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August 16th, 2006 Henry Stern, Mark Zusman | Q & A
 

Ben Westlund

The newly ex-gubernatorial candidate's own words on why his boomlet fizzled.

     
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Ben Westlund
IMAGE: RENEE BIELAWSKI
State Sen. Ben Westlund's independent campaign for governor couldn't even make it to Labor Day.

The maverick ex-Republican who scared major-party strategists last spring ("Ben Westlund: All of the Above," WW, April 26, 2006) announced last week that he was aborting his run rather than stay in the race to force debate over key issues from universal health care to a sales tax. Westlund says he'd concluded that he'd become what he promised he wouldn't: a spoiler in the contest between Democratic incumbent Ted Kulongoski and Republican challenger Ron Saxton.

Westlund says his campaign did in fact gather more than 48,000 signatures to make the ballot (more than twice the 18,368 he needed). But he believes that state rules limiting the voters who could sign his ballot petitions to those who didn't participate in the May 16 primary fatally hamstrung his campaign. That's because he couldn't begin gathering signatures until after the primary, draining time and energy while Saxton and Kulongoski picked up key endorsements that Westlund at least thought he could have competed for.

Westlund also raised more than $600,000, but says that isn't nearly enough money when the two major political parties can dump millions into this race without batting an eye.

His biggest disappointment was the failure by others to get an open primary initiative on the ballot. He felt that initiative wasn't just important to open up the political system. It also would have been of enormous value to his campaign, which would have benefited from the kind of independent voters who might have turned out in November to support it.

Westlund came into WW's offices Friday, Aug. 11, for an hourlong interview in which he hashed out all his disappointments as well as assessed his now-former opponents, Kulongoski and Saxton.

WW: Why drop out now?

Ben Westlund: It never is any one thing. When we got into this thing in February, we were very clear. We absolutely made a commitment to the citizens of Oregon that we were in it to win it and would not be a spoiler.

So what led you to conclude in August you were unlikely to win in November?

The shifting sands of the political landscape were changing, and our path to victory narrowed.

What do you mean, the sands had shifted?

I don't blame anyone or anything. But here's what I didn't anticipate. I knew I could get the signatures. But I missed that, in reality, we would have to wait until after the primary to begin collecting signatures. And as we were collecting them, it was the endorsement season. So I'm going into endorsement interviews and I'm spending three-fourths of my time convincing people that yes, I can get the signatures, as opposed to sharing my own vision for Oregon.

But that was back in May. Why not drop out then?

As you're going forward collecting signatures, you don't ever want to give up a ship. It's not something that you just take out for a test drive. This was a very complete and comprehensive commitment. We were trying our dangdest, our damndest to win this thing. As we were not able to convince people completely that we'd be on the ballot, they were holding back support.

What organizations, institutions or check-writers held back?

There wasn't any one huge disappoinment. There were smaller disappointments along the way. Unions coalesced behind Ted. That wasn't completely unexpected. The other side of the equation is that organizations I've supported for a decade—like the Oregon Farm Bureau and Oregonians for Food and Shelter [an organization of natural-resource-based businesses]—they lined up behind the Republican nominee. I'd carried their water for a long time.

There must have been a specific tipping point.

I don't think there was a specific moment. There was a series of little events. I had a gut feel that it was slipping away. I was pretty successful at raising money. But after you keep banging your head against the wall, you realize you're sitting there running two major operations, one for signature gathering and one to campaign for the office of governor. And the issue became we were not where we needed to be. OK, I'll give you one disappointment. I heard from [labor union] SEIU for months that "we will never endorse Ted." Then, two weeks ago, they did. You try to power through those things, but this takes an emotional toll.

What else hurt you?

I was incredibly disappointed that [the open-primary measure] did not make the ballot. Open primary is much bigger than my campaign. Don't take me there.

Was there any attempt to get you out of the race?

None. That's a cynical question. But we live in cynical times, so that's a fair question.

Why not stay in the race to force Kulongoski and Saxton to address your issues like the need for universal health care and a sales tax?

When I got in this, it was with a consistent message that I was not going to be a spoiler. I will tell you, this has not been an easy decision. We've never done this before. It was a new experience, and I'm actually very pleased with the effort and the success of it. We're going to keep this organization up and running. We'll oppose and support initiatives as well as candidates.

What has your now-aborted run achieved?

We've done much to awaken the political center in Oregon. Tens of thousands of Oregonians are realizing they have much more in common.

OK, now that you're out of the race: How true are the negative story lines Kulongoski and Saxton are telling about the other?

Neither [are true]. Ted Kulongoski is not a pawn of the public unions; Ron Saxton is not a pawn of corporate Oregon.

Play political pundit for a moment. What do you see as the main strengths and weaknesses of Saxton and Kulongoski?

What I think Saxton has going for him is that he is an "outsider" who does not have a voting record, a political track record. And he is a prodigious fundraiser. You've also got a very strong anti-incumbent, "throw the bums out" mentality. His weakness is that people are still trying to figure out who he is. He was one type of candidate in 2002 [when Saxton lost the Republican gubernatorial primary to Kevin Mannix], and he is trying to become another type of candidate today. Ted's strength is that he is the most hale-and-hearty-fellow-well-met I have ever known. I have never seen anyone who connects more genuinely with people. Campaign management is also a strength for Ted. And he is in a blue state, and he's a Democratic governor. I'd say his weakness is he's not as engaged with the legislative process. He does not have as much heartfelt passionate advocacy among his party in the Legislature. I will say he is a better speaker than Ron Saxton. He presents a more human and likable personality. Saxton's thrust is going to be anti-government. Ted's major thrust is that government is important and has a proactive role to play. I'm very much more inclined to the latter view.

Sounds like you're going to endorse the governor.

I'm not going to endorse. This was a very difficult decision, and right now, I'm in the post-mortem of it.

Is that decision not to endorse final?

Everyone should always revisit their decisions. Right now, everyone is trying to handicap what this means for Ben Westlund to get out of the race for Ted and Ron. I'm not subscribing to that. This is their race to win or lose.


Westlund says the open-primary initiative was so important that his own financially strapped campaign donated $10,000 toward the petition drive, which nevertheless failed to gather enough signatures.

The 45,000-member Service Employees Union endorsed Gov. Ted Kulongoski on July 31 for the Nov. 7 general election after endorsing Jim Hill in the May 16 Democratic primary.

Columbia Sportswear chairwoman Gert Boyle was one of Westlund's most prominent backers.

 
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