WW’s November 2018 Endorsements for the Oregon Legislature

Democrats seek a super-majority. But not all the Democrats are good choices for Oregon.

Stream a podcast of our endorsement, with highlights of some of the more spirited moments of the candidates' interview, here. 

District 15 (Hillsboro and Forest Grove)

Chuck Riley, Democrat

We'll say this for Riley: He doesn't give up. In 2010, after three unremarkable terms in the House, Riley decided to challenge incumbent Sen. Bruce Starr (R-Hillsboro) and lost. Riley, now 79, tried again in 2014 and defeated Starr in one of the most expensive Oregon legislative races ever: Each candidate spent just shy of $1 million.

What did all that money get us? On the one hand, Riley's shown courage in Salem with his outspoken calls for gun control. He withstood a 2015 recall attempt after co-sponsoring a background-check bill. But aside from his work on guns, he's spent a pretty quiet four years in office, passing bills to centralize state IT functions and cracking down on predatory tow-truck drivers.

But his GOP opponent, Alexander Flores, a supply-chain analyst at Daimler Trucks, he wants to cut taxes but make schools better. That doesn't make sense.

What Riley is afraid of: "I don't like high places," he says. "Especially if there are other people around."

District 19 (Lake Oswego, Tualatin and West Linn)

Rob Wagner, Democrat

Last year, Gov. Kate Brown appointed longtime Sen. Richard Devlin (D-Tualatin) to a seat on the Northwest Power Planning and Conservation Council. Rob Wagner, 45, a Lake Oswego School Board member with a decade of experience as a Salem lobbyist for the American Federation of Teachers, got the nod. Now he's running in his first election to hold that seat.

Salem doesn't urgently need another union stalwart, but Wagner has some policy chops to accompany his practiced charm. We like his priority of gun control, and expect him to carry a bill requiring locked gun storage at home—a top issue for many parents and teachers. He's also working on tougher protections for bullied LGBTQ kids. (The one bill he passed in 2018—assisting foster children with staying in college—was nothing to write home about.) He's willing to break with Democratic orthodoxy to support public charter schools.

His GOP opponent is David Poulson, a civil engineer. Poulson is an interesting guy—he manages structural engineering for Tesla. He has big ideas about transportation, including a convert's faith that self-driving vehicles will fix Portland's traffic bottlenecks. But his theories remain abstract—and when pressed to define himself politically, he's a generic Republican voting against taxes and sanctuary cities.

What frightens Wagner: The thought of outliving his children.

District 20 (Canby and Oregon City)

Charles Gallia, Democrat

It's unusual for a sitting senator to skip our endorsement interviews. But few lawmakers have been as savagely reviewed as Sen. Alan Olsen (R-Canby) in our biennial poll of Salem insiders, "The Good, the Bad and the Awful." Olsen—a general contractor, Republican and climate-change denier—ranked in the last category. One lobbyist memorably remarked: "Clackamas County called and is missing its village idiot."

His Democratic challenger is Charles Gallia, 61, a recently retired policy adviser at the Oregon Health Authority. He received our endorsement in 2016, when he ran against Rep. Bill Kennemer (R-Canby). It didn't do him much good: Kennemer beat him 64 to 32 percent. "I got my butt kicked," Gallia recalls. The drubbing seems to have relaxed him; Gallia arrived more confident and poised than two years ago. He wants to focus on health care and budgeting reforms—tasks for which his last job has amply prepared him.

Also running is Kenny Sernach, 34, a mild-mannered Libertarian accountant who says he wants government to stay out of people's lives but doesn't offer much reason why he should be in government.

What frightens Gallia: "Telling a bad joke and having silence after that."

District 26 (Hood River, Sandy and Corbett)

Chuck Thomsen, Republican

This sprawling district extends from Happy Valley to the eastern slopes of Mount Hood, and includes farmers, cryptocurrency miners and chronically impoverished parts of East Multnomah County. Thomsen, who owns a 168-acre pear orchard, is a quiet, steady presence in Salem, where he's served two terms after previously serving 16 years on the Hood River County Commission.

Because of his experience working with immigrants who harvest his pears and make up a sizable portion of the agricultural workforce in his district, Thomsen sponsored legislation in 2014 that allowed undocumented workers to get driver's certificates, an example of his willingness to challenge Republican orthodoxy. (The bill passed but was overwhelmingly overturned at the ballot box.) Thomsen's a popular guy in Salem—not just because he's a straight shooter who listens more than he speaks, but because he keeps a well-stocked bowl of the Gorge's best pears in his office.

