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Harsh legislative race leaves 'brutal' political scars
The campaign signs are down and the door knocking has stopped but bruises remain for a Salem legislative race some judge the harshest in the state this year.
In two elections, Republicans have fought to win back the House district running south along Salem's western flank.
State Rep. Paul Evans successfully defended his House District 20 seat, beating challenger Selma Pierce by seven points. The race was often fought in the mud. Billboards went up around Salem accusing Evans of prolific campaign finance reporting violations, and a TV commercial called for Evans to be court martialed for a novel published in 2006.
On the other side, Pierce's campaign criticized as sexist an ad issued by Evans, saying it implied her only qualification to be a legislator was who she was married to — a former candidate for governor.
Aaron Fiedler, spokesman for the House Democratic caucus, called the race "nasty."
"I think from a personal level, from a campaign level, the House District 20 race was one of the more brutal races of the cycle," Fiedler said.
Pierce called the campaign an honor while Evans called it "a betrayal of the democratic process." But Evans said he plans to run again in two years, and Pierce said she would consider seeking elected office again.
Suburban seats flip
For Evans, who was raised in Monmouth and elected to its city council at 18, campaigns are nothing new. He later served as Monmouth's mayor. After college, he joined the U.S. Air Force, then returned home to get his master's degree. Evans' Air National Guard troop was called to active duty following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He now teaches speech communication at Chemeketa Community College.
Pierce is a retired dentist with an extensive background in volunteer community dental work. She has also served on several boards, including for the Salem Area Chamber of Commerce, OHSU Foundation, Chemeketa Community College Foundation and the Salem Leadership Foundation. This was her first time running for office.
In some ways, it's the district that draws the attention rather than the candidates. From 2002 to 2014, Republican Vicki Berger held the seat. She decided not to seek re-election in 2014, but Republicans didn't want to lose the seat and mounted a strong campaign for candidate Kathy Goss. Evans still took the seat by three points.
He won again in 2016, beating Laura Morett.
In October, the House district had 47,136 registered voters, including 15,867 Democrats and 13,834 Republicans. The district is largely suburban, something noted by Edwin Dover, a retired political science professor at Western Oregon University. Evans was a former student of Dover's, and they have known each other for decades. Dover's wife worked on Evans' campaign.
Dover said that in the 2016 election, suburban districts throughout the country turned more blue. He saw that in Oregon, saying all House seats that flipped for Democrats were in suburban areas. He thinks Evans' success is partly due to that shift.
The man Evans and Fiedler say is behind the recent Republican challenges is Chuck Adams, chief executive officer of New Media Northwest, a Salem political consulting firm. Adams was retained by Pierce as a consultant, but also worked for Promote Oregon, a political action committee aimed at getting Republicans elected to the Oregon House.
Pierce paid his consulting firm $437,147 during the campaign season. Promote Oregon, the group that paid for the billboards, paid New Media Northwest $226,596 in 2018. Promote Oregon, run by state Rep. Mike McLane, helped several campaigns besides Pierce's.
Pierce raised $573,767 and spent $575,282. She was by far New Media Northwest's biggest client. In 2016, her husband Bud Pierce paid New Media $1,819,417 in his unsuccessful run for governor. Evans raised $867,042 in 2018 and spent $877,197.
Many of the more extreme attacks on Evans came from Promote Oregon, and Pierce said she had nothing to do with them. "There were negative ads, but that's part of the process in some ways," she said.
During the campaign, several billboards went up around Salem indicating that Evans was guilty of 111 campaign finance violations.
The state Elections Division monitors filing violations, which can include disclosing contributions and expenditures past the deadline. According to the state, a single campaign filing can contain multiple violations because each donation or expense listed is considered a separate violation of filing deadlines.
Evans said his violations were mistakes but such violations are commonplace in Oregon. Pierce said she had nothing to do with the billboards focusing on the violations and found them distasteful.
"I remember I was driving on Highway 22 and I saw one of those and I was shocked," she said.
Adams called the 111 violations "unprecedented." "It's pretty significant arrogance, if you ask me," he said.
Adams said Pierce expressed concern over the billboards, but that he chose to keep them up. She didn't ask they be taken down. "She had no authority to tell anyone to take them down," Adams said.
Evans said the billboards "were certainly mischaracterizations of something many campaigns have dealt with in terms of late filing fees as opposed to adjudicated, blatant abuse of financial campaign resources, which I've never done."
Adams said nearly every campaign he's worked on has filed late. But with Evans, he said it was "more than a pattern." According to the Elections Division, most violations are flagged automatically by state software when batches of entries come in late. The penalty is calculated by assessing half a percent of the amount of each contribution and multiplying that by the number of days the report was late. Cases with fines under $50 are dismissed.
