Bend debate heats up already roiling governor's race
The three top candidates for governor engaged in a sharp, rapid-fire debate in Bend on Tuesday, dipping into their campaign talking points during 90 minutes of rehashing old feuds while promising new beginnings.
Unaffiliated candidate Betsy Johnson, Democrat Tina Kotek and Republican Christine Drazan offered different recollections of their shared time together in the Legislature.
Kotek was House Speaker before resigning to run for governor. Drazan was the leader of the minority-party Republicans in the House before also stepping down to run. Johnson was a Democratic state senator until resigning from both the Senate and the Democratic party in a bid to be just the second person to win the governorship without major party support.
Seated in soft wing-armed orange chairs on the stage at Tykeson Hall on the Oregon State University-Cascades campus, each candidate said they would be the best agent for change for the state after nearly eight years with Kate Brown as governor.
"We're better at pitching tents than we are pulling permits," Johnson said, linking homeless camps and the lack of new housing. Kotek would be "more Kate Brown than Kate Brown" while Drazan would be tied to a GOP that has moved to the right, Johnson believes.
"The Democrats have an agenda, the Republicans have an agenda," Johnson said, while she would have "an agenda unfettered by an ideology."
Kotek said she was inspired by young volunteers on her campaign looking for the next governor to be an agent for change.
"Take action," she said.
Johnson and Drazan were similar in emphasizing what they would not do, Kotek asserted. Despite Johnson's former party status, Kotek said her views were closer to Drazan in opposing a cap on carbon emissions and favoring business interests over organized labor and workers.
Drazan said Johnson's two decades as a Democratic legislator outweighed her decision last year to leave the party and the state Senate, while Kotek would be a continuation of 40 years of Democrats holding the governorship.
"This is the definition of Tina Kotek's approach to the governor's office — don't change course, don't change direction, keep doing more of the same," Drazan said.
Drazan echoed a question asked by Republican candidate Ronald Reagan in his successful 1980 race against President Jimmy Carter.
"Is your family better off than four years ago?" Drazan asked viewers.
The debate was sponsored by OSU-Cascades, the City Club of Central Oregon, and Bend television station KTVZ. Cathy Marshall, a KTVZ anchor, moderated the debate, which was broadcast live in the Bend area and was available elsewhere only on KTVZ's website. The internet version of the forum was cut off at 7:30, with only the broadcast and cable audience seeing the final 10 minutes, including the candidates' summations.
A passionate but well-behaved crowd of around 70 people gathered outside of Tykeson Hall ahead of the debate, waving American flags and toting signs supporting their candidates. Repeating chants from the crowd for "Tina" or for "Drazan" fought for dominance while officers from the Oregon State Police roamed the perimeter to assist OSU-Cascades' small security staff as a safety precaution. The Johnson camp was quiet and small in number, despite her historic roots in Central Oregon.
At one point, songs broke out among Drazan supporters, and others joined in singing "America the Beautiful" and "The Star Spangled Banner."
Many in the crowd weren't allowed to attend the debate, which was invitation-only, let alone see the candidates. Attendance was reserved for some community leaders, some OSU-Cascades students and 10 invitees from each of the campaigns.
Deschutes County Commissioner Tony DeBone and Bend City Councilor Melanie Kebler made brief appearances outside the debate hall, mingling with Drazan and Kotek supporters respectively before the debate began.
Katy Brooks, CEO of the Bend Chamber, was in the audience at the debate, and she submitted a question for the candidates asking about their strategies to remedy the housing crisis in Central Oregon.
The barbs, accusations and differing versions of recent legislative history during the debate alluded to insider feuds that have made Kotek and Drazan personal antagonists. Johnson has gone her own way on Kotek-backed legislative initiatives on pollution, guns and worker rights.
The race between the three has been rated as a "toss-up" by two national forecasters — The Cook Political Report and the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. The race has attracted over $30 million in campaign contributions to the three, with national party groups backing Kotek and Drazan, while Johnson's successful petition drive to qualify for the ballot was bolstered by cash from Nike founder Phil Knight and several timber and construction companies and groups.
The debate began with a question asking if the candidates would support Measure 114 on the November ballot. It would increase requirements for gun ownership and improve law enforcement databases.
Johnson said the change in law would be a burden to small law enforcement agencies. She said she could support legislation to raise the minimum purchasing age for some firearms from 18 to 21.
Drazan said "more gun laws will not prevent every single tragedy from happening."
Kotek has endorsed the measure.
Kotek and Johnson both said they supported abortion rights, while Drazan said she was personally anti-abortion but would uphold Oregon's law, among the least restrictive in the nation.
Drazan complained about taxes that have been imposed in recent years in Oregon and said "we've got to be serious about holding the line on new taxes." Johnson also criticized the state's regulators as "punitive and predatory."
The candidates have agreed to two more televised debates in Portland and one in Medford.
Ballots will be mailed to Oregon voters beginning Oct. 19. Voting ends Nov. 8, but ballots that arrive at election officials designated offices bearing a postmark of Nov. 8 or before will be counted through Nov. 15.
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