Democratic challenger Chrissy Reitz, a former pediatric intensive care nurse, is bright and engaged in the Hood River community but doesn't have much to add other than an interest in greater funding for K-12 schools. Salem needs a farmer more than it needs another education-funding advocate.

What Thomsen is afraid of: Heights. When he was a kid on family vacation, Thomsen says, his dad once stopped the car on Crooked River High Bridge, 295 feet above the water. "He said, 'Kids who talk in the car get thrown off,'" Thomsen recalls.

District 26 (Sherwood and Wilsonville)

Rich Vial, Republican

Vial, 64, a retired lawyer, can be trusted to make the right call on tough issues, even when it comes at high personal cost. Earlier this year, he voted to close the "boyfriend loophole," a modest gun control measure that allows law enforcement to take weapons from domestic abusers and stalkers even if they're not married to their victim. As with any gun control legislation, it took fortitude to stand up to his party.

He also voted to renew driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants whose legal status under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals has expired. The move came as the Trump administration worked to make life difficult for DACA kids. (He received "average" reviews in our annual survey, "The Good, the Bad and the Awful,"which is not bad for a freshman Republican.)

But doing so brought Vial a primary challenger—and his spine has softened.

Vial hinted in his endorsement interview that he'll vote against Measure 105, the right-wing move to overturn sanctuary laws that protect undocumented immigrants. But he couldn't bring himself to say that out loud. He made a persuasive case against the grocer-backed Measure 103—then said he'd vote for it anyway.

Vial is running against a first-time politician who shows promise. Courtney Neron, 39, is a public schoolteacher and says she'll stand up for campaign-spending limits—something that has not been a priority for the Democratic leadership of the state and has traditionally been opposed by labor unions.

We hope to see more of her.

But we're sticking with Vial, and hope he regains his independence.

Vial’s greatest fear: He gave perhaps the most self-scrutinizing answer of this cycle. “My biggest fear is the same fear that all of us have, that somebody is going to discover we’re a fraud, that we’re not everything we say we want to be. My biggest fear is that I’ll succumb to the shame that inevitably follows vulnerability. It is easy to find myself not being courageous and bold about the next thing I want to do.”

Clarification: this post has been updated to reflect the fact that Neron did not mention union opposition to campaign-spending limits.

District 27 (Beaverton)

Sheri Malstrom, Democrat

Malstrom, 65, is a retired public health nurse seeking her second term. In her rookie term, Malstrom passed a bill that required infants to be in rear-facing car seats for the first two years—the standard recommended by experts and the law in some other states. She also co-sponsored a wage-theft bill that punishes employers for failing to pay their workers.

As evidence of her independence, Malstrom cites carrying a bill for the Portland Winterhawks hockey team that would have protected the team against having to pay its players minimum wage. Despite the opposition of unions and House Democratic leadership, Malstrom got the bill passed on the House floor, although it later died in the Senate. The parent of a former junior hockey player, she argues that teams compensate players through room and board and scholarship money and cannot afford to pay them.

Malstrom's biggest highlight came near the end of the 2017 session, when longtime Washington County Commissioner Dick Schouten proposed to her on the House floor. She accepted, with the proviso that he had to move into her house—because he didn't live in her legislative district.

Malstrom's GOP opponent, Brian Pierson, 55, brings a long background of corporate management experience to the race. He's spent much of the decade he's lived in Oregon traveling on business and has little record of civic involvement or much of a plan for what he'd do if elected.

What Malstrom is afraid of: Not always seeing the bigger picture.

District 28 (Aloha)

Jeff Barker, Democrat

Barker, 75, is a former Portland cop and eight-term incumbent with a track record as a moderate Democrat. Unflappable and pragmatic, he may be the most universally respected member of the House. He's the only House representative to earn an "excellent" rating in our 2017 rankings.

The longtime chair of the House Judiciary Committee, Barker oversaw substantial criminal justice reforms last session, including closing a loophole that allowed some domestic abusers to buy guns.

His focus now? Creating a justice system that does not overburden the poor.

He plans to propose a bill in 2019 to give public defenders a pay raise. He wants to do away with fines that make it difficult for low-income Oregonians to challenge low-level violations in court. And Barker plans to support a legislative effort to put an end to driver's license suspensions for unpaid traffic fines.

