The former state senator and gubernatorial hopeful met supporters at the Columbia County Fairgrounds on Tuesday.

PMG PHOTO: SCOTT KEITH - Gubernatorial hopeful Betsy Johnson greets supporters at a Fairgrounds rally. The Columbia County Fairgrounds were packed Tuesday, June 14, as Oregon gubernatorial hopeful Betsy Johnson launched an afternoon rally that featured music, food trucks, and a chance to meet and greet the candidate.

Johnson served in the Oregon Legislature from 2001 to 2021, most of that time representing all of Columbia County and other parts of northwest Oregon in the Senate. A Democrat during her time as a legislator, she left the party last year and is now running unaffiliated, courting both Democrats and Republicans as well as third-party and unaffiliated voters.

Signature gathering was in full swing at the event, since Johnson, who resides in Warren, must collect at least 24,000 valid signatures by August 16 before she can officially appear on the November ballot alongside Democrat Tina Kotek and Republican Christine Drazan.

After introductory comments from former Astoria Mayor Willis Van Dusen and former Tillamook County Commissioner Mark Labhart, Johnson told the audience what she thinks is wrong with Oregon's government and politics, and what she can accomplish if she is elected Oregon's next chief executive.

PMG PHOTO: SCOTT KEITH - Betsy Johnson welcoming supporters at the onstage podium. Johnson began her comments with, "Many of you know I've been a Republican and I've been a Democrat. I want to be your governor as an Oregonian."

Johnson pitched herself as offering "big, bold change, to pull ourselves away from the extremes that have had a stranglehold on our political discussions and have left us with problems unsolved," adding, "We need a governor who is not beholden to the extremes."

This year's gubernatorial election in Oregon is unusual for a number of reasons.

It's the first time that two leading candidates in the general election — let alone three — are women, with Democratic voters nominating Tina Kotek and Republican voters choosing Christine Drazan as their nominee last month.

It's also the first election in decades to have a well-funded third candidate. Oregon hasn't elected an independent governor since Julius Meier in 1930.

Like Johnson, both Kotek and Drazan are former state legislators. Kotek, a Portlander, was the longest-serving speaker of the House before she stepped down last year. Drazan, who is from Canby, served a stint as House Republican leader.

All three candidates have traded barbs in recent weeks as the campaign has gotten underway.

Kotek and her allies have portrayed Johnson as a conservative who frequently allied herself with Republicans in the Legislature and is out of step with Oregonians with her stances on guns and climate action.

Drazan and her supporters, conversely, have hit Johnson for her history in the Democratic Party, arguing that Drazan is the only true conservative in the race and both Kotek and Johnson are too liberal for Oregon.

Johnson stated Tuesday that she sees the race principally as between her and Kotek.

"I would submit to you that right now, I am the only thing standing between you and Tina Kotek as governor," Johnson said. "Tina will take us in a direction that I don't think Oregonians want us to go, another hard left turn."

Speaking of Drazan, Johnson said, "Republican registration doesn't augur well right now for a Republican to be elected. Christine is a nice lady, but we need somebody that's willing to stay and fight."

Johnson's stump speech touched on law enforcement and public safety — "I will never disrespect or defund the public safety people," she said — as well as homelessness, education and affordable housing.

Afterward, Johnson spoke briefly with Pamplin Media Group, saying she was "overwhelmed" by the turnout at the Columbia County Fairgrounds for her rally.

"I was humbled, overwhelmed and so appreciative. We have sheets and sheets of signatures signed," Johnson added. "This was an exciting day, and I loved walking around and just talking with people. It was great."

One topic Johnson didn't seem eager to talk about Tuesday was gun control. Since the school shooting last month that killed 19 students and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas, Johnson has faced criticism — including at a TEDxPortland conference where she was a surprise speaker, as well as from Kotek directly — over her record of opposing gun control measures in the Legislature.

Asked if she expects gun control to play a significant role in debates this fall, Johnson responded: "There will be every issue under the sun. Right now, we live in an issue-driven place. The problem is everyone is so willing to fight. That's the whole premise of this candidacy … my whole thesis of my campaign is let's figure out what we can sit down and agree to together."

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