A light drizzle fell on Bob Wolfe as he stood outside a citadel of the Portland establishment like the lupine nemesis in the story of the Three Little Pigs.
Wolfe was rattling the doors of the Portland City Club's luncheon debate Oct. 26 at the Governor Hotel between Secretary of State Kate Brown and her Republican challenger, Dr. Knute Buehler. Wolfe is also on the ballot as the Progressive Party's candidate. But no matter how loud he knocked, the City Club would not let him in.
City Club officials denied Wolfe access because (as they said in an Oct. 17 email to him) he isn't a "viable candidate."
Wolfe won't win, but his only goal is defeating Brown, whom he accuses of suppressing Oregon voters by routinely invalidating tens of thousands of petition signatures.
He barreled into the secretary of state's race late, on Aug. 28, after Brown's office said a measure to legalize marijuana, for which he was chief petitioner, didn't qualify for the November ballot. He now wants to draw votes away from Brown using the potency of Oregon's marijuana legalization supporters.
In the May primary, Wolfe helped raise $200,000 in national marijuana money for now-Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum (who's married to WW publisher Richard Meeker). He spent another $50,000 on radio ads bashing her opponent, Dwight Holton, who as U.S. attorney for Oregon targeted medical marijuana clinics.
"We killed Holton's candidacy," Wolfe says. "Now we're hoping to motivate people to vote no on Kate Brown."
Brown already faces a serious test from Buehler, a Bend orthopedic surgeon. In 2008, Brown beat Republican Rick Dancer by only 51 percent to 46 percent—a small margin considering Democrats' statewide registration advantage.
Portland pollster Adam Davis thinks Wolfe's chances of spoiling Brown's re-election are slim.
"You need to see an alignment of the stars for that to happen," Davis says. "It really helps to have two candidates that people aren't comfortable with, and you don't have that here."
Outside the debate, Wolfe waved a poster with a red "X" superimposed on his face above the caption "Banned." A motley crew of his supporters competed with fresh-faced Brown campaigners for the attention of passersby.
Wolfe, 50, is an ex-Navy submariner who's run the Oregon Pinot Noir Club, a mail-order wine seller since 1994.
He entered politics by happenstance rather than design. In 2010, he says, his ex-wife was suffering from ovarian cancer and sought Wolfe's help in obtaining marijuana. "I don't smoke marijuana, and I'm not a marijuana lifestyle guy," Wolfe says. "I'm a red-wine man."
Wolfe says he found Oregon's medical marijuana law forbidding but also endangered. In 2011, Wolfe says, he traveled to Salem 40 times to help protect the law. National marijuana legalization supporters subsequently enlisted him to promote a 2012 ballot initiative for legalization.
"I said, 'It sounds like fun and it sounds useful, so I'll do it,'" Wolfe says. "I figured I'm relatively smart and well-spoken. How hard can it be?"
Very hard, as it turned out. In April, Brown said Wolfe's campaign was illegally paying signature gatherers and fined him $65,000. Wolfe is contesting that fine. Wolfe then turned in 169,214 signatures—plenty, he says, to qualify for the November ballot. Brown's office disqualified nearly half of them.
Wolfe claims many were valid signatures rejected on technical grounds. (An unaffiliated pot legalization initiative, Measure 80, made the ballot.) Wolfe accuses Brown of ratcheting initiative rules too tightly to make it more difficult for anti-tax activists to qualify ballot measures. He says his measure was collateral damage.
"I've voted a straight Democratic ticket since I was 18," Wolfe says. "The first time I've ever not voted for a Democrat was last week, when I voted for myself."
Wolfe plans on sending out as many as 200,000 campaign mailers, and he's using a 50,000-name email list and strong relationships with marijuana advocates and bloggers. Wolfe also writes snappy copy. He's spent $26,000, including buying radio ads in four markets, some of which feature Ralph Nader attacking Brown on the very issue she's used against Buehler: voter suppression.
Wolfe points to statistics that show signatures were validated at a far lower rate this year for his and others' measures than they were in past Oregon elections or in Washington state. "I'm trying to protect the initiative system," he says.
"Wolfe's allegations aren't true," says Brown campaign spokeswoman Jillian Schoene. "He is attacking [Brown] in retaliation for her holding him accountable for breaking state elections law."
The tale of the Three Little Pigs ends badly for the wolf—he gets cooked. Wolfe hopes Brown's political career ends up in the cook pot with his.
âIâm craving Nov. 7,â he says, âwhen I get my real life back.â
FACT: The last spoiler to tip a statewide race was conservative Al Mobley. His 13 percent in the 1990 governor's race helped Democrat Barbara Roberts beat moderate Republican Dave Frohnmayer.