There's no Republican challenger in this race. Barker's Libertarian opponent, Lars Hedbor, who did not attend our endorsement interview, has a Voters' Pamphlet statement that suggests he is a one-issue candidate—and that issue is jettisoning daylight saving time. Stick with Barker.

What Barker is afraid of: "I would hate to have a family breakup."

District 29  (Hillsboro, Cornelius and Forest Grove)

Susan McLain, Democrat

McLain, 69, is a former teacher and Metro councilor finishing her second term in Salem. It went better than the first, when she was all but invisible. This time, she worked on failed but noble legislation to regulate ride-hailing services Lyft and Uber, and became one of the Legislature's leading authorities on autonomous vehicles. She'll be leading the charge next session to create rules for testing self-driving cars and trucks on Oregon roads.

We didn't get to hear as much about those regulatory plans as we would have liked, because McLain struggled to get a word in over her Republican challenger, website engineer and veterans advocate David Molina. He recited standard GOP nostrums, including cutting spending, privatizing government and reassessing budget priorities, in excruciating detail, then demanded McLain agree with him on his support for Donald Trump's immigration policy. (She didn't.) We left the interview grateful McLain is a candidate with the ability to listen as well as speak.

What frightens McLain: "I hate rats."

House District 30 (Hillsboro, Banks and North Plains)

Janeen Sollman, Democrat

In her one term in Salem, Sollman, 48, has not been asked to do much heavy lifting.

A veteran of two terms on the Hillsboro School Board, she serves on the House Education Committee, where she brings perspective from one of the state's best-run and most diverse school districts. Her accomplishments are modest: She passed a bill that collects interest from some unclaimed savings bonds for the common school fund and another that is aimed at streamlining the process for high school students to get college credit for some courses. But she's shown a lot of courage for a freshman, opposing a priority bill for one of the state's most powerful interest groups, the Oregon Education Association. Sollman was one of just four House Democrats who voted against a bill that would have allowed teachers unions to include class size in collective bargaining.

Republican Dorothy Merritt, an artist, skipped our interview, as did Libertarian candidate Kyle Markley, an Intel engineer who challenged Sollman two years ago.

What Sollman is afraid of: "Going over bridges at night."

District 33 (Northwest Portland and Cedar Mill)

Mitch Greenlick, Democrat

Mitch Greenlick never tried very hard to be liked. The Capitol's health care expert suffers no fools while chairing the House Health Care Committee—a factory floor of intricate policy where Greenlick has reigned as taskmaster for eight terms.

Allow us to be a little sentimental about Greenlick. At 83, he's survived cancer and two hip replacements, and what he says is his final run for office has the feel of a "one last job" heist movie. His unfinished business? He only wants to abolish Oregon's death penalty, improve the state's assisted-suicide program so more people can access it, and merge Portland State University with Oregon Health & Science University. Those are ambitious and meaningful goals—and heaven help anybody standing in Greenlick's way.

That includes Elizabeth Reye, 40, his Republican challenger. Reye is new to politics and zealous about reforming Salem. She has no party support, but she's smarter and more moderate than many GOP candidates. We hope to see her again. Unfortunately for her prospects this cycle, she's running against one of Oregon's finest statesmen. Greenlick gets our endorsement, one last time.

What frightens Greenlick: "Until two years ago, I was most frightened of snakes. Now it's the president of the United States. He terrifies me."

District 34 (Washington County, including Cedar Hills, Tanasbourne and Rock Creek)

Ken Helm, Democrat

We've always taken a shine to Helm, 53, now seeking his third term. Perhaps that's because the former land-use lawyer, who gave up his practice fearing it would conflict with his legislative votes, is an unabashed nerd. (He's got the most severe case of "Public Radio Voice" we've ever heard.) His attention to detail served the public well during the long rulemaking sessions for recreational cannabis. Lately, he's been doing his homework on poaching—successfully sponsoring three bills to toughen the penalties for hunters who poach elk, black bears, cougars and sturgeon.

His Republican challenger, realtor Michael Ngo, doesn't offer a tangible platform and declined to attend our interview. The Libertarian candidate, Joshua Ryan Johnston, is a genuinely interesting guy—he's a cybersecurity technician with a sleeve tattoo of an octopus—but doesn't offer a compelling reason to replace Helm.

What frightens Helm: "I'm terrified to drive in the Pearl, because there are so many bicyclists."

District 35 (Tigard)

Margaret Doherty, Democrat

Want to feel gloomy about the prospects of any big push to improve public education in this state? Ponder this: Rep. Margaret Doherty is the highest-ranking Democrat on the House committee that oversees schools.

