Two years ago, when state Sen. Betsy Johnson dropped a 19-page amendment to gut her fellow Democrats' cap-and-trade bill, veteran Oregonian business reporter Ted Sickinger aptly described it as a last-minute political "bomb."
Last week, the Scappoose lawmaker, who's in served in the Legislature for 20 years, was at it again, dusting off her detonator and announcing she will run for governor next year, as an independent.
This is not an endorsement. We applaud her decision. Here's why:
Political moderation and compromise have fallen out of favor in Oregon (and elsewhere), as candidates from both parties appeal to the extremes of their "bases" in spring primaries and then drift slightly, if at all, to the middle, in the fall elections.
Hyper-partisanship has Oregon voters in a sour mood. Rising disapproval ratings for Democratic Gov. Kate Brown (heading toward 60%) rival those of former President Trump a year ago. Portland is both the most important source of Democratic votes and the focal point for Republicans' rage for what they perceive as what's wrong in Oregon. Both parties are divided by two factions, moderates and hard-liners, and in both cases, its those on the fringes who are getting on the ballot.
Nature may abhor a vacuum, but Johnson sees it as an opportunity.
We know, from research by the Oregon Values and Beliefs Center, that there are issues that unify us across political affiliations and zip codes. Oregonians share a deep concern about homelessness, the importance of family-wage jobs, mental health counseling in our public schools and the need to protect the environment, even if it slows economic growth. And yet, we know that past statewide campaigns have only further divided us.
Johnson's independent candidacy could change that next year.
During Oregon's transition from a purple state to a blue state, Johnson became one of the most powerful people in Salem. In a narrowly divided legislature, Democrats knew that any controversial legislation would have to go through Johnson. And more times than they liked, she wouldn't budge, forcing them to modify their proposals.
It was the same role that moderate Republicans, like Tony Van Vliet, of Corvallis, and Jeannette Hamby, of Hillsboro, played when their party held a slim advantage in Salem 20 years ago, thwarting the will of their party's right wingers. Like Johnson, they were vilified by partisan hard-liners, but repeatedly re-elected by their constituents.
Representing a sprawling rural district that stretches from the North Coast to the edges of Portland's western suburbs, Johnson has vexed her Democratic colleagues with her opposition to gun control, the motor-voter bill and several environmental initiatives, such as cap-and-trade.
More than a year from Election Day 2022, it's not clear if there's a path for Johnson to compete. Much will depend on the money she can raise and who emerges from the Democratic and Republican primaries. If it's a Portland liberal and a pro-Trump conservative, there could be space for her to play a big role a year. We can easily envision a debate stage a year from now with three candidates, one of whom is standing literally and figuratively in the center: an outspoken pro-choice, anti-Trump woman who is wary of restrictions on logging and firearms.
Rural voters of all political stripes may see in Johnson someone more aligned with their values than the Democrat or Republican nominees. And the 1.2 million Oregon voters who don't belong to either party (which is more than the number of registered Democrats or Republicans) may finally feel like they have a candidate come fall
Johnson has her share of political baggage and a propensity for language not always suitable for a prime-time news conference. Her campaign could fizzle as the Rs and Ds suck up the political air in the primaries.
We disagree with her on many issues, but we share her frustration that right now neither the Republicans nor the Democrats seem inclined to find middle ground where the real work of governing gets done.
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