Oregon's May 20 primary is six weeks away, and in a state that votes by mail that means decision time is coming even sooner.

A sure sign that the political season is upon us is the sight of legislative candidates walking door-to-door in local neighborhoods. Not far behind will be direct-mail pieces espousing a candidate's virtues or exposing his or her opponent's supposed flaws.

This is the way legislative races are conducted in Oregon - through a combination of personal contact, mass mailings, media coverage and the occasional live political forum. Despite all that activity, Oregon's legislative campaigns rarely shed adequate light on what candidates actually believe or on how they would behave in office.

Don't settle for platitudes

How many candidates for the Oregon Legislature in the past 20 years have run on a platform that education must come first? We would say nearly all of them have done so.

But how many, once in office, have found it's more difficult than they thought to specifically provide for well-funded, high-performing schools, colleges and universities?

Likewise, how many times have voters heard candidates say they'll never support new taxes - that all that's required is greater government efficiency?

This year's primary election is too critical to Oregon's future to allow legislative candidates to campaign on clich├ęs, innuendo and a platform that lacks leadership specifics.

While some voters may be less in tune with the May primary than with the November general election, they should realize that many Democrats in the metro area will run without Republican opposition in November. That means the Democratic primary will decide who goes to Salem to represent many Portland legislative districts - so the time to pay attention is now.

Do they understand key issues?

To make informed choices - in both May and November - voters must understand what candidates truly stand for and what they specifically plan to do if sent to Salem. Legislative candidates ought to be able, at a minimum, to describe in detail their positions on the following issues:

n Oregon's economy is likely to follow the nation's lead and glide in a downward path. Candidates must say how they would respond to a decline in state revenues. What areas would they cut and what actions would they support - including tax increases - to keep services in place?

n On the topic of education, legislative hopefuls cannot simply say schools are their top priority. They must describe what level of funding they support for K-12 schools, community colleges and universities. And they must say how the state can tighten the connections between its high schools, community colleges and four-year institutions.

n The state's underfunded transportation system is a concern throughout Oregon. What are candidates willing to do to raise money for roads and bridges?

n Legislative candidates must go beyond recognizing that health care is nearing a crisis for many Oregonians. What would they do to improve access to medical care, and how would they pay for it?

Beyond these issues, potential legislators must be ready to take specific positions on economic development, land-use reform and the environment, including Oregon's carbon footprint.

The concerns that come before legislators are myriad, but no one should be elected to an important office without being able to demonstrate a solid and specific understanding of the choices they will be asked to make.