- Associated Press - Monday, January 9, 2017

EUGENE, Ore. (AP) - Since 2009, Mark Callahan has waged an endless series of political campaigns.

He’s run, unsuccessfully, for the U.S. Senate (twice), Eugene-area seats in the state Legislature (three times), the Lane County Board of Commissioners, the Eugene School Board, the Mount Hood Community College Board and, in 2012, for president.

Now, on the back of a shock victory in the Oregon Republican primary for U.S. Senate last year, the 39-year-old wants to be chairman of the Oregon GOP. Callahan, who lived in Eugene for years before more recently moving to Portland, announced in a Dec. 20 Facebook post that he will challenge current leader Bill Currier.

If Callahan wins that internal party vote later this month, it would put a decidedly unconventional Republican at the helm.

Callahan describes himself as a fiscal and constitutional conservative, and he has previously said he’s a member of the tea party movement.

But court records from a custody dispute between Callahan and his ex-wife, Sherri, in 2014 contain a surprising admission: That June, shortly after his first U.S. Senate campaign, Callahan was receiving food stamps.

That federally funded benefit, formally called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is designed for low-income residents. Many Republicans, including President-elect Donald Trump, paint the program as wasteful and ripe for fraud.

In the filings, Callahan didn’t say when he started claiming the benefit, but the court filing in Marion County was made only a month after the 2014 primary election for U.S. Senate, where Callahan finished a distant third.

During that campaign, Callahan poured $9,090 of his own money into his candidacy and loaned his campaign another $6,500, according to federal campaign finance records. That made him - easily - the top contributor to his campaign.

Receiving public assistance while, or shortly after, funding one’s political campaign is highly unusual and compromising for a candidate, some political observers and experts say. That’s particularly the case for a GOP hopeful, given many Republicans’ virulent criticism of safety-net programs.

Reached by phone Thursday, Callahan declined to be interviewed. Via email, he acknowledged being on SNAP in 2014 “to provide food for my 2 young daughters and myself.”

“The amount of SNAP benefits I received after the primary election was very meager in comparison to others,” he wrote.

Callahan declined to answer questions about when he started receiving public assistance and if he is still on food stamps.

Data about individual food stamp recipients is not a public record, so it’s impossible to independently answer those questions.

Eligibility for food stamps is based primarily on someone’s current income - provided they have less than $25,000 in “liquid assets,” usually cash savings. Given that Callahan shared joint custody of his two daughters with his ex-wife at the time, he would have been eligible for food stamps if he was making less than $26,000 a year.

In June 2014, Callahan was unemployed.

In the court filing, he wrote that he was claiming unemployment benefits as well. That spring, Callahan requested to go part time at his network administrator job at a Portland technology company “to allow time for me to be active in my campaign for the U.S. Senate,” he wrote.

Callahan claimed that he was laid off on March 21, 2014 - two months before the primary - because “my employer stated that they needed a full-time person.”

According to his LinkedIn page, Callahan hasn’t had a full-time job since. “Looking for my next opportunity,” Callahan’s page currently states.

But Callahan said in an email that he has had part-time information technology jobs since March 2014, most of it “contractual and consulting work.”

“Income from this type of work is inconsistent,” he wrote. “I look for any work, and jobs, so I can provide for my family the best way I can. With the economy being on the skids the last 8 years, times have been tough in terms of finding and keeping employed long term.”

A SNAP recipient with children can continue to claim the benefit indefinitely if their income stays below the eligibility threshold.

It’s rare for it to emerge publicly that a political candidate is receiving public assistance, not just in Oregon but nationally.

Jim Moore, a politics professor at Pacific University in Forest Grove, couldn’t remember a similar incident with a candidate in Oregon politics.

“The (political) optics are awful,” he said. “Basically it looks like somebody who is living off the public, while at the same time using their personal money to advance a public life.”

Paul Gronke, a politics professor at Reed College in Portland, agreed that the arrangement was “odd” and looks “bad.”

Gronke argued that, in theory, Callahan’s personally funding his campaign could be compared to “investing money in a business venture or making a bad investment and needing to rely on public assistance.”

But, he added, American culture has “a long history of rejecting ‘professional’ politicians and a belief that amateurs can run government.” And Americans “look quite negatively on anyone who has to rely on government assistance,” Gronke said. That anti-public assistance attitude “is really quite uniquely American.”

After his 2014 primary defeat, Callahan continued to be very active in his political pursuits.

He was a mostly unpaid spokesman for the campaign opposing Measure 88, which would have allowed some illegal immigrants to get Oregon drivers’ licenses. In May 2015, Callahan ran for the Mount Hood Community College Board, finishing as runner-up.

In 2016, he again ran for the U.S. Senate while also volunteering in Oregon on the presidential campaign of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.

Callahan again put his own money into his campaign. He contributed $2,700 directly and loaned his campaign $6,100. He later repaid himself $4,100 of that loan.

In May, Callahan won the Republican primary, a shock to many political observers.

One Republican state lawmaker, Bill Post of Keizer, attributed Callahan’s win in part to the fact that, ahead of the vote, he was a constant presence at conservative-leaning events around the state.

“Every time I turned around, there was Mark Callahan,” Post said. “At a parade, at a fair, whatever. In Baker City, in Lincoln County, Lane County, Medford … He was everywhere.”

In November, Callahan lost to incumbent U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat, 57 percent to 33 percent.

A month later, Callahan announced his plan to challenge Currier. In the message, he complained about party infighting and lack of support from the party establishment “for ALL Republican candidates” during the recent election cycle. Callahan raised only $27,000 from donors other than himself during his Senate race, and received no financial support from Oregon’s Republican Party or its traditional big donors.

“I figure I can either just talk, moan, groan, and complain about it, which will accomplish nothing, or actually take a proactive, and positive action to do something about it,” Callahan wrote.

The Oregon Republican Party’s new chairman will be elected by local party officials from around the state on Jan. 28 in Salem.

The chairman position has traditionally been an unpaid job.

___

Information from: The Register-Guard, https://www.registerguard.com

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