State records show that in 2016, Evans filed six late batches, totaling 37 entries. None of the batches exceeded $50 in fines so all six were dismissed. In 2018, Evans had one batch consisting of 29 entries reported late, resulting in a possible fine of $27 that wasn't assessed. Public records show that in 2014 Evans was fined twice for a total of $389. In 2015, he was fined once for $642, and in 2017 he was fined $829.
Selma Pierce had two violations in 2018, both dismissed as the possible fines were collectively less than a dollar.
In the recent campaign season, the largest batch of late entries was from Gov. Kate Brown, with 59 entries. Her aggregate fine was under $50, so it was dismissed. The largest fine was imposed on Dick Anderson, a Republican from Lincoln City running for the Senate. He was fined $8,959.
Bud Pierce, Selma Pierce's husband who challenged Brown for governor in 2016, had seven late batches during his campaign. Five were dismissed for because the penalties would have been under $50, and he paid $228 for the other two.
McLane, who state records show controls Promote Oregon, had 10 late batches for his own re-election campaign consisting of 31 total entries. He paid $201 on one violation, and the rest of the cases were closed.
Trying to stop mailers
Besides funding the billboards, Promote Oregon sent out mailers for Pierce with House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson's picture on them, stating that Williamson wanted more women in the Legislature. Williamson posted a video denouncing the mailers, saying they imply she is endorsing Pierce when she in fact endorsed Evans. She said Pierce had repeatedly tried to smear Evans and mislead voters.
"I want more women in the Legislature, but what's more important is integrity, and that's why I'm endorsing Paul Evans," Williamson said in the video. Williamson was out of the country and could not be reached for this story.
Fiedler said Williamson reached out to Pierce to stop the mailers, but Pierce never responded. Salem Reporter tried repeatedly to set up a follow up interview with Pierce to ask her about this but she didn't respond.
Williamson wasn't the only legislator in leadership to be dragged into the race. An attack ad by Evans' campaign used Statesman-Journal and Salem Weekly editorials to discredit Pierce's qualifications.
"A newspaper said Pierce has no experience or qualifications to be a legislator," the ad states, showing the editorial from Salem Weekly. The Statesman-Journal editorial mentions she's the wife of Bud Pierce, calling him a failed gubernatorial candidate. It also states she ran primarily on her volunteer work in the community and her relationship with Senate Minority Leader Jackie Winters.
Bud Pierce said his wife's accomplishments should stand on their own, and the commercial referencing the editorial implies their marriage is Selma Pierce's only qualification. Winters also discredited the ad, but declined subsequent comment.
"Recent sexist attacks on Selma Pierce, candidate for House District 20, are desperate and unfortunate," Winters said in a news release sent out by Promote Oregon. Preston Mann, communications director for Promote Oregon and the House Republican caucus, didn't respond to requests for comment.
Evans said his team edited the commercial to make sure it wasn't sexist. "Gender, culture, background, faith, those things make our country special — that diversity," he said. "So it was a very strange charge, because we thought we went the extra mile to make sure we were very sensitive to that."
Distraction from war environment
The campaign ads cut more personal than that. An ad originally circulated in 2014 was put to work this campaign season, in which Jeanne Arana, a retired officer in the Army Nurse Corps, said she would have court martialed Evans for his book, Statesman-Journal editorial The book, published in 2006 by BookSurge Publishing, is about vampires and witches in the late 1800s and includes some graphic sexual material.
Arana, a former Salem city councilor, said she was talking about the book with some military friends, and mentioned if Evans wrote such material under her command, she would have him court martialed. Word got back to Adams, who asked her to film a commercial.
Evans said the commercial, and its resurfacing four years later, is ridiculous. The book was a writing project with the troops he led while in overseas war zones and was meant as a distraction from the war environment.
"It was between witches, vampires and other types of creatures, and in every instance where it was depicted, it was seen as a bad thing," he said. "It was not a glorification as a good thing."
The 516-page book includes some graphic sexual portions, but Adams said he hasn't seen anything in Evans' record that suggests anything from the book has carried over to the Legislature. He and Arana said that in light of the #MeToo movement, such material isn't acceptable.
"Never in the annals of U.S. military history has any military officer been court martialed for writing a piece of fiction," Evans replied.
Despite the mud slinging, Evans said he found some good in the campaign. He feels more connected with his constituents, and understands their concerns better. Plus, he's planning to introduce legislation to clean up the political atmosphere.
Evans said he will propose a civility commission, a bipartisan, eight-person board. If a supermajority finds a political candidate has lied to voters, the lie would be flagged in the Voter's Pamphlet. If the candidate repeatedly lies, they would be excluded from the Voter's Pamphlet.
He also wants to work on campaign finance laws to shed more light on dark money being injected into local races. "Why are people afraid to use their names when they are trying to move policies in one direction or the other?" he said.
Still, he doesn't expect change overnight. "I have no illusions, I expect in two years it's going to be another barn-burner fight," he said.
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