Endorsement: Johnson offers a chance to reset Oregon politics
Without former Sen. Betsy Johnson in the mix, the race for Oregon governor would be a stark choice between a Democrat who is perceived — fairly or not — as a representative of the status quo, and a Republican who advocates for a sharp turn to the right.
For nine years, former House Speaker Tina Kotek has been one of three leaders — along with the governor and retiring Senate President Peter Courtney — who've set the state policy agenda. And former House Minority Leader Christine Drazan has been one of the Republicans battling them on the biggest issues, even to the point of leading walkouts to block legislation.
Oregonians say they are tired of the strident partisanship. And polls show a majority of Oregon residents are unhappy with the current state of affairs. In this environment, independent candidate Betsy Johnson emerges as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to break a dysfunctional two-party dynamic and provide leadership based on what's best for all of Oregon.
A Johnson governorship would offer a chance to bridge the ideological chasm that divides urban and rural Oregon and focus, instead, on the many ways in which Oregonians are united: on the dangers of climate change, the benefits of early childhood education and the need to ensure equal access to the ballot.
As a moderate Democrat in the state Senate, Johnson successfully represented a district that extended from the coast, through Columbia County and into the northwestern corner of an increasingly blue Washington County. Johnson remained popular in this district, not by pandering, but by speaking her mind.
Beyond her proven moderation, Johnson has vast knowledge and skills to bring to the job. She was a longtime member and eventually co-chair of the Joint Ways and Means Committee, a role that put her and a few other colleagues in charge of writing the state budget. At the time she was appointed co-chair in 2018, fellow Democratic Sen. Mark Hass said: "If there is anybody you want guarding the taxpayers' purse, it's Betsy Johnson."
A commercial pilot who founded and then sold a helicopter company, Johnson comes from a civically active Oregon family. Her father, a successful sawmill operator and conservative Republican, served in the state House representing Central Oregon, and her mother served on the state Board of Higher Education. Johnson's track record includes longtime advocacy for community colleges and an appreciation for the role of businesses, which provide the jobs that pay the income taxes supporting most of the public services Oregonians hold dear.
Along the way, Johnson has earned respect — and endorsements — from some of Oregon's most credible leaders. Democratic supporters include former state Sen. Margaret Carter, the first Black woman elected to the Oregon Legislature, and former Gov. Ted Kulongoski, who left Mahonia Hall with his popularity and reputation intact. On the Republican side, Gordon Smith, the last member of the GOP to serve as a U.S. senator from Oregon, is supporting Johnson, not Drazan.
Johnson is smart, funny and sometimes too quick with a quip. Her off-the-cuff remarks have long made her a media favorite but this year contributed to campaign stumbles in the race for governor. She deeply regrets — as she should — calling Portland the 'city of roaches' in an interview with The New York Times. She also regrets her previous hardline stance against gun control, now recognizing there are practical measures that can be taken to increase gun safety without running afoul of the Second Amendment.
Johnson's proposals for issues such as homelessness seem long on attitude and short on specifics. She intends to use the governor's bully pulpit to force improvement. She also advocates for repeal of Measure 110, which decriminalized small amounts of drugs in Oregon, but she isn't clear on how she would replace the drug-treatment aspect of that law.
In many ways, Johnson isn't as polished a politician as Drazan or Kotek. As of this writing, they've both been on message throughout the campaign, making fewer newsworthy missteps than Johnson.
Kotek is competent, intelligent and possesses an encyclopedic grasp of state policy. Of the three, she was best prepared for the meeting with our editorial board and the clearest in articulating her priorities and how she would pursue them. In our interview with her, she outlined how her leadership would differ from incumbent Gov. Kate Brown on issues such as homelessness, and also provided examples of her ability to work through difficult issues with people of differing viewpoints.
Clearly, Kotek is capable and ready, but we need a governor who can unite all Oregonians, not just those of the dominant political party, and see Johnson as better suited for that task.
Nor do we see Drazan as the best choice for this exact moment in time. After nominating a pair of moderate GOP candidates for governor (Bud Pierce and Knute Buehler) Republican voters shifted to the right. As a result, their candidate is out-of-step with most Oregon voters on the issues of abortion rights, climate change and gun control. Nonetheless, Drazan is well-versed on the issues and has excelled in debates. And polls show she has a real shot at winning, with Johnson peeling votes away from Kotek.
Voters who are ideologically aligned with either major party may choose to stick with their candidate. But we encourage those in the middle — moderate Democrats, moderate Republicans, independents and other pragmatic voters — to support Betsy Johnson.
A similar opportunity to reset Oregon politics may never come again.
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