Former campaign staff blast McLeod-Skinner’s management style as she gears up for a rerun

A few months into her third congressional campaign, Jamie McLeod-Skinner appears to be a front-runner for the first time in her Oregon political career. 

The Terrebonne attorney last spring unseated incumbent congressman Kurt Schrader in the Democratic primary for the 5th Congressional District, which stretches from Bend to the suburbs of Portland, then narrowly lost the general election to Republican Lori Chavez-DeRemer in a midterm election cycle that favored Republicans. She has a wide regional base of volunteers and donors from two prior runs for Congress and a failed 2020 campaign for secretary of state. A poll she ordered before launching her campaign showed her with a commanding lead over other Democratic candidates.  

Supporters have described her as “Wonder Woman” and a “role model,” dedicated to service. She appealed so much to grassroots voters that four county Democratic parties took the unprecedented step of endorsing her in her primary race against Schrader last year. 

But former staff who worked closely with McLeod-Skinner say her public persona and the labor-friendly policies she espouses as a candidate clash with her workplace behavior. Five former employees and a consultant who spoke to the Capital Chronicle about their experiences described her as a nightmarish boss, who yelled at and berated her staff, corralled them into frequent hours-long meetings, texted them in the middle of the night and retaliated against those who stood up to her.

The employees, all of whom worked closely with McLeod-Skinner on teams of fewer than 10 people, described a pattern of behavior that stretched across three campaigns and appears to be part of her management style: Before her first congressional run, a small Oregon city fired her as city manager following similar complaints from city employees. 

Some of the critics initially approached the Capital Chronicle about McLeod-Skinner’s behavior, and the Capital Chronicle found and interviewed others who corroborated their accounts. None work for one of McLeod-Skinner’s current competitors, but they said they decided to share their stories so that the public knows more about the character of someone who could represent Oregon in Congress.

The five former staffers and a former consultant, both men and women, requested anonymity out of fear that McLeod-Skinner would try to ruin their careers in the relatively small world of Oregon progressive politics. A seventh person confirmed their perspectives but declined to be quoted. Most of the former staffers are still based in Oregon, and they don’t want to burn a bridge with a powerful candidate or her army of volunteers and supporters. But they said it was important to speak out and warn the public and future campaign staff. 

“I don’t want people to go through what I went through,” one former staffer said. 

Campaigns are notorious for low pay, long hours and stress, but former staff said McLeod-Skinner’s demands and personal criticism took it to another level. Some say her behavior contributed to last year’s loss in a competitive district where Democrats outnumber Republicans. Chavez-DeRemer’s victory was one of five that gave Republicans their razor-thin congressional majority. The seat is among a few across the country that has drawn national interest and money from Republicans and Democrats, and it could flip the House again – or not.

A Democratic strategist who worked closely with McLeod-Skinner’s 2022 campaign said two things set McLeod-Skinner apart from other “notoriously tough bosses” in politics: Her focus on her employees’ faults spilled into the campaign, undermining potential victories, and her attempts to retaliate against people who speak out against her behavior. 

“She spends so much time tearing her staff down that she neglects her duties, like fundraising and building support with voters and important allies. And, of course, her staff are unable to complete their duties when spending hours each day being berated by her,” the strategist said. “Jamie not only verbally abused her staff, she threatened retaliation when they reported her behavior. I’m not aware of any other ‘tough bosses’ in politics who cross that line.”

McLeod-Skinner declined to be interviewed for this story. In a statement, she acknowledged that her campaign could be stressful, but said she always tried to create a positive work environment. Her campaign also referred the Capital Chronicle to several campaign volunteers, staff and former employees at the city of Talent, where she worked for six months in 2021 as the interim city manager as the community rebuilt from the most destructive wildfire in Oregon history. All spoke highly of McLeod-Skinner. 

“Over the years, we have been part of some very exciting, and yes stressful, campaigns as we work to protect our values and hold extremist Republicans accountable,” McLeod-Skinner said. “All campaigns are fast-paced and require long hours and hard work, but I have always sought to create a positive work environment, which many of my staff can attest to. If that was not the experience of certain individuals, I apologize and am always looking for ways to be a better leader. I’m grateful for the hard work and dedication of everyone who has joined me over the years in these fast-paced and important campaigns.”

