Last-minute political moves alter races in Washington County

Unexpected maneuvers as the deadline to file for political office neared last Tuesday have changed the political landscape in Washington County.

State Rep. Ben Unger (D-Hillsboro), who was first elected to the seat in November 2012 and who had filed on Jan. 22 to run for a second two-year term, announced Tuesday he was not going to seek another term.

At almost the same time, Susan McLain — a teacher at Glencoe High School, a former Metro council member and a fellow Democrat — filed to run for Unger’s seat representing House District 29, which covers Hillsboro, Forest Grove and Cornelius.

Unger’s late move and McLain’s last-minute entry — she filed at 4:48 p.m. Tuesday; the deadline was 5 p.m. — triggered speculation about the level of planning that went into Unger’s decision to step aside.

Unger released a statement March 11 at 5:52 p.m., after the filing period had expired, explaining his motivation for stepping aside.

“After a year and a half working in Salem, I decided this past month not to seek a second term,” Unger wrote. “This was a decision not easily arrived at, and I will miss the issues and the people I had the opportunity to work with in Salem.”

On Wednesday morning, McLain said she entered the race with very little notice.

“Ben made the decision (not to run) late, and I was asked to run,” McLain said. “He came to me and asked me to look at it. I’ve only been 48 hours into this, so I’m getting up-and-running quickly. This was a very interesting opportunity, and when opportunity shows up, you take it when you can.”

McLain said she looked forward to getting her campaign started.

“There are many issues I’ve been interested in,” she said. “I’m ready to take on this responsibility.”

In his statement, Unger explained that the time commitment of serving in the Legislature had become too much, given his other responsibilities.

“Since I left farming to go to college, I’ve spent my entire life in public service, politics and advocacy. I plan to spend the rest of my life on that same path, fighting to make Oregon a better place — simply not as a state representative,” he continued. “I am not running because it became too difficult to balance legislative life with a full-time job. I always knew working and serving would be difficult; it turned out to be harder than I originally imagined.

“I was finding it difficult to do either part as well as my family and my community demanded.”

Unger thanked those who have supported him.

“For the people who helped me get to where I am, and helped me with the accomplishments I made while in Salem, I say thanks so much for being a part of this effort,” he concluded. “I believe we made a difference together and I’m humbled by the opportunity you gave me to serve.”

At 5:41 p.m., the Oregon Democratic Party released a statement to the news media that touted the “strong lineup” Democrats had fielded for the 2014 legislative election campaigns. In the last paragraph of a six-paragraph statement, party officials only briefly mentioned the change in House District 29.

“Other strong candidates include Susan McLain, who has taught in Hillsboro’s public schools for over 30 years and will replace Rep. Ben Unger in HD 29,” read an excerpt.

A half-hour earlier, at 5:13 p.m., McLain had sent out her announcement that she had jumped into the legislative race in place of Unger.

“I’m running for the Oregon House because I want to give the community I love a strong voice in the capitol,” said McLain, a Forest Grove resident. “After raising my kids here and teaching thousands more, you can count on me to fight every day to strengthen our schools, our economy, and our community.”

McLain has 42 years of teaching experience. She also served Washington County as a Metro councilor for 16 years, from 1991 until 2006. She said her Metro service demonstrated her “long-term commitment to the community and her deep understanding of the area’s unique strengths and diverse needs.”

McLain’s statement included an apparent endorsement from Unger: “Susan McLain has an unparalleled understanding of Washington County,” wrote Unger in a statement provided by the McLain campaign. “She has been a community leader here for decades, and I’m thrilled that she’s stepping up to bring her experience and passion to Salem.”

“I’ve spent my life working to empower young people and serve our community,” McLain said. “I am going to work hard, every day, to find solutions to the issues that our community faces.”

State Rep. Joe Gallegos, a fellow Hillsboro Democrat who often appeared with Unger at public forums and shared many legislative priorities, said he would miss Unger’s presence but believed the district would be in good hands with McLain.

“I valued Ben as a strong advocate for our schools, and I’m thrilled that Susan McLain, who has deep roots as a leader in Washington County and over 40 years of teaching experience, is stepping up to carry that torch,” Gallegos said.