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The non-affiliated candidate for Oregon governor needs 24,000 voter signatures by Aug. 16 to make Nov. 8 ballot.

PMG FILE PHOTO - Former Democratic state Sen. Betsy Johnson.The "Betsy Brigades" are revving up to move into the Oregon political scene, carrying the message of the insurgent moderate seeking to become just the second independent governor in state history.

"We're in full-court press," Johnson said in an interview on primary election day. "We're going to have Betsy Brigades teeing up to gather signatures in every county."

Johnson's mixing of basketball and golf metaphors is symbolic of what she says Oregon needs in its politics: a variety.

"Take the best ideas from Democrats and the best ideas of Republicans so Oregon can get its mojo back," she said.

She's eager to unleash her campaign, sending volunteers dubbed "Betsy Brigades" out to connect with voters in all 36 counties.

With Democrats and Republicans exhausted and depleted by primary races, she's jumping into the spotlight with the largest war chest of all. Johnson has raised more than $8 million, and currently has $5.3 million in her campaign fund. Her campaign has attracted large contributions from what critics have called the "bulldozer and buzzsaw" industries — timber and construction.

The largest amount — $1.75 million — has come from Nike co-founder Phil Knight.

Johnson's first campaign goal is to gather at least 24,000 valid signatures to submit to the secretary of state by Aug. 16.

"We'll blow by that number," she said.

Middle ground

Johnson has sought to stake out the middle ground between what she called "the shrill voices of the left and right." She's lined up endorsements from the moderate wings of both the Democratic and Republican party.

On Friday, she added Democratic former Gov. Ted Kulongoski and former U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Oregon. She's backed by former Rep. Knute Buehler, R-Bend, who was the GOP nominee for governor in 2018, losing to Gov. Kate Brown in her last election.

Johnson, 71, has straddled the political divide for much of her life. Born in Bend and raised in Redmond, her father, Sam Johnson, was a prominent timber industry business owner. He served seven terms in the Oregon House, as a Republican. He was mayor of Redmond at the time of his death in 1984.

After earning a law degree and commercial pilot's licenses for both fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, Johnson ran an aviation company that included firefighting aircraft.

Like her father, she ran for the House, winning election in 2000.

Unlike her father, she was a Democrat.

She moved to the Senate in 2005 and served until resigning to run for governor.

With the primary on Tuesday, she now knows who her opponents will be if she qualifies for the ballot.

Former House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, won the Democratic nomination. Former House Minority Leader Christine Drazan won the Republican nomination.

Johnson was often at odds with Kotek, most recently on carbon cap legislation that led to Republican walkouts in 2019 and 2020. Passage of the bill was a priority for Kotek. While its fate was uncertain in the Senate, Johnson was seen as a likely opponent.

Over the years, Kotek and leaders of the progressive wing of the Legislature's Democrats have seen Johnson as a roadblock to legislation on gun control, the environment and the expansion of collective bargaining rights further up the ranks of fire, police and other public employees.

Johnson already has a soundbite-ready line when asked about Kotek, playing off polls that show Gov. Kate Brown with low popularity ratings.

"Tina Kotek is more Kate Brown than Kate Brown," she said.

On the Republican side, Drazan won a fragmented primary with 22% of the vote among 19 candidates. Fervent followers of former President Donald Trump were unable to rally around a single standard bearer, instead splitting their votes into substantial chunks spread among several candidates. That helped Drazan win on election night.

Johnson said it will be impossible for Drazan to appeal to moderate swing voters who are the key to winning the governorship while not alienating the conservative GOP base.

"I don't think she's going to be able to speak her mind," Johnson said.

Kotek had been the frontrunner for the nomination since announcing her candidacy in September. Democrats have been planning a counterattack on Johnson since well before Kotek's primary victory on Tuesday.

'Let Betsy be Betsy'

Oregonians for Ethics, a political action committee that registered with the Secretary of State in early February, has raised $195,000 to highlight Johnson's votes against Democratic initiatives. The largest contributor has been the Democratic Governor's Conference, with a total of $65,000.

Drazan has chafed at suggestions that if Johnson makes the ballot, the Republican candidate could be nothing better than a spoiler for a Johnson victory over Kotek.

In April, Drazan told Willamette Week that Johnson's break with the Democratic Party was an opportunistic move to take advantage of the first election in which a governor or ex-governor wasn't on the ballot since 2002.

"She could have been helping recruit and elect moderate Democrats all these years," Drazan said.

Johnson says she won't revise her politics to try to siphon more votes away from Kotek or Drazan.

"Let Betsy be Betsy," Johnson said. "Let me get out and connect with regular people who are sick and tired of the status quo."

Drazan will be the only candidate who is against abortion rights running for governor. That could cap Johnson's appeal to a large percentage of Republicans.

The abortion issue could loom even larger due to an expected U.S. Supreme Court ruling that would strike down the landmark Roe vs. Wade ruling.

Johnson said her position is "not negotiable."

"I am unapologetically pro-choice," she said. "I disagree with everything that Tina Kotek stands for except when it comes to a woman's right to choose."

Johnson said that the much discussed urban-rural divide is a problem for Democrats, whose center of political power is Portland.

Johnson is critical of Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and what she sees as local officials allowing sometimes violent demonstrations and sprawling populations of homeless to chase away businesses and visitors.

But she sees the popular Republican route of campaigning against Portland as misguided.

As the state's largest city and business hub, the city automatically has a huge — at times overwhelming — impact on state politics.

"You can't have Oregon without Portland," Johnson said. "It's our metropolitan area."

While Democrats dominate in Portland and much of the Willamette Valley, Republican political leaders have often been drawn from Eastern, Central and southwestern Oregon. Drazan, from Canby in Clackamas County, close to Portland, was an exception.

Johnson noted she grew up in Central Oregon and has represented districts first in the southern coast around Bandon, then one on the far northwest of the state. Her aviation business took her to all corners of Oregon, with frequent stops in Portland.

Johnson said that makes her a unique candidate — not bound by one spot on the state map for political support. She hopes her campaign appeals to voters in between the political norms in Salem — which she sees as political extremes.

"Rural or anyone who feels disrespected and ignored," Johnson said. "My loyalty will only be to the people of Oregon."


The Oregon Capital Bureau is a news partner of the Pamplin Media Group.


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