Some former staff, including 2022 campaign consultant and strategist Elizabeth Mazzara Myers, said criticism of McLeod-Skinner is rooted in sexism. Mazzara Myers said McLeod-Skinner has high standards that she expects staff to meet, and that she doesn’t think that’s unreasonable. 

“I don’t think I’ve ever worked for a candidate who hasn’t had a moment of getting frustrated or raising their voice or crying or walking out of a meeting,” Mazzara Myers said. “I’m not saying Jamie has done all those things. I’m saying that’s standard, reasonable behavior for somebody who’s working 20 hours a day, seven days a week for nine or 10 months. I don’t think there’s anything that I can think of that Jamie did that would stand out as unusual behavior for a candidate.”

Critics span campaigns

McLeod-Skinner first appeared on the state political scene with a closer-than-expected 2018 challenge to former Republican U.S. Rep Greg Walden in the sprawling 2nd Congressional District in eastern Oregon. She followed it up by placing third in a three-way Democratic primary for secretary of state in 2020, then unseated Schrader, the seven-term incumbent, in the 5th Congressional District last year before losing to Chavez-DeRemer in the general election.

The former campaign staff who spoke to the Capital Chronicle worked on different campaigns, from her first longshot run for Congress in 2018 to the 2020 secretary of state primary to the 2022 congressional race. Some worked together; others didn’t overlap.

But their accounts of their time working for her lined up. From campaign to campaign, employees described feeling uncomfortable around McLeod-Skinner and scared of interacting with her. She yelled at employees and spoke sarcastically to them, and they said she made them feel worthless. One employee even described suffering severe depression for months after working for McLeod-Skinner.

In one instance, former staff said she told an employee that a former opponent would have lost by 20 points if that employee had worked on the opponent’s campaign. McLeod-Skinner’s campaign said in a response to a fact-checking email that she had no recollection of that incident. 

On multiple occasions, she ignored new employees even though campaign teams were small, former staff recalled. 

Staff said they suffered from severe physical stress. One former employee described developing stomachaches before team meetings because of McLeod-Skinner’s treatment. Another remembered breaking down in tears during a meeting.

Employees said those who worked most closely with McLeod-Skinner were the most stressed. One former employee recalled having to black out 30 minutes after each senior staff meeting to recover from McLeod-Skinner’s cutting comments.

The core groups who worked closest with McLeod-Skinner on various campaigns tried to be buffers, protecting junior staff and volunteers from outbursts. As a result, volunteers, field staff and other lower-level campaign employees who mostly saw McLeod-Skinner at events or in large all-staff meetings saw a different person than those who worked closest to her, the former employees said.

“It’s a great big show, and she’s very good at it,” one former employee said. “She plays this folksy, rural, ‘I’m not much of a talker. I just like to get things done,’ when in reality, she thinks about everything through the political lens and winning.” 

One former staffer remembered feeling terrified when someone from the public saw McLeod-Skinner speaking rudely to her staff at an event, worried that it was going to get out and cost McLeod-Skinner the election. The former employees described believing in her message and Democratic values, and they said they worked hard to elect her. 

They recalled working long hours for low wages – regularly putting in 12- or 14-hour days without overtime pay. On average, McLeod-Skinner’s 2022 campaign staff earned between $2,200 and $4,000 monthly, federal campaign finance records showed — less than employees working for U.S. Reps. Val Hoyle and Andrea Salinas, the two other Oregon Democrats who ran in competitive districts.

Most Salinas campaign staff earned between $2,700 and $5,300 monthly, while Hoyle’s salaries for full-time staff ranged from $3,000 to $5,300. Those ranges don’t include campaign managers: McLeod-Skinner and Salinas paid their managers about $6,000 monthly, while Hoyle’s longtime campaign manager earned close to $7,500 monthly.

Some campaign workers whose first experience in politics was with McLeod-Skinner said it gave them an inaccurate perception of what campaigns were like. One former worker recalled a boss’s repeated assurances that it wasn’t normal campaign behavior. After a better experience working for another candidate, that worker agreed.

