When U.S. Rep David Wu resigned his seat in August, he did something pretty unusual in Oregon these days: He created an opening for a well-paying job—the position pays $174,000 a year, plus terrific benefits.

Wu's resignation following allegations of sexual misconduct gives voters in Oregon's 1st Congressional District an overdue chance to replace him. (In his 12 years in office, Wu managed to sponsor exactly two bills that actually passed, according to govtrack.us.)

Democrats and Republicans will choose their nominees in a Nov. 8 primary, and voters choose the winner in a general election Jan. 31.

The victor won't get much of a break. He or she must defend the seat three months later in the regular May 2012 primary and general election the following November. 

The good news is the 1st District is a prize worth fighting for, the state's bright spot amid Oregon's general economic gloom. 

Over the past three decades, Washington County, which dominates the district, has added 127,000 private-sector jobs, state figures show. That's nearly twice as many as Multnomah County. 

The 1st District has more manufacturing jobs than any of Oregon's other congressional districts, Census data show. And those jobs pay well. Median household income in Washington County in 2009 was $61,000, about $10,000 higher than in Multnomah County.

The district is home to many of Oregon's largest and best-known private employers: Intel, Nike, Columbia Sportswear, Solarworld and Genentech. The district is also home to the state's richest man, Phil Knight, whose fortune Forbes pegs at greater than $12 billion, and to Columbia Sportswear CEO Tim Boyle, whose company stock is worth more than $700 million.

Thanks to redistricting, most of the tony Pearl District and Southwest Portland, the city's wealthiest section, is in the district. (The special election will be run using the existing boundaries. The new lines will take effect beginning with the 2012 primary.) 

But the 1st District is not just about semiconductors, solar panels, running shoes and high-end condos. The Clatsop and Tillamook state forests supplied a big chunk of the nearly 300 million board feet of state-owned timber cut last year. Seafood processors provide jobs in Astoria.

What most of the district has in common is trade. Oregon ranks seventh in the nation for its economic reliance on trade, and the 1st District counts on imports and exports to an unusual degree.

"It's hard to find congressional districts in this country that are more trade dependent," says Oregon Business Association President Ryan Deckert. "I think you could count them on two hands."

For Republicans, capturing the 1st District is harder than winning the governor's office. Oregon last elected a GOP governor in 1982, but the 1st District has not sent a Republican to Congress since 1972.

Six-term incumbent Wu, who resigned in August, was no political giant. But after squeaking past Republican Molly Bordonaro in 1998, Wu never faced another close race.

Even after a 2004 Oregonian investigation of Wu's alleged date rape of a college girlfriend, he defeated GOP challenger Goli Ameri by 20 percentage points.

Part of Wu's success came from Democrats' increasing registration advantage over Republicans.

Republicans have also repeatedly nominated weak candidates. Except for former State Rep. Derrick Kitts (R-Hillsboro) in 2006, recent GOP nominees have come into their races with little political experience or name recognition.

In 2010, Rob Cornilles, a political newcomer who owns a Tualatin sports-marketing firm, challenged Wu. Cornilles, 47, earned The Oregonian's endorsement but lost to Wu by 13 percentage points.

Now, Cornilles is back, running as a "job creator." Although his company, Game Face Marketing, which helps pro and college teams sell sports tickets, has just five employees, Cornilles claims he's trained or found jobs for hundreds since 1995.

Game Face has had a couple of hiccups. In 2003, as the Forest Grove News-Times first reported, the company settled Bureau of Labor and Industries complaints by three Game Face trainees who alleged they'd worked hundreds of hours without being paid. Cornilles denies wrongdoing, but he paid the three about $9,000 to avoid litigation.

What's never been reported is Game Face later encountered a more serious problem. Although Cornilles boasts, "For 162 months we've met a payroll," records show that in May 2007, the Internal Revenue Service filed an $83,000 federal tax lien against his company for failing to make 2006 tax withholdings.

Cornilles says an inexperienced bookkeeper neglected to make the required payments. After discovering the problem, he paid off the lien in August 2007. (He says his company has regularly been profitable. Last year he disclosed personal assets of between $8 million and $49 million—primarily his wife's property investments).

