In a nearly full auditorium at Roosevelt High School in St. Johns, Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, state Rep. Knute Buehler (R-Bend) and Independent Party of Oregon nominee Patrick Starnes met tonight in the first televised governor's debate.
The format limited responses to one minute, which frequently resulted in candidates regurgitating talking points and speaking in generalities, although sparks of conflict flew on the issues of guns and K-12 education.
In a response to a question about reducing gun violence, Brown noted that Buehler had voted against Senate Bill 719, the so-called Extreme Risk Protection Order bill. That bill allowed law enforcement officials to confiscate guns from people deemed to be at immediate risk to themselves or others. Beuhler replied that the bill failed to provide for treatment to those whose guns were confiscated and didn't require court hearing.
Not surprisingly, given her 27 years in elected office, Brown displayed a sharper grasp of policies past and present—even summoning the bill number (Senate Bill 13) of legislation aimed at improving culturally specific education for Native Americans. Beuhler, an orthopedic surgeon who began many of his answers with the words "as a physician," struggled at times to find specifics to illustrate his answers.
But Brown was also in the position of having to defend some troubling aspects of the state's performance: Oregon ranks near the bottom on graduation rates and access to mental health services in national ratings and is home to a deeply troubled foster care system.
Buehler tried to hammer away at those vulnerabilities.
"Education is the single biggest failure in Gov. Brown's tenure," he said in response to a question about schools. "Not enough money is getting to the classroom."
In the Brown-friendly audience were Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, former Gov. Barbara Roberts, former House Speaker Dave Hunt (D-Gladstone) and a number of current lawmakers, including House Speaker Tina Kotek (D-Portland), state Sen. Kim Thatcher (R-Keizer) state Reps. Cedric Hayden (R-Roseburg) and Ron Noble (R-McMinnville).
Some of the students proved admirably persistent in trying to knock the candidates off their talking points. Rose Lawrence, 15, of Portland, asked three times what the candidates would do to reduce the bullying of LGBT students.
She never got a satisfying answer.
In response to a question about the state's foster care system, the subject of numerous high-profile disasters in recent years and a devastating audit, Buehler claimed credit for pushing Brown to increase resources to the system. That came as close as anything he said to drawing a rise out of the governor.
"When someone tells a whopper I think it's appropriate to point it out," Brown said.
In the end, the evening resembled a slow-motion sparring session where neither candidate did much damage to the other and where Starnes, the Independent Party candidate, did little to make a case for his being included in future debates.
In their closing statements, the two major party candidates neatly framed the election.
"You have a stark choice between a status quo governor who has failed to find solutions and somebody who will challenge the status quo," Buehler said.
"Actions speak louder than words," Brown responded. "I'm the only candidate in this race with a track record of bringing people together…now is not the time to go backward."
The candidates will face off again Oct. 4 in a debate hosted and televised by by KOBI (Channel 5) in Medford.