In the final weeks before the 2022 November election, McLeod-Skinner’s campaign manager spoke to the boss’s wife, Cass McLeod-Skinner, about the toll McLeod-Skinner’s behavior was taking on senior staff. After that, McLeod-Skinner cut off all contact with the campaign manager, multiple sources confirmed. That decision meant that the highest-paid, highest-ranking campaign staffer was essentially excluded from strategy discussions and unable to do their job for the last crucial month of one of the country’s most competitive congressional races. 

McLeod-Skinner denied that allegation and provided a copy of an October 2022 email she replied to with the campaign manager copied on it.

Multiple employees also quit part way through campaigns – an unusual move in an industry that prizes loyalty and where the expectation is that staff will stay through Election Day. Few returned to work for McLeod-Skinner in subsequent elections, though McLeod-Skinner’s campaign described that as normal campaign behavior. 

One employee who left, 2020 campaign manager Brooke Goldberg, told the Capital Chronicle her decision to quit in December of 2019, five months before the primary, was because of her family’s needs and had nothing to do with McLeod-Skinner.

“I have never seen Jamie raise her voice or berate staff. That is not my experience,” Goldberg volunteered before being asked about the specifics of McLeod-Skinner’s alleged behavior. She wasn’t among the employees whose names McLeod-Skinner volunteered to defend her, and she declined to say whether McLeod-Skinner had asked her to speak on her behalf.

McLeod-Skinner’s defenders

McLeod-Skinner provided names and contact information for six former employees or volunteers to defend her. For the most part, those employees and two others reached independently by the Capital Chronicle worked in low-level campaign roles or in the field, interacting occasionally with McLeod-Skinner and senior staff.

One exception, volunteer campaign photographer Roland Sarrazen, said he had unfettered access to McLeod-Skinner, attending about 90 events with her in the 2022 campaign as well as having behind-the-scenes access. Sarrazen, who is still working with McLeod-Skinner, said his impression of the campaign was a well-operating machine where everyone was friendly with each other. 

“Rarely were voices even raised, and the only time that happened was when there was a spirited conversation going on among staff members,” Sarrazen said. “I don’t even think I ever saw a fight, an outright yelling match or anything between anybody, let alone Jamie. I always found Jamie to literally be the coolest head in the room.”

Recent Oregon State University graduate Montsie Garrido conducted youth and Latino outreach for McLeod-Skinner in 2018, when she was still in high school. She returned to the campaign as a field organizer in 2022 and said she hopes to work for McLeod-Skinner again in the 2024 cycle. 

Garrido spent most of her time in the field, working mostly with volunteers. She regularly accompanied McLeod-Skinner to events, and she said McLeod-Skinner made her feel like a valuable part of the team because of her perspective on young people and people of color. 

“I always felt respected and embraced and valued as a person because Jamie really makes me feel that way when I work with her,” Garrido said. “She’s a role model for me, and I want people to know that she is just the type of person to bring everyone together and she uses her platform for good.”

Bend resident Kavi Chokshi worked as volunteer director for the last three months of the 2018 campaign. The pay was low, he said, but he believed in the mission of pushing back against Walden and the Trump administration. He attended some meetings with McLeod-Skinner but didn’t report directly to her, and he said his few interactions with her were positive. 

“She was always very thankful, especially for the volunteers anytime she saw them, but also for staff who were working really hard,” Chokshi said. 

Chokshi, who now runs a chai business, said he hasn’t yet decided who he’ll support in the primary in the 5th District. State Rep. Janelle Bynum, D-Clackamas, and Metro Council President Lynn Peterson are also running. 

During her brief tenure as interim city manager in Talent, McLeod-Skinner hired Kristen Maze, who’s still the small city’s community development director. Maze described it as a chaotic time and said city staff wanted to meet McLeod-Skinner’s high expectations. 

“She expected a lot out of staff, but for me it wasn’t an issue,” Maze said. “I don’t know why it would have been an issue other than if you’ve never worked for somebody like Jamie – and I hadn’t, but I found her kind of refreshing.”

After the Capital Chronicle sent McLeod-Skinner a final fact-checking email, two other former employees – Goldberg and 2022 primary campaign worker Michael Gaskill – called to defend her. Gaskill, who said McLeod-Skinner asked him to call, said he had no issues with McLeod-Skinner and said former staff who had issues weren’t cut out for campaigns. 

