Despite tragedy, GOP's Pierce presses to be Oregon governor
When Selma Pierce died Dec. 1, 2020, after a car struck her while she was walking near their home in West Salem, Dr. William "Bud" Pierce took several days off before he resumed his medical practice in Salem.
He was "shell-shocked," but received support from his staff and patients, "and this is who I am."
Pierce, who just turned 65, is an oncologist (cancer specialist) and hematologist. He has been a doctor for 35 years, and has been in Salem since 1994.
It took a little longer for Pierce to reconfirm a second bid for governor he had already announced for 2022. Republican political consultant Chuck Adams joined Bud and Selma Pierce — a retired dentist who had lost her second bid for an Oregon House seat a month earlier — to talk about preliminary steps for his campaign on the very morning of her death. (No charges were filed against the driver.)
Pierce said he could not brush aside the 2020 images of civil unrest and homeless people, and faltering schools and businesses, during the coronavirus pandemic.
"Over time, I decided I would go back in," Pierce said during a recent interview at his office at Salem Health, which operates the hospital and other health care services.
Earlier in October he revisited Portland, where he and Selma Pierce bought a condo in 2008, and filmed a couple of campaign videos near a downtown park, which is now fenced off.
"All I said was that this was a great park, my late wife and I brought our dogs down here, and we need to bring that back," he said.
Pierce said that shortly after the video shoot was completed, a man with a hammer and 2x4 board approached them.
"If you agree that we need that not to happen to any of our citizens, you are with me all the way," he said.
Pierce said he was still formulating how Oregon should respond to future pandemics as the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic continues. Oregon has recorded more than 4,000 deaths in a population of 4.2 million, but Pierce said future pandemics are likely to be worse — and viruses have ranged from AIDS to Ebola and Zika over the decades he has been a doctor.
"What this told us was that we are ill-prepared for a major pandemic," he said. "This is probably a warm-up. We have got to get focused on the real things."
A surprise nominee
Pierce was the surprise Republican nominee in 2016 against Democratic Gov. Kate Brown in 2016, when she won the two years remaining in the term that John Kitzhaber vacated under pressure in February 2015. Pierce had not run for public office when he won the primary by 19 percentage points over Allen Alley, the party's nominee for state treasurer in 2008 and a candidate for governor in 2010. Brown won the general election, 50.6% to 43.5%.
Two years later, Brown won a full term of her own when she beat Republican state Rep. Knute Buehler of Bend, an orthopedic surgeon, 50.6% to 44.2%. Buehler, who lost a primary bid for the U.S. House in 2020, has since left the party.
Brown cannot run again in 2022, and Pierce is among a crowd seeking her job.
As a first-time candidate, Pierce said that more educated women were "less susceptible" to domestic violence, a comment he quickly apologized for after a public backlash. He said he learned from the 2010 candidacy of Chris Dudley — also a political newcomer who came within 22,500 votes of denying John Kitzhaber a third term — how to be a better candidate.
"I think I was a curiosity to many people then. But I wasn't fully developed in my political thinking to express political concepts," he said.
"I doubt there was that interest in me being governor, as opposed to people liking you. Now it's that time of change and people are really looking at you" as someone who could bring about change.
>A GOP opening?
Since Vic Atiyeh was re-elected in 1982, no Republican has been elected governor, and the past 36 years of Democratic governors have been the longest span for either major party in Oregon. No Republican has won statewide in 20 years, with the exception of Dennis Richardson for secretary of state in 2016.
Oregon voters also most recently elected someone as governor without a prior public office back in 1938, when the editor and publisher of the Oregon Statesman newspaper was the winning Republican nominee.
Oregon's share of Republican voters also has dwindled, as has the Democratic share. According to September registration figures, just 24.8% are Republicans, 34.8% are Democrats — and voters not affiliated with any party account for 33.6%.
But Pierce hopes to capitalize on voter sentiment that Oregon is heading in the wrong direction, as indicated by recent polling done for the Oregon Values and Beliefs Center, and that voters will take a second look at him as a plausible alternative to the party that has held the governorship 36 years, and both chambers of the Legislature 10 years.
"If people elect me governor, it means they really want change," he said. "People running on the establishment side are from the Democratic Party. They own this catastrophe. It's not my fault that they have a stake in their predicament. It's their fault."
A Democratic split?
Pierce also said the entry of state Sen. Betsy Johnson of Scappoose into the race as an independent candidate should help him if he is nominated and she qualifies for the general election. Johnson has been in the Legislature 20 years, but she has said she will not campaign as a me-too liberal or an apologist for former President Donald Trump.
"She's a Democrat, and she's going to attract Democratic votes," he said. "She's a proud Democrat, and that's what she is."
The situation draws comparisons with 1990, when anti-abortion candidate Al Mobley drew a modern-record 13% — mostly at the expense of Republican nominee Dave Frohnmayer — and helped elect Democrat Barbara Roberts as governor.
Donald Trump lost Oregon in his two presidential bids, but he still draws support from many Republican base voters. Pierce defines himself as a "legacy Republican," in the mold of Abraham Lincoln — the first GOP president — and three former Republican governors, Mark Hatfield, Tom McCall and Vic Atiyeh.
"I believe in what they stood for," Pierce said.
"But I learned from the last president (Trump) that the best thing you can do for the voters is tell them who you are authentically and what you believe, and then let them decide."
Given that a Republican cannot win in Oregon without support from nonaffiliated and Democratic voters, Pierce said he is choosing to emphasize pragmatism and problem-solving.
"Life is lived in the gray; it is not black and white," he said. "It has little to do with political ideology or any other ideology. As governor, that is what I would bring to the job. It's not to be governor, but to help govern the state."
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