dollar budget.
“The organization is institutionalized, bureaucratized, and hierarchical and has an office located nine miles from the Oregon state capital. It has a statement of principles that must be accepted by the members, a membership fee of $5.00/month, a paid leadership, a highly organized organized volunteer staff, a training program for staff and budget now exceeds one million dollars a year and most of that money comes in the form of contributions of small sums of $100.00 or less.”
The PAC leaders insisted that it was tolerant and inclusive, often referring to members of all religious groups, “even the Mormons.”
“The leaders of the movement characterize their movement as middle class and make sure to point out that they are Jews, Catholics, and even non-church goers as members, a part of their pluralist claim, although their assertions are not verified in the data collected in this study.”
Without the evidence to prove it, the political director affirmed that position.
“If you look at our membership form we do not ask about religious affiliation. We even have Mormons. Out of ten elected people we had Mormons. It is no evangelical organization. I am an orthodox Roman Catholic. I have had to kick out two or three individuals. They held negative positions on Jews. I would not tolerate their views and kicked them out. We have black members.”
Funding raised through individual contributions to the PAC was used to grow its support and member base and increase its political influence. The OCA worked to expand their coalition and budget while trying to influence legislation and elect politicians they saw as the “right” fit for public service, using two forms of language.
“The language of the Oregon Citizens Alliance is a bifurcated language: an inclusive language, which is both pluralistic and secularized, and an exclusive language, which is daily spoken by both leaders and followers.”
Bates’s study argues that this “accommodation language” was not just bifurcated but also deceptive. The OCA leaders would speak in a manner that gave the appearance that they were moving away from pluralism towards tolerance, a more secular state of being.
But Bates data showed that it was just smoke and mirrors, in other words the group continued to be extremely exclusionary, just as the Christian Right had always been.
According to Bates, the OCA was a powerful movement within the Republican party here in Oregon–one with whom many conservatives didn’t want to contend. To cross a member of the OCA could easily lead to the end of a political career.
They had the power to control the Republican party through their massive influence and reach. PAC volunteers canvassed door-to-door, organized actions, rallies, protests, and flag waves.
The group expanded to other states like Washington, Utah, Idaho and Ohio. Major efforts were undertaken towards the promotion and creation of anti-gay and anti-abortion/pro-choice legislation while promoting white Anglo-Saxon protestant values.The OCA viewed abortion as murder and homosexuality a mental disorder that required conversion therapy and eradication.
“For example, the state financial director makes the following point: ‘I do not think overcoming homosexuality requires Christianity; it is a psychological and an emotional problem that can be addressed through secular resources. I absolutely believe that it is an illness. You do not need to be a rocket scientist to know that someone who is sodomizing someone is sick. The anus was not made as a sexual organ. The homosexual movement has grown powerful and the number of psychiatrists willing to tell the truth and challenge that power is diminishing, but there are some courageous psychiatrists who are willing to take on this political movement.”
The PAC also believed it was the government’s responsibility to support their Judeo-Christian beliefs as rooted in the “founding fathers.” Thus they affirmed their stance as constitutional and Christian fundamentalists who used radio and T.V. networks to broadcast their beliefs of hate and exclusion disguised as toleration to expand their support base, just like John R. Brinkley.
The Birth of Free Oregon
Free Oregon was formed by its CEO and president Ben Edtl, a disgruntled small business owner who suffered major losses due to the COVID-19 pandemic and his refusals to follow mask mandates. It should be no surprise that Edtl chose not to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
On his LinkedIn profile Edtl claims roots in a “liberal family,” whose ideology he later rejected, signing up as a Young Republican. Though he “adopted the value of education from his family” he dropped out after his first year in college to open his first business. He also started Edtl Handball.
By 2020, he was the CEO of Dovetail Coffee — a coffee roaster and group of neighborhood cafes in both Northeast and Southeast Portland. But, according to the one article, during the pandemic Edlt “refused to wear a mask” or require that of his employees and he said he was “pressured to put up BLM flags and was doxed.”
“The police were no help when revenge vandalism occurred,” wrote Tom Hammer of the Northwest Observer, a right-wing outlet.
