GOP firebrand crashes Oregon's often-polite politics
Grayson Dempsey was at a Girl Scouts camp in the Columbia River Gorge with her 8-year-old daughter in August when her phone started buzzing.
Social media accounts were sending notification after notification. Dempsey, the director of NARAL Pro-Choice Oregon, watched anti-abortion advocates accuse her organization of cutting up babies and mixing them into ice cream to sell at a pro-choice fundraiser.
"This is so disgusting it wouldn't surprise me if they partnered with Planned Parenthood and developed this hideous new flavor with harvested baby parts!" one person wrote on Twitter.
Dempsey blamed Jonathan Lockwood, an aggressive Republican strategist and employed as the spokesman for three Oregon legislators. He publicly denounced the fundraiser and called on others to do the same.
Lockwood is a provocateur, using incendiary language in press releases and on Twitter to cause a stir and get people talking about issues he and his political bosses care about. His flashy style, a burnished tan, coiffed hair and patent leather loafers, is as much a contrast in the Capitol as his political persona: a bomb-thrower in a polite political and cultural landscape.
He has written racially charged tweets at state Rep. Jennifer Williamson, D-Portland, and called Gov. Kate Brown an abortion lobbyist and terrorist.
And Lockwood was behind a controversial statement in early February that roiled the Capitol and left one of his legislative employers to endure a wave of rebuke. It was his handiwork behind the press release put out Feb. 7 in the name of state Sen. Dennis Linthicum, R-Klamath Falls. Linthicum made what others in the Legislature considered racially insensitive remarks about a black man who died at the hands of police.
The senator hasn't backed down, and neither has his hired wordsmith. "I have been extremely effective when there is room to do so," Lockwood said.
His style clashes with a national yearning for more racial sensitivity, bipartisanship and civil discourse.
Dempsey said Lockwood likes to launch "grenades in the public sphere" because "he knows he can get a lot of attention."
Molly Woon, Democratic Party of Oregon spokeswoman, said Lockwood is deliberately provocative. "That is not the role of a communications person that gets a state paycheck," Woon said.
Lockwood plies his skills for Linthicum, state Sen. Kim Thatcher, R-Keizer, and Rep. Bill Post, R-Keizer. Their legislative offices share the cost of Lockwood's state salary of $4,700 a month.
"We hired Jonathan because he is effective at generating important conversations," Thatcher said in a statement. "The smears against him, along with the apparent petty jealousies of his abilities, are clear examples of some of what's wrong with the culture in Salem."
Post declined an interview but backed Lockwood's performance in a written statement. "I hired Jonathan Lockwood because I loved the work he did in Colorado, the work he did in the Senate Republican office, and the work he did in Florida this past summer," Post said. "Jonathan is smart, well qualified, and has the ability to navigate the media realm."
Linthicum didn't respond to requests for interviews.
I will not back down from telling the truth. I will not be silenced.— Jonathan A. Lockwood (@JNTHN_LCKWD) February 8, 2019
Oregon has a truth problem. And thatâ€™s why I am here.
Told to shut up
Lockwood's prime duty is to craft messaging for the legislators, but he also does research and talks with the media. Lockwood said he does strategize with other Republican legislators, but his emphasis is on the three who pay him.
A native of Denver, Lockwood started college to study fashion design but found he couldn't sew. He then tried the music industry, but a hiring freeze where he was an intern made him change course again.
A friend's mother, who was a state representative in Colorado, suggested he look at politics, and he landed an internship in Colorado's House Republican office. He was soon embroiled in controversy over a television commercial attacking a U.S. senator for supporting a nuclear deal with Iran. The ad showed children counting down, a nuclear blast, and then a scorched planet.
Lockwood said that commercial, which generated an outcry, was one of his crowning achievements, because it prompted debate.
"There were efforts to shut me up then, just like there are now," Lockwood said.
In 2016, he took a job with the Senate Republican caucus in Oregon, handling communications, and the following year signed on to the gubernatorial campaign of Knute Buehler. After four months, he was out.
Lockwood said the campaign's shift to the left and conflicting political messages handcuffed him as a spokesperson. "They beat me to the breakup," Lockwood said.
Buehler's campaign officials declined comment.
Lockwood then worked for another Republican candidate before leaving the state for political jobs first in Texas and then in Florida.
Lockwood, 30, returned to Oregon in December after being offered a position with the lawmakers. His messaging for the public officials who employ him is often more personal and inflammatory than the standard party rhetoric from caucus offices. People are quick to share what they think about him, but often off the record for fear of drawing his ire. His detractors say his loaded press releases are self-serving and that he puts raising his own profile over that of his employers.
"I think I am just speaking the truth and that some people want to turn me into a pariah so that they can assassinate someone and smear them as something they're not," Lockwood said. "The politics of personal assassination is dominating political discourse, and it is hurting people."
Yet Lockwood won't explain the evolution of the Linthicum statement. In a release entitled "I can't breathe," Lockwood blamed the death of a New York's Eric Garner on high tobacco taxes, following a state proposal to increase tobacco taxes. In fact, the man died after being choked by police during an arrest.
Republican and Democratic leaders in both the House and the Senate attacked the statement. They aimed their anger not at Lockwood but at Linthicum. Lockwood said he was taken aback by the comments of Republican leaders. He said other Republican legislators told him in private, though, that they disagreed with their leaders and agreed with Lockwood's message.
The apparent political crisis, he said, actually worked to galvanize Republican ranks. "Republicans overwhelmingly want to fight the super majority's policies," he said. "Being told to shut up and then getting smeared showed Republicans inside and outside the building really what we are facing this session."
Lockwood also uses his personal social media accounts to go after political opponents. On Twitter, he has 6,500 followers – twice as many as House Speaker Tina Kotek.
Last October, he tweeted that Williamson, the House majority leader, has a black husband. "Pillow talk must be interesting. Oh, honey, how was your day? Oh, you know just whipping those colored Republicans for walking off the plantation and running against White Male Dems!"
Asked whether he regrets any of his tweets, Lockwood said: "Anyone can go back through their own Twitter feed and be like, 'Oy.'
"At the end of the day, you know, Twitter is Twitter," he added.
The backlash against Dempsey and NARAL's ice cream fundraiser was fueled by Lockwood, who tweeted and blogged about it, using Dempsey's name. The story of a pro-choice ice cream fundraiser got picked up by Fox News and Breitbart.
NARAL's Twitter post got more than 600 comments, many using graphic language. The group deleted all the comments on its Facebook post.
Dempsey blamed Lockwood and blocked him on Twitter. "There is no way that Fox News, Breitbart of any of the others would have cared about this if he hadn't sent it their way, stoked the fire, called us disgusting," she said. "I blame him and his inflammatory rhetoric for starting it and believe that he has no concern if his followers then take it one step further by sending us hate mail and posting threatening comments."
Woon spent seven years doing communications for Senate Democrats. She's familiar with the role and said Lockwood operates outside of the norms. "He conducts himself in his professional life in a way that I absolutely cannot relate to," she said.
Lockwood's week was mired with conflict over press release on a proposed tobacco tax. The release spurred pushback against Lockwood's boss, Republican infighting and multiple news stories.
Does he regret writing the release? Lockwood paused for a few seconds, flashed a smile and shrugged his shoulders. "As long as we keep getting told to shut up, and as long as bad policies keep coming forward, so too will the press releases," Lockwood said.
Aubrey Wieber and Paris Achen are reporters for the Oregon Capital Bureau, a collaboration of EO Media Group, Pamplin Media Group and Salem Reporter.