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October 19th, 2011 12:01 am WW Editorial Staff | News Stories

Our Primary Picks to Replace David Wu

Our endorsements in Oregon's 1st Congressional District special election.

The leading Democrats are Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian, State Sen. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Beaverton), and State Rep. Brad Witt (D-Clatskanie). There are five other candidates in the Democratic primary race, but none of them is running a substantial campaign.

Avakian, 50, grew up in Washington County, graduated from Aloha High School and wrestled at Oregon State University. After graduating from Lewis & Clark Law School, Avakian as a lawyer primarily represented injured or aggrieved workers. (His agency, the Bureau of Labor and Industries, does much the same on a statewide level.) He lost a race for the Legislature in 1998 but won a House seat four years later.

FROM TOP: Jim Greenfield (R), Brad Avakian (D), Brad Witt (D)
Photos by Steel Brooks
In the past, Avakian has looked at running for attorney general and governor. In 2008, he briefly ran for secretary of state but dropped out when the labor commissioner’s job came open and then-Gov. Ted Kulongoski named him to the post. And he was the first candidate to jump into this congressional race, doing so before Wu resigned. 

As we’ve previously reported (“Not Paying His Dues,” WW, Sept. 14, 2011), Avakian has had serious money problems. He failed to pay his federal and property taxes, and was sued by creditors in small claims court four times. While a legislator, he sent an email to lobbyists asking for help in finding a private-sector job. And 21 years after graduating from law school, he still hasn’t paid back his student loans.

Among our many concerns about Avakian is his lack of consistency. Avakian champions populist values, but in 2005, in one of the highest-profile votes of his six-year legislative career, he was one of only two Democrats in the Legislature to vote against a bill that would have required PGE and PacifiCorp to stop pocketing hundreds of millions of dollars they add to ratepayers’ bills supposedly to cover the utilities’ income taxes—taxes they legally avoided paying. He can offer no reasonable explanation for this vote.

More recently, Avakian said he opposes the trade agreements recently passed by Congress that open up trade with South Korea, Panama and Colombia. He’s said so in front of labor unions and to us during our endorsement interview.

But he gave a different view to Nike, a supporter of the trade agreements. “When Brad Avakian met with us to ask for Nike’s support for his campaign, he did not tell us that he opposed the free-trade agreements,” Nike spokeswoman Erin Dobson told WW.

Avakian is not ready for Congress, and we have our doubts he ever will be.

Brad Witt, 59, is a four-term member of the House from Clatskanie who makes his living negotiating contracts for the United Food and Commercial Workers union. As a young man, Witt worked in sawmills in his native Massachusetts and Oregon but later moved into management positions in various unions, most notably as the No. 2 man at the statewide AFL-CIO for 14 years.

Witt’s failure to gain that union’s endorsement in this race (after a hard-fought process, the AFL-CIO endorsed nobody) illustrates his problems as a candidate and potential congressman. 

He’s bright and considered honest by his peers. But after four terms in the House, he’s remained a back-bencher who hasn’t demonstrated the energy or skills to play in the political big leagues. His mediocre record in the House contrasts sharply with that of more junior members, who have eclipsed him both in leadership positions and committee assignments. 

His caucus depends enormously on labor support, which should put Witt in a position of influence. But he’s not in one. The best Witt could muster in the 2011 session was the chairmanship of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, known in Salem as a panel of little significance. 

The two Brads haven’t demonstrated the qualifications or skill to represent Oregon’s 1st District in Congress when compared to our choice, Suzanne Bonamici.

Bonamici, 57, grew up in Michigan and went to the University of Oregon, where she earned her law degree. She worked in consumer protection for the Federal Trade Commission in the mid-1980s, and then practiced law for a few years in Portland after she and her husband, current U.S. District Judge Michael Simon, moved back to Oregon in 1986.

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