During the pandemic, Edtl was forced to close his coffee businesses after receiving mask mandate violations from the state. Edtl’s LinkedIn profile claims that “the emergency orders barring customers from visiting restaurants” forced him to shut down. He said that along with that order all of his “wholesale accounts closed” in 72 hours.
True to his roots, Edtl has been attempting to get revenge for his suffering, and gain power while claiming he is defending freedom for everyone.
Like other conservative conspiracy theorists and hate spreading broadcasters before him, Edtl too uses social media platforms, podcasts, and radio waves to broadcast awareness, increase his support base, raise money for his endeavors, and to gain political power. He is currently a talk show host on the Beyond Limits Podcast and still runs his handball business. He was a radio personality with his own show on Freedom 970 KUFO touted as “Portland’s Right Place to Talk.” He is also a “motivational speaker” and was, previously, the president of a now-closed charter school.
“With nothing more to lose and inspired to fight back against government overreach, Ben founded Free Oregon in January 2021.”
Edtl is now a 2022 general election candidate for Oregon State Senate District 19.
Though the organization is current with its CT-12 filing with the state as a non-profit, they are not required to file as a 501(c)3 or other tax exempt non-profit. Thus, there is no 990 record for tax purposes and donations are not tax deductible.
Drawing on the smoke and mirrors language demonstrated by the OCA, Edtl framed Free Oregon’s mission to appear as though they are a bipartisan group, “not Republican or Democrat,” merely citizens, defending civil rights.
Using double-crossing “bifurcated accommodation language,” Free Oregon claims on their website that they support “equal constitutional rights for every American to live their lives freely, worship and support social movements as they wish and decide for themselves to best address the world’s inherent dangers.” Once again, giving the appearance of acceptance, toleration, and inclusion.
Free Oregon concentrates its efforts on seven areas of concern, or pillars: a socially neutral government, election integrity, First and Second Amendment rights, medical freedom, education, and public safety.
Good examples of Bates’ accommodation language are found under one of those pillars, education.
Though they claim they are not opposed to gay rights, their actions suggest they’re actually anti-gay rights. They “oppose integration of the LGBTQ+ ideological movement in our public school curriculum, Comprehensive Sex Education, and Critical Race Theory indoctrination.” Free Oregon does not support the use of tax money towards social issues which promote or advance the interests of “one-sided political ideology.”
In other words—Free Oregon is exclusive—excluding LGBTQIA+ people and their allies.They also oppose education on abortion and access to birth control, and learning and teaching the true ugly history of the United States. Free Oregon is specifically against learning about the effects of white supremacy, such as privilege, slavery, racism, eugenics, tyranny, murder, and genocide. You know, the systems of inequality introduced by the white founding fathers that perpetuate, still, to this day.
Instead, Free Oregon believes that public education should be “ideologically neutral and serve its purpose.” They support academic standards and achievement for all children, regardless of race, economic status, and sexual orientation,” they just don’t want you to identify as anything outside of their beliefs.
As far as which standards and achievements children should be held, Free Oregon, just like the OCA before it, is a predominately white and Christian organization. They support Christian standards and achievements that maintain the status quo — their privileged, capitalistic, and fascist society that they have become accustomed to. These people would much rather prefer a male dominant nuclear family and the belief of life ruled by one God: the vengeful Christian God.
More examples of Free Oregon’s bifurcated language are found under public safety.
“The City of Portland defunded its police force and disbanded the Gun Violence Task Force based on the claim that the police and criminal justice system is institutionally racist. Multnomah County District Attorney, Mike Schmidt, has refused to prosecute violent criminals. As a result, gun violence, murder rate, assault, theft and other felony crimes have skyrocketed. More than two-thirds of the victims of gun crimes in the city of Portland are Black. The defunding of police and refusal to prosecute is widespread in major West Coast cities. These actions reflect the radical social movement called “Restorative Justice.” Through the Restorative Justice “lens” criminals are treated as the victims and actual victims are left to fend for themselves. Restorative Justice is most detrimental to minority and low-income communities. Free Oregon opposes Restorative Justice in all its manifestations and demands a return to safe communities.”