“I’m not saying anybody’s story is wrong, or anybody’s not being honest about their lived experience, but I think it needs to be said that campaigns are very high-stress things and so they’re not for everyone,” he said. 

Phoenix experience

McLeod-Skinner’s behavior as a boss became an issue in her longshot 2018 campaign against former U.S. Rep. Greg Walden in the 2nd Congressional District. McLeod-Skinner worked for four months as city manager in the small city of Phoenix, Oregon, before the city council voted 3-2 to fire her in March 2017 after complaints from several department heads. 

McLeod-Skinner requested a public meeting to review her performance. The city’s finance director testified that she was afraid of losing her job after receiving positive feedback from past bosses, while the police chief and public works director described trying to keep their employees away from city hall because they perceived a toxic environment between McLeod-Skinner and the finance director that was affecting other staff, according to minutes and a recording of the meeting reviewed by the Capital Chronicle.

“It’s gotten to the point where I asked my records clerk not to go to city hall unless she absolutely has to,” Police Chief Derek Bowker said during the meeting. “I just don’t want her in the environment and the negativity that I’ve seen over there. A few of my officers have come to me with concerns.”

The city’s public works director, Ray DiPasquale, said during the meeting that he overheard yelling and “strenuous conversations”  between McLeod-Skinner and finance director Janette Boothe. He said he told McLeod-Skinner she needed documentation and a paper trail showing Boothe’s failures if she was going to fire her. Boothe said McLeod-Skinner cut her off from approaching the city council, which oversees the city manager, with her concerns. She said McLeod-Skinner ignored her requests for help, including updating the city’s financial software and hiring an assistant who knew how to do accounting and payroll, then drafted a work plan for her. 

“I feel like I’m working in a hostile work environment. I’ve been afraid to say anything because I was directed not to communicate with any council member or the mayor without having it go through her first,” she said. “I was even told at one time not to email the mayor directly to even ask him to come in and sign checks.”

During the city council meeting and in statements afterward, McLeod-Skinner said she tried to bring a level of professionalism that had been lacking in the small city. She also suggested that some of the tension resulted from discomfort with her gender and sexual orientation, saying things got worse after she brought her partner to an office Christmas party. 

During her 2018 campaign, McLeod-Skinner had a page on her campaign website laying out her perspective on her termination, including her requests that Phoenix undergo a payroll audit. The city’s former mayor, Chris Luz, sent letters to several newspapers in central and eastern Oregon defending Phoenix. 

McLeod-Skinner’s current campaign spokesman provided the Capital Chronicle with three written statements from other people about her tenure in Phoenix that were initially submitted to a Senate committee in 2019, when then-Gov. Kate Brown appointed her to a post on the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board. 

Jane La Pierre, who described herself as a city employee, wrote that she worked in the middle of the office and could hear everything. She said her supervisor, not McLeod-Skinner, created a hostile work environment. City Councilor Sarah Westover wrote that residents and business owners praised McLeod-Skinner and she believed the city’s mayor and two other councilors orchestrated her firing for political reasons. Administrative coordinator Sarah Lind, who later worked on McLeod-Skinner’s 2018 campaign, praised McLeod-Skinner as a “community-driven, ethical and well-intentioned person.”  

Former campaign staff who had heard or read about the Phoenix firing initially didn’t think much of it. It’s a small, fairly conservative town, and they assumed city employees just bristled at having McLeod-Skinner come in as an outsider and tell them what to do. 

“The first thought on my mind was that this is a tough woman who doesn’t take any s—, and that intimidates people,” one former employee said. “Then she’s able to hand-select the people around her, and she has folks who are really dedicated and work really hard for her because they thought that her story and her politics were inspiring, and then she treated them exactly the same way.”

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Julia Shumway is deputy editor of Oregon Capital Chronicle and has reported on government and politics in Iowa and Nebraska, spent time at the Bend Bulletin and most recently was a legislative reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times in Phoenix. An award-winning journalist, Julia most recently reported on the tangled efforts to audit the presidential results in Arizona.