Cornilles is pro-life and opposes gay marriage. But in a district with a Democratic registration edge, he's trying hard to establish street cred as a moderate. He refused, for example, to sign the "no new taxes" pledge many federal GOP candidates have inked. 

That's not the case with Cornilles' most serious rival. Tigard property investor Jim Greenfield, 64, won the 2002 GOP nomination but lost to Wu 63 percent to 34 percent. A constitutionalist who says he arrived at tea party principles 20 years ago, Greenfield boasts two Ivy League degrees (Cornell undergrad and Penn for law school), but other than the 2002 race, he's kept a low political profile. He's only raised about $5,000 for this race.

Cornilles' platform is thin, but he's run an active campaign, raising more than $500,000, and would be a credible opponent to the winning Democrat. 

We give Cornilles our primary election endorsement.

Lisa Michaels, 51, a tea party activist and ad saleswoman who most recently ran unsuccessfully for the Tualatin Valley Parks and Recreation District board, is also in the race, as are Pavel Goberman and DR Delgado-Morgan.{::PAGEBREAK::}

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.

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. {::PAGEBREAK::}

Bonamici took time out to raise children, then began working as a legislative aide in 2001. When Avakian moved from the state House to the Senate in 2006, she won his seat, and moved up to his Senate position when he was named labor commissioner.

As a lawmaker, Bonamici quickly earned a reputation for honesty and diligence, if not charisma. In her first Senate session, she chaired the Consumer Protection and Public Affairs Committee. Her focus on consumer issues might have alienated many lobbyists, but she instead won widespread respect. In WW's "The Good, the Bad and the Awful" rankings of metro-area legislators in 2009, she ranked near the top among senators. In 2011, she was No. 1.

Bonamici can come across as overly cautious. She's declined to say whether she would support the controversial free-trade agreements. She's earned the wrath of some in her party's left wing because she's equivocated, saying she doesn't have enough information to take a position.

It's hard to imagine Bonamici is running for Congress and doesn't yet know what she thinks about free trade. She could be trying to navigate the economic and political realities of a trade-dependent district, which leaves her sounding wishy-washy. 

That's a knock against Bonamici, but not a big enough one to discount her.  She is studious, hard-working and a consensus builder, and she possesses an ego that is, uncharacteristically for a politician, civilian-sized.

That's why Senate President Peter Courtney chose her to lead the 2011 process for redrawing legislative and congressional boundaries. Redistricting is perhaps the most contentious and politically important duty any lawmaker could tackle. And to do so successfully, as she did, shows the skills to bargain, negotiate and compromise.

Under Bonamici's leadership, lawmakers approved redistricting—rather than leaving it for the secretary of state and courts to resolve. It's the first time in five decades that's happened.

In our joint endorsement interview, we asked all three candidates, if they couldn't vote for themselves, which one of the others at the table would they support. Avakian and Bonamici—who have had the knives out for each other during this short primary race—both said they'd vote for Witt.

Witt gave a ringing endorsement of Bonamici—one that could easily sum up our conclusion as well.

"She is a person who is fair and honest, and has the interests of not only her constituency but the rest of our nation in mind," Witt said. "And is an exceedingly thoughtful person.” 

  • As of September, the 1st Congressional District had 93,400 non-affiliated voters, more than any other Oregon district. But registered Democrats outnumber Republicans, 178,000 to 126,000.
  • The district includes Washington, Clatsop, Yamhill and Columbia counties, and part of Multnomah County.
  • Republicans controlled the 1st District from 1893, when the seat was created, until 1974, when it was won by Les AuCoin. It’s been in Democratic hands ever since.
  • In Multnomah County, 19 percent of residents receive food stamps; in Washington County, the most populous in the 1st District, the figure is 12 percent.
  • In Washington County, 90.5 percent of residents have a high-school education; in Multnomah County, the number is 89 percent. Both are well above the national average of 85.3 percent.
  • In 2009, 11,575 Washington County households reported incomes of $200,000 or more; the number in Multnomah County was about 6,000.
  • Outside Washington County cities, the two biggest population centers in the 1st District are St. Helens (12,715) and Astoria (10,110).
  • Biggest machine: The Lampson LTL-2600, the world’s largest mobile crane, is being used to build Intel’s new $3 billion chip plant.