Here, Free Oregon attempts to appear pluralist but obscures the truth about defunding the police, institutional racism, and restorative justice by manipulating their meanings. Free Oregon fails to source any of their information but goes on to perpetuate tired negative stereotypes when stating that “two thirds of gun crime victims in the city are Black.”
Portland did re-appropriate funds from the task force and re-directed it towards “communities of color.” The task force they defunded, previously titled the “Gang Enforcement Team,” was known to specifically target Black individuals regardless of the name change.
The Multnomah County District Attorney, has admitted they are experiencing significant issues as a result of losing staff while gun crimes are on the rise. Cases are backlogged but they haven’t “refused” to prosecute violent crimes, they simply are unable to take on the case load given the circumstances.
And current demographic statistics on the victims of those gun crimes are not available.
By lumping all of these issues into one, Free Oregon attempts to blur the definition of restorative justice.
Restorative justice tries to change the way crime and punishment is handled in our society, to reduce the harm caused to all due to crime. The focus is on bringing peace to both the victims and the perpetrator, and to reduce the number of people incarcerated through programs dedicated to reconciliation, building peace, relationships, and even job skill training for those serving short sentences.
Taken individually, their platform is representative of right-wing movements all across the country ahead of the 2022 midterms. But Free Oregon’s focus on local and state elections is a troubling development — especially since they seem to be having success.
Past Goat Seeds Grow and Pray For Power
By growing their network, Free Oregon tries to influence local school boards, libraries, and public policy, as well as taking part in “flag waves.”
Members are asked to donate as little as five dollars a month. The organization uses the money raised to fund lawsuits against the state, city, and counties in which they operate. Many of those lawsuits are related to election integrity, mask mandates, and vaccines.
But, because the group has declared itself a non-profit, current financial statements about their gross income and expenses for Free Oregon are unavailable. Before the PAC became a non-profit, contributions totaled $9,216.74 and “dinner ticket” proceeds of $3,779.98.
Funds paid back to Ben Edtl for personal loans, website and donation platform subscriptions, and misc personal expenses totaled $12,225.35.
According to the Northwest Observer, as of last May Free Oregon raised $100,000 in donations used to fund 16 lawsuits. “It will take at least $160,000 to finish them,” the article said. Most of Free Oregon’s leaders are volunteers, and Edtl’s personal income was not reviewed or requested.
Free Oregon also uses exclusive language meant for just members and leaders, just as Bates described of the OCA as well. It’s used to grow their network and advance their one-sided ideology that favors people with white skin who believe in one God.
To stay connected with their members and like minded organizations as part of their efforts to “restore and defend civil rights in Oregon,” Free Oregon hosted “statewide town hall meetings.”
Edtl, along with his partners, Stephen LaTulippe and Paul Cantrell, the group’s chief pastor, all rely on their personalities and skills to entertain their audience and keep them paying while spreading lies and misinformation. Cantrell closed every town hall with a prayer.
According to Free Oregon’s website, LaTulippe is a family medicine physician, retired officer of the U.S. Air Force, and a Christian ordained minister.
“He is an American Frontline Doctor who is currently fighting cancel culture in medicine,” the website says.
However in true “radio goat doctor” fashion, LaTulippe’s license to practice medicine was revoked during the pandemic for bucking COVID guidelines and spreading misinformation. That revocation was open for reconsideration this year but, in July 2022, the medical board affirmed their decision.
This is not a deterrent for MAGA supporters though, as they are also anti-mandate, anti-mask, and anti-vaccine. In their eyes, LaTulippe is a medical freedom hero.
Edtl would begin each weekly meeting with a short introduction. In the relaxed atmosphere, Edtl quickly transitions away from the inclusive speech he uses for broader audiences, into the typical and tired exclusive language of the Christian Right. Calling his opponents out by name using divisive language.
Often, spotlights during the meetings would be given to Free Oregon’s “teamwork” partners, including the Oregon Firearms Federation, Restore Oregon, Coalition to Save PDX, Oregonians for Medical Freedom, Parents’ Rights in Education, and more.
Edtl sells his business as a grassroots coalition and movement. Relying on the work of volunteers and their money to advance his own political power.
During the meetings, recorded via ZOOM and broadcast live on Facebook and posted on Rumble, a YouTube alternative popular among the far-right, Edtl and his friends encouraged members to not just donate their business, but to get involved too.
