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Update: Johnson says comment was about 'trash, not people.' Calls criticism of her comments 'false outrage.'

UPDATED: June 29

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Betsy Johnson, a longtime Democratic state lawmaker, is running for Oregon governor as a non-affiliated candidate. In a June 28 story in the New York Times, Johnson referred to Portland as 'the city of roaches.'An independent candidate for Oregon governor has a new moniker for the state's most populous city: "the city of roaches."

Gubernatorial candidate and former state Sen. Betsy Johnson made the comment to a New York Times journalist, referring to Portland's battle with homelessness and crime.

Her statements appeared in a June 28 newsletter that explored Oregon's political landscape as a barometer of potential Democratic losses nationwide. The newsletter included an interview with Johnson.

"You can see the deterioration of the beautiful City of Roses, now the city of roaches," Johnson was quoted as saying, riffing on Portland's moniker.

Johnson, who is running as an unaffiliated candidate in the November election, is one of many candidates who has zeroed in on Portland as an example of failed policies or action.

"Betsy made a quip about the city of Portland which resonates with a lot of people," Jennifer Sitton, Johnson's communications director, told Pamplin Media Group on Tuesday. "What Betsy has been saying for months is that Oregon cannot succeed if Portland fails and, as detailed in the NYT piece, only 8% of residents think that Portland is on the right track."

In a campaign speech on her website, Johnson accuses Gov. Kate Brown, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and Johnson's Democratic opponent, Tina Kotek of Portland, of bridging the urban-rural divide by unifying Oregonians in "mutual frustration with their leaders and their government."

"Right now, Portland is failing," Johnson said. "I don't think any problem demonstrates the need better to change Oregon's politics than the failure to solve homelessness on our streets."

She stressed getting unhoused people into shelters utilizing police, addiction treatment services and mental health services.

"Democrats are right that we need compassion, services and housing," Johnson said in a campaign video. "But Republicans are also right that we need more personal responsibility, accountability and no more tent cities."

But critics say Johnson's latest remark about Portland was callous, equating unhoused people with vermin that need to be cleaned up, rather than humans in crisis.

"Unfortunately her comments are very reminiscent and in some cases identical to comments we've heard that dehumanize whole sets of people," Marisa Zapata, director of Portland State University's Homelessness Research and Action Collaborative. "It goes beyond an oversimplification, but it completely erases their humanity. It's deeply upsetting to have somebody using that language to describe people who are living their lives the best they can. It's especially upsetting to have someone who's been in a position of leadership in our state talk about future constituents this way."

Zapata noted that the term "cockroaches" has been used historically to demonize marginalized groups in society.

The city of Portland, along with economic and tourism groups, has been actively involved in campaigns to bring shoppers and tourists back to downtown Portland and to help businesses crippled by the pandemic and repeated vandalism.

They say Johnson's comments aren't helping.

"It's easy to articulate the challenges Portland is facing," Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said. "We need a governor who will partner with us to help find solutions and fight for Portland—not disparage and write us off."

The mayor extended an invite to Oregon's gubernatorial candidates to "come tour Portland with me and my team to learn about Portland's issues, firsthand."

Johnson later clarified her comment in a short video statement the following day, saying her comment "was about trash, not people."

This story has been updated with additional comments since it first published.




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