Rep. Brent Barton (D-Oregon City) barely defeated his Republican opponent, Steve Newgard, last year, winning by just 348 votes, the narrowest margin of six hotly contested Metro-area House races.

Barton was returning to the House after losing a Senate race in 2010. He says he thought he could put the campaign behind him after November and get busy legislating.

But in February a billboard went up on I-205, targeting Barton ahead of an expected vote on the $3.4 billion Columbia River Crossing project. 

"Which State Representative is about to RAISE YOUR TAXES to pay for LIGHT RAIL to Vancouver?" the billboard asked. Although it did not name Barton, the billboard carried a silhouette that was recognizably his.

When the House voted on the CRC on Feb. 25, however, Barton—along with three Republicans, Tim Freeman (R-Roseburg), Kim Thatcher (R-Keizer) and Jim Weidner (R-Yamhill)—were absent.

That prompted a mailer of the type normally reserved for campaign season. "He decided to DODGE one of the most controversial votes this year," the mailer said. "To approve the Columbia River Crossing light rail bridge."

Light rail is unpopular in Barton's Clackamas County district.

Only two House Democrats, Reps. Lew Frederick (D-Portland) and Carolyn Tomei (D-Milwaukie) voted against the bill. So did Barton dodge the vote? 

Barton, a lawyer, says he had a long-planned work-related obligation.

"I was going to vote 'yes' but I was in deposition that day," Barton says. "I filed my notice of absence with the clerk in early February, long before I could have known when the CRC vote would be held."

A check with the House clerk's office supports his claim. On Feb. 4, the day the session officially opened, Barton filed a request seeking excused absence for Feb. 25 and Feb. 26.

"I have a critical deposition that will probably require two days," Barton wrote. 

When the session opened, and as is the case normally, there was no scheduled date most people thought a CRC vote would come in March at the earliest, so it seems unlikely Barton missed the vote. 

Lindsay Berschauer, a political consultant who's been active in Clackamas County's anti-light rail movment, says she designed the anti-Barton billboard and another political action committee, Freedom and Responsibility, did the mailer.

Berschauer says it's important that Barton be accountable. "He has a responsibility to be transparent with his constituents," she says.

For his part, Barton says the attacks on him are inaccurate and unproductive.

"I don't like these tactics, which I find demeaning to the legislative process," Barton says. "These cheap shots make it harder to work across party lines."