One may volunteer to be part of the coalition in various roles at Free Oregon. The organization is looking for influencers, social media managers, research analysts, and issue advocates. Most importantly, Edtl encourages his audience to become precinct committee members, which apparently allows individuals to do more as Free Oregon political action director.
Previously, the leaders were listed on the Free Oregon website, but that information has since been removed.
The political action directors are responsible for providing current news in their county during the town-hall meetings but are also largely responsible for advancing the group’s ideology so that Republicans vote for Free Oregon candidates in the primary and general elections.
They do the groundwork, the door-knocking, the organizing, the flag waves, the protests and rallies. The political action directors do the daily action of drumming up support for the organization along the way. The Free Oregon leaders, political action directors, members, other PACs, and affiliates use the exclusive language freely during the town hall meetings too, spreading stereotypical, heteronormative, views, with misinformation and hate.
Free Oregon coalition members also enjoy other perks of membership. According to online records, Hindman-Allan is the top contributor to Ben Edtl for the People, contributing $6,040, representing 15% of his campaign contributions in 2022.
She had the privilege of receiving Free Oregon’s endorsement for her recent campaign for Clackamas County Commissioner this last May, as did many of the other directors. This, of course, is the end game, pooling money and power to take control of the Republican party.
On May 16, Free Oregon held a special town hall in which they hosted primary election candidates to the audience.
Each representative was given three minutes to read a prepared statement about why they were running. Turns out that many of the candidates are Free Oregon coalition members and were all running for different positions. Free Oregon supported a few candidates running in the same race too, stacking the deck in hopes that one of their candidates would win.
Some succeeded in the primaries.
At that time, the organization had six directors. Gabriel Buehler of Washington County, Benjamin Kibler of Marion County, Sharrie Ryan-Bivins of Columbia County, Ibra Taher of Lane County, Will Hobson of Hood River County, and Dana Hindman-Allen of Clackamas County. Most of whom are precinct committee members, hold other GOP positions, or campaigned and ran in the 2022 primary.
Free Oregon’s weeky townhalls have received over 3000 views according to the Northwest Observer, and had over 20,000 members in May 2022.
Edtl is not shy about his relationship and support of members of the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, and other extremist right wing groups either. Dan Tooze is an Edtl campaign contributor, Tooze has donated a total of $400 and receives support from Free Oregon.
On Oct. 8, in Salem, Free Oregon hosted a political rally at the Oregon Capital. Edtl was joined by his political action directors and other coalition candidates to encourage voters to vote no on Measure 114. Buehler, in a video posted to Facebook to promote the event, promised that if the measure was approved, it would be found “unconstitutional” and it would take tax dollars to fight it in court.
The stage for the day’s event was provided for by none other than the Proud Boys and Tooze.
In June, the town hall meetings abruptly ended – or, at least, are no longer live streamed on Facebook.
Instead, Free Oregon began posting weekly prayers asking their supporters to join them in praying to God for direction, guidance, blessing, and support in their work.
Free Oregon’s growth, influence, and power is not achieved without that mutual support. If you are the right fit to the Free Oregon mold, do the groundwork, and are an “influencer,” one can go far as becoming Free Oregon-endorsed politician.
Many of the political action members and partner organizations are also responsible for stirring up direct action against and involvement on school boards, initiating or blocking recalls, and organizing protests around the state of Oregon, often resulting in violence, twisting the definition of “teamwork.”
Free Oregon lists the politicians they currently support asking followers to “check out these freedom loving candidates” on their website.
Free Oregon is also expanding their reach to other states with the help of people like Tina Peters, Mike Lindell, and others who believe in sovereign citizen conspiracies, as well as fundamentalist Christians.
Through the use of this coded “accommodation language” Free Oregon makes it clear, for those who can read between the lines, that they are opposed to civil rights and freedom for almost all individuals–unless you look, think, and act just like them.
Using the precinct committee person theory and working with a growing budget and group of volunteers working as precinct committee people, running for city council and other public board seats, ousting members, or running as state and local representatives, Edtl and Free Oregon have made massive steps to “take back the government,” and make Oregon great again–for some.