But with the financial might of the food industry behind him, Gilliam is gaining new influence at the Capitol and wherever else the grocers choose to get involved.
Gilliam is part of a new generation of conservatives taking political power in Salem as older leaders near retirement, Adams said.
"You have young bucks coming up, and they're trying to make their way and establish themselves as key players in the system," he said.
One example of Gilliam's growing influence is the Bucket Plan, his idea for a combined spending cap and rainy-day reserve fund. House Republicans are promoting the Bucket Plan as the answer to the state government's financial shakiness.
The grocery industry flexed its political muscles locally in 2003, when it opposed the city of Salem's streetscape fee. Gilliam's group raised money to put the tax before voters in a May 2003 referendum, and voters squashed the proposal by a 4-to-1 margin.
It's not that the grocers and food manufacturers ever lacked financial resources, said J.L. Wilson, who replaced Gilliam at the helm of NFIB in Oregon.
"I think he just tapped into that for the first time," Wilson said. "There's no doubt that he went in with an aggressive mindset that that's what he was going to do."
Gilliam said that the grocers are not wedded to the Republican Party and will re-evaluate their political spending every election cycle.
However, the group devoted the lion's share of its money in 2004 to Republican legislative candidates. Campaign-finance reports show that it gave only to Republican challengers in races for open seats. That's a sign that the grocers were working to secure Republican control of the Legislature.
The grocers gave to a sprinkling of Democrats, but they tended to be influential incumbents such as Gov. Ted Kulongoski and Senate Majority Leader Kate Brown, D-Portland.
Chip Terhune, chief lobbyist for the Oregon Education Association, the state's top-spending lobby, said that it's a credit to Gilliam and his team that the grocers have risen so quickly as a political force.
"Typically, you don't see a rise like that unless there's some real pressure points driving that," Terhune said.
The industry might be feeling more competitive heat from Wal-Mart's expansion into the grocery business, Terhune said, making companies more nervous about corporate taxes and other things affecting their bottom lines.
Gilliam said that one of the grocers' top goals in the Legislature is to work out a change in the bottle bill and the recycling of beverage containers. Grocery stores don't like being repositories of unsanitary and space-consuming cans, bottles and plastic containers.
"We have a huge concern about the methamphetamine epidemic," Gilliam said. Grocers have agreed to lock up supplies of Sudafed and other over-the-counter medicines used as ingredients in meth labs. But retailers are resisting proposals to check buyers' identification before selling them restricted medicines, he said.
The industry also is keenly following bills related to country-of-origin food labeling, business taxes, transportation improvements, genetically modified food additives, workers' compensation insurance, beer, wine and tobacco, and food inspection fees.
So far, the grocers have tended to use their new influence cautiously. But that could change when needed.
"We like to let folks know we have a big stick," Gilliam said, "but our first choice is to find a compromise."
slaw@StatesmanJournal.com or (503) 399-6615
Copyright 2005 Statesman Journal, Salem, Oregon