What flipped District 37?
If you're looking for insight into how Democrats managed to flip Oregon House District 37 for the first time since incumbent Republican Julie Parrish took office in 2010, start with West Linn resident Sherry Palmer.
Palmer said she voted for Parrish in prior elections, believing her to be a moderate Republican.
"When I dug into her voting record, I was astounded," Palmer said. "She didn't embrace moderate positions."
That discovery, coupled with a 90-minute phone conversation with Parrish that left Palmer feeling unheard, pushed the resident of 32 years to get actively involved with a political campaign for the first time in her life. She began volunteering for Democratic challenger Rachel Prusak, and was thrilled on election night when Prusak prevailed 53-47.
"I didn't want Oregon to be a one-party state; I do believe in two parties and a balance of power," Palmer said. "(But) I felt it was time for a change."
When an initial vote tally Nov. 6 showed Parrish trailing Prusak, Parrish held out hope that late-arriving ballots could still put her over the top. At 2:41 a.m. Nov. 7, Parrish conceded the election in a Facebook post.
"I served the community for eight years, never missing a voting day in Salem. There aren't many lawmakers who can say the same thing," Parrish said in an email to the Tidings. "That means I took every hard vote, and would do it again. It's a record I'm proud of, regardless of how it was cast during the campaign. None of those thousands of votes fits nicely into a 30-second soundbite or campaign mailer."
Prusak, who could not be reached on election night, said later in the week that she was happy to see the community respond after her campaign knocked on an estimated 40,000 doors.
"I'm feeling really excited, really honored," Prusak said. "I'm feeling like the community did an amazing job coming out to have their voices heard, and that makes me really proud."
"I took every hard vote, and would do it again. It's a record I'm proud of, regardless of how it was cast during the campaign. None of those thousands of votes fits nicely into a 30-second soundbite or campaign mailer." — Julie Parrish
Prusak said she hopes to "hit the ground running" next year in Salem when the Legislature holds its odd year long session, adding that she will focus on the issues she heard about most from community members. Health care, of course, is a priority for Prusak, who based much of her campaign on her background as a nurse.
"We need to make sure healthcare is affordable, that medications are affordable, that everybody has access to mental health care, and that our communities are safe," Prusak said, adding that issues like drug costs and paid family leave would also be a priority for her in the Legislature, along with gun safety.
"I want to make sure we move forward with sensible gun policies, and that means safe storage laws," Prusak said. "Statistics show that when guns need to be locked up, we have less deaths, less accidental deaths."
Both during the campaign and after the results came in, Parrish was critical of Prusak's "negative" campaign rhetoric, citing numerous cases of her opponent using misleading statements or statistics in advertisements. She also said that Prusak outspent her and enlisted the help of campaign volunteers who were "bused in" from other communities. The latter point dovetailed another criticism of Prusak — that she was carpetbagging the race after moving to the district less than two years ago.
Prusak disagreed with Parrish's assessments.
"Someone can say we ran a negative campaign, but what was important to me was that people had information on the current representative's votes," Prusak said.
She added that her campaign received widespread grassroots support from smaller donors.
"Until the final weeks of the campaign, where I needed to make sure I had a media plan, the average donation for a really long time was under $100," Prusak said. "She was outspent in all of the other (prior) races and she still won. ... The message of this campaign resonated with the community, and people were looking for what we stood for."
As for carpetbagging, another Prusak supporter, Jordan Ferris, said she was unmoved by those assertions.
"I got multiple polling phone calls about it, and no, it never bothered me," Ferris said. "She moved here, and saw the need to flip this district. ... I don't know if she's always had her eyes on politics. I don't think she has; I think she saw a need, that there was a need to make a change someplace."
Ferris, herself a nurse, found common ground with Prusak's perspectives — particularly after Parrish's charge to put Measure 101 on the ballot earlier this year and allow voters to weigh in on a tax on insurers that would help fund Medicaid. Parrish hoped voters would reject what she felt was an unfair tax that wouldn't solve the core problem, yet in the end the measure was approved with more than 60 percent of the vote.
"Someone can say we ran a negative campaign, but what was important to me was that people had information on the current representative's votes." — Rachel Prusak
"I was very involved with Measure 101 stuff, turning people out to uphold the legislation the government had written into law," Ferris said. "That's probably where I started all of it, with Julie trying to take health care away from 80,000 kids."
Parrish has strongly denied the assertion that she was attempting to take health care away from anyone.
"Medicaid in Oregon is one of the most complex things the state administers," Parrish said. "Many lawmakers don't even understand it, so it's not surprising that a fear-based message scared people into thinking Measure 101 was trying to take healthcare, not save it. I'm proud of my record on healthcare, and I can point to a half dozen votes where I said yes to expanding Medicaid, including the original 2011 vote to approve the Affordable Care Act Medicaid expansion."
But Parrish conceded that efforts on Measure 101 — which began in 2017 and stretched into early 2018 — brought a new shade of notoriety to her name.
"I took on the most powerful special interests in Oregon and in turn, they recruited and funded my opponent with nearly a million dollars of campaign money," Parrish said. "So yes, I'd say Measure 101 was an issue in that those healthcare lobby special interests paid for blatantly false ads Rachel Prusak ran during her campaign. The organizations that gave to her campaign directly benefit from the gross profiteering in our Medicaid system."
Voters like Palmer agreed that Measure 101 got their attention, but they fundamentally disagreed with Parrish's stance.
"Parrish said outside interests were playing a role in the election. My challenge to her is, she made it a statewide attention-grabber," Palmer said. "No one would have paid attention if she didn't put forward Measure 101."
Palmer added that she strongly disagreed with Parrish's claims that more Democrats were moving into the district from Portland.
"People in this community come from all over the country," Palmer said. "It's a corporate mecca and people move in and out. If she thinks that, she's not doing her homework. I know my neighbors, I watched the movement. I'm not an isolated citizen here."
According to the Oregon Secretary of State's Office, HD 37 picked up 202 registered Democrats (bringing the total to 17,005) between the May primary and September. The number of registered Republicans increased by 74 to a total of 13,826, while non-affiliated voters went up by 315 (to a total of 12,742).
Parrish, who said she isn't sure what her next steps in politics will be, added that she was concerned about what a Democratic supermajority might portend for the state.
"The results of this election, and the upcoming supermajority, will have lasting impacts," she said. "The tax bill alone for paying for PERS and Medicaid budget gaps will cost every man, woman and child nearly $500 per person. ... You can bet I will keep working to expose the corruption in our state government, and keep lettign voters know how their tax dollars are being misused."
Demographics aside, West Linn resident Bartley Johnson said he felt Parrish's values no longer lined up with the majority of the community.
"I'm glad there's finally a change in Salem representing this area," Johnson said. "Rachel was well-supported ... Julie often points to outside influence, but the parties willing to support Rachel were the people with all Oregonian interests at heart, rather than, say, corporate interests."
Prusak agreed and said she will work to build on the communal atmosphere that she saw develop over the course of her campaign.
"Besides health care, education, the environment and safety, the number one thing people were thinking is they wanted to trust someone," Prusak said.