Q&A: Betsy Johnson talks independent campaign for governor
Win or lose, former state senator Betsy Johnson is making history this year.
Johnson is expected to be one of three women in serious contention to become Oregon's next governor this fall. No gubernatorial election in state history has ever featured more than one woman among the major candidates, but this year will likely feature three: Johnson and former state representatives Tina Kotek, a longtime Democratic speaker of the House, and Christine Drazan, a Canby Republican who previously served as minority leader.
Kotek won the Democratic primary last Tuesday, May 17, by a commanding margin. Drazan is projected to win a more tightly contested Republican primary.
Johnson is hoping to thread the needle by running as a moderate alternative to the two major-party candidates.
It's a novel approach, at least in the modern era. Oregon hasn't elected a governor who wasn't affiliated with a political party since 1930, when Julius Meier was elected to his first and only term.
Johnson, who lives in Warren, resigned last December after more than 20 years in the Oregon Legislature. A Democrat during her time in Salem, Johnson — long considered the most conservative Democrat in the state Senate — has officially quit the party, bypassing the Democratic primary and running as a non-affiliated candidate.
While she didn't have to vie for a party's nomination, as a non-affiliated candidate, Johnson faces the hurdle of collecting at least 24,000 valid signatures to submit to the secretary of state by Aug. 16.
In a wide-ranging interview with the Columbia County Spotlight, Johnson discussed issues ranging from Columbia County concerns to the significance of three women running for governor.
SPOTLIGHT: Competing against two other women on the November ballot, what are your thoughts of the significance of the election?
JOHNSON: It's historic, but what's notable about it is that you have a Republican, a Democrat and an un-affiliated. So, while I know its historical significance, I think its political significance is far greater in that now you have a situation where Oregonians have a chance to have a governor who is a neutral referee. I have yet to be aware of a game refereed by one of the players that comes out fair.
If Oregonians are willing, and I hope they are, to elect a neutral referee who will make the parties work together — invite them to work together, cajole them to work together, force them to work together — you'll end up with a far better outcome.
SPOTLIGHT: Are you confident about collecting enough signatures to get your name on the November ballot?
JOHNSON: I'm absolutely confident. … We're doing one of our big events in Columbia County that will draw from the three big counties that I represented in their totality, Tillamook, Clatsop and Columbia. It's going to be at the Fairgrounds June 14, and it's going to be the centerpiece of what we're calling "Betsy Brigades."
Betsy Brigades are all over the state. We will have a Betsy Brigade in every county where there will be leadership and activists. … We'll be providing them with the petitions that they need and the bumper stickers and yard signs.
SPOTLIGHT: You have had issues with Kotek on matters in Salem, including redistricting. Can you describe your working relationship with Kotek and Drazan?
JOHNSON: Tina and I don't agree on a whole lot of stuff. What we do agree on is a woman's right to choose.
I have found Kotek to be more Kate Brown than Kate Brown, sometimes. She has been in leadership for nine years. She's a very transactional person who has brought the unchecked use of power to an art form.
As far as Christine Drazan, we know each other. She wants to be the governor who takes away a woman's right to choose. She and I very much disagree on that point.
Certainly, I have had personal relationships with both of those women.
SPOTLIGHT: As governor, are there concerns you will address in Columbia County?
JOHNSON: I've represented Columbia County for 20 years. I have a real sense of kinship with the entirety of both the House district where I started, and then I moved and expanded into Senate District 16.
I think if you look around Columbia County, you're going to see evidence of where my being in the Legislature made an enormous difference. We now have a campus for Portland Community College. I worked on that for 20 years.
We have OMIC coming out of the ground with its second building that is in partnership with our powerhouse research universities and now making common cause with PCC and the high schools.
We have road improvements in Rainier. The list goes and on.
For me, I have been very proud and honored to serve Northwest Oregon. I have to remember, running for governor, that I now am representing an entire state.
SPOTLIGHT: Are you concerned at how elections are being handled, both in Oregon and nationally?
JOHNSON: I'm very concerned nationally and in Oregon about the kind of acid drip on people's belief in the integrity of our election system.
I think what happened in Clackamas County was a bungle on the part of the clerk. She should have tested those ballots. I don't see it as any conspiracy … those sorts of mistakes should not happen, and I guess I would join our secretary of state in saying this is a shameful reflection on the election mechanism in Clackamas County. They need to get it fixed as soon as possible.
SPOTLIGHT: Can you convince voters of your independent status in the aftermath of your campaign receiving funding from timber and industry groups?
JOHNSON: I hope you would pose the same question to Tina Kotek. How independent is she when her campaign, and I'm prognosticating this, is going to be largely funded by the public employees and the unions?
Democracy should not be contentious. My supporters right now are stewards of Oregon. These are bipartisan stewards.
You may have noticed that last week, former governor Ted Kulongoski, a Democrat who served in all three branches of government, and former Republican United States senator Gordon Smith put partisan politics aside and said, "For the good of our state, we want to endorse Betsy Johnson."
SPOTLIGHT: How can a non-affiliated governor help the state of Oregon?
JOHNSON: If you want a better Oregon, I believe my candidacy represents a better way.
Democracy needs to stop being so contentious. We need the parties to bring people together to get stuff done instead of running through our partisan tribal corners and just poking at each other. We need an independent governor to make the parties work together for the common good.
SPOTLIGHT: At the end of each day, how do you assess your feelings about running for governor?
JOHNSON: I'm energized as hell. Every day, I get up and I'm preaching the gospel of why an independent governor is really the best hope that gets our state out of the knots that we've tied ourselves in.
If the worst thing that anybody could say about me is that I've taken money from Phil Knight, I'm proud to have Phil Knight in my corner. Think of a better icon and person who characterizes the love of this state. … I'm proud to be in this position.
I believe that as long as the two parties that are controlled by the extremes are keeping people from being heard, we're not going to make significant progress in fixing our huge problems, runaway homeless, rising crime rates, one of the worst school graduation rates, soaring cost of living. We have become uniquely good at legalizing drugs and uniquely bad at educating our kids.
I think it would be great if we had a governor who actually lives and understands the state motto, "She flies with her own wings." We need to recapture our maverick state spirit, and our mojo, and I submit I'm the girl to do it.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the name of Oregon's last independent governor, Julius Meier.
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