Nike Inc. co-founder Phil Knight may have "webs between his toes," according to a fiery column he wrote for The Oregonian in 2010, but he also has a history of clashing with Oregon lawmakers.
That makes Friday's special session of the Legislature an unprecedented game of chicken between lawmakers and the most powerful man in Oregon business.
At the meeting, lawmakers will consider a proposal that would allow Gov. John Kitzhaber to lock-in Nike's taxes for future years, likely attracting at least a $150 million Nike expansion project.
The meeting comes less than two years after Knight said the state was in a "death spiral" in a column in The Oregonian. He described two business tax increases (Measures 66 and 67, both of which passed) as "Oregon's Assisted Suicide Law II."
Last year, Knight lashed out after the Board of Higher Education said it would not renew the contract of University of Oregon President Richard Lariviere, calling the decision an "embrace of mediocrity." He subsequently joined with other high-profile executives and formed a political action committee to lobby for education reform.
Nike and the city of Beaverton also duked it out in 2004 after the city announced plans to annex unincorporated territory, including Nike’s headquarters in unincorporated Washington County.
At the same time Knight has criticized Oregon leaders, he's become the most powerful philanthropist in state history. He and wife Penny gave Oregon Health & Science University $125 million this year. That's in addition to the $100 million the Knights gave in 2008.
He also paid for a $41.7 million center for University of Oregon athletes. That's on top of the $100 million gift he made to the University of Oregon Athletics Legacy Fund that propelled the university's rise to athletic prominence, the largest gift in the university's history.
Knight also gave $105 million to Stanford Business School.
A full tally of Knight's generosity will likely never be known. A source familiar with Knight's giving once told me he often requests anonymity when he writes big checks. He doesn't care for the publicity.
Friday's debate comes against that backdrop.
Knight is no longer the Fortune 500 company's CEO, but his voice is the one that matters most. He owns 74.8 percent of the company's powerful Class A shares, which elect three-fourths of the company's board, according to Nike's last proxy statement.
Knight's overwhelming generosity and his displeasure with Oregon leaders put Oregon lawmakers in a tough spot. How far should a state bend?
The stakes couldn't be higher.