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October 24th, 2001 Patty Wentz | News Stories
 

The Enemy Within

Oregon Democrats sure know how to break up a party.

     
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U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith's full-page political ads that ran earlier this month were the only most visible signs that politics is getting snippy as the specter of the 2002 election looms larger.

Behind the scenes, big D politicos grouse that their biggest enemies may not wear Rs on their sleeves.

The "Democrats for Smith" ads were signed by 19 state Democrats, including former Port of Portland head Mike Thorne and Beaverton mayor Rob Drake, who are backing the GOP incumbent. Neel Pender, executive director of the Democratic Party of Oregon, says he isn't going to bother scolding the turncoats. "I'm willing to bet these 19 Democrats don't have much influence over the 900,000 registered Democrats in the state."

In Washington, D.C., however, one influential party member is also playing the role of party pooper. Rep. Peter DeFazio is throwing a "Hey, what about me?" fit, spurred by Secretary of State Bill Bradbury's announcement that he'll be running against Smith.

After passing on the governor's race last month, DeFazio was considered Smith's lead challenger. He dallied too long, however, and Bradbury stepped in, forcing DeFazio to point out that he himself was still thinking of running. First, he told The Oregonian that Sen. Patty Murray of Washington had reassured him that he, not Bradbury, remains the top choice of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. The DSCC --which spent more than $104 million in 2000 and is bound to spend even more in this cycle--countered that it wasn't necessarily so.

Four days later, DeFazio continued to burn, complaining to the D.C. newsletter Roll Call that after Gov. John Kitzhaber decided not to challenge Smith, the DSCC backed off from targeting Oregon for a possible Republican unseating.

The executive director of the DSCC, Jim Jordon, fired back. "Once again, Congressman DeFazio has either badly misunderstood or has chosen to publicly misconstrue conversations he's had with the DSCC," he told Roll Call. "The Oregon race is one of our top institutional priorities, and once there is a Democratic nominee selected, we will be there with whatever resources it takes to win."

Some Pete watchers see a prima donna. "He thought everyone would wait for him to make his decision," says one insider. "When they didn't, he started griping."

Others say that DeFazio has had a beef with the DSCC since 1996, when national campaign strategists were dazzled by the deep pockets and business positioning of Democrat Tom Bruggerre, who won the primary and narrowly lost to Smith in the fall.

A third theory is that the congressman is simply creating an excuse not to run.

Meanwhile, back home in Oregon, there are a couple of tempests brewing in the local Democratic Party's pot.

For months some partisans have grumbled that gubernatorial candidate Jim Hill has an unfair advantage over his opponents because his campaign manager, Maria Smithson, is vice-chair of the state party.

"I think people could come up with a number of ways that party leadership could subtly or overtly or maybe even unconsciously favor one Democrat over another," says Mark Wiener, a political consultant who hasn't yet signed on to a gubernatorial race.

Wiener points out that Terry McAuliffe, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, is prohibited from working in primary campaigns.

Smithson says that unlike McAuliffe, she is not a paid staffer. She wonders what the fuss is about.

"I have had not received one single complaint from my constituents on my central committee. I welcome people calling me and voicing their concerns rather than running directly to the media."

Pender says Oregon Democratic party officers can work in primary contests and notes that members of the state central committee knew of Smithson's ties to Hill when they re-elected her to her position last January. He says her position doesn't allow her any access to voting lists, party strategy or anything that would give Hill an advantage.

Finally, Democratic party chair Jim Edmunson is urging Gov. Kitzhaber not to make the same mistake he did and endorse a candidate in the primary. Kitzhaber is expected to give the stamp of approval to longtime pal Ted Kulongoski in the primary against Hill and Bev Stein. In the 2000 primary, Edmunson himself endorsed Gary Bruebaker over current state treasurer Randall Edwards, infuriating Edwards' campaign.

Today, Edmunson says it was a mistake.

"I learned from that," he says. "I think it made it more difficult for me to have a relationship with Randall. If I had to do it all over again, I would have kept my mouth shut."

 
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