Doherty, 67, seeking her fifth full term in Salem, is a former Milwaukie High School teacher. She's also a former Oregon Education Association representative (a "union goonette," in her self-effacing words). As chairwoman of the House Committee on Education, she appears to be putting her expertise to preserving the status quo.

Asked to diagnose how Oregon public schools are performing, she launched into an uninspiring defense. "Oregon schools, for the resources that they have and the resources that the kids have, we are doing OK," she told us.

That response was as mediocre as the performance of Oregon's schools. Doherty offered excuses: a higher poverty rate than most states', more graduation requirements, higher class sizes. They're true, but not inspiring.

She wants increased revenue. That's clearly necessary. But it's equally clear she won't be pushing to improve schools if it means pressuring unions for concessions.

If Doherty is uninspiring, her Republican rival is a disaster. Bob Niemeyer, an engineer, fears, without basis, that planning agency Metro will force townhouses on Tigard in the midst of the current housing crunch (egads!) and, perhaps not unrelatedly, that the United States is letting in too many refugees from the Middle East. (Even if that weren't repulsively xenophobic, it would still be false: The number of refugees entering the state has hit new lows.)

Vote Doherty. The status quo is better than a suburban know-nothing.

Doherty's greatest fear: "Being Irish, I'm afraid of ghosts. We're superstitious.There are ghosts out there. That and clowns."

District 37 (West Linn and parts of Tualatin)

Julie Parrish, Republican

Democrats own a 7-point registration advantage in this district, and they keep recruiting candidates to take out Parrish, a four-term incumbent.

This year, Democrats found and funded Rachel Prusak, 42, a nurse practitioner. Prusak's talking points are generic D—she'd put more money into schools and health care and make it harder for people to buy guns.

That sounds good, but we'll stick with Parrish, 44, whose independence and energy serve her constituents well. Yes, she erred when she put Measure 101 on the ballot this year in a misguided attempt to line-edit a Medicaid funding bill. Voters spiked that measure, and the effort tarnished the reputation she'd built by helping Secretary of State Dennis Richardson win in 2016. And yes, she can go on tangents and end up way off track.

But we appreciate Parrish's independence. She's pro-choice, took a hard gun-control vote this year and regularly bucks powerful Republican constituencies. In 2017, she was a chief sponsor of Senate Bill 828, a groundbreaking work-week scheduling bill that was a Democratic priority. Salem needs more debate, not less, and Parrish can be counted on to challenge the power structure.

What Parrish is afraid of: "My kids dying before me."

District 39 (Oregon City and Canby)

Elizabeth Graser-Lindsey, Democrat

This remains one of the few House districts in the metro area where Republicans hold a registration advantage over Democrats (5.6 percentage points). State Rep. Bill Kennemer (R-Oregon City), a five-term incumbent, is retiring, and Christine Drazan, a member of the Clackamas County planning commission, emerged from a four-way GOP primary as the party's nominee to replace him.

Drazan, a pro-life gun-rights supporter, opposes Democrats' cap-and-trade plan, saying it would "advance fringe groups and extreme ideology." She's also opposed to tolling I-205, a proposal that has united lefties and business eager to reduce congestion. Salem needs fewer retrograde thinkers, not more.

Elizabeth Graser-Lindsey, 60, is a Beavercreek farmer who holds a Ph.D. in bio-engineering and raises San Clemente Island goats, an endangered heirloom species. She's a first-time candidate, and points to her work leading a legal battle that kept Metro from designating Beavercreek for urbanization 20 years ago as her primary qualification for office. Since then, she's worked on several Clackamas County and local committees on traffic and land-use planning. If elected, she'd like to work on policies aimed at aligning transportation with jobs and housing, and focus lawmakers more on rural issues.

What Graser-Lindsey is afraid of: "I'm concerned the public gets narrowly focused on day-to-day life and doesn't deal with the large issues, such as climate change, that are facing us."

District 40 (Oregon City and Gladstone)

Mark Meek, Democrat

Democrats in Salem don't often have to take tough votes. Mark Meek did.

Meek, 54, won this seat in 2016 and then voted against his biggest supporters (real estate agents) and his own interests (he runs a real estate firm) by saying "aye" to a ban on no-cause evictions and allowing cities to apply rent control. The tenant protections passed the House but died in the Senate—and Meek made an enemy of his longtime allies. "That was the toughest vote I've ever taken," he says, "but I'd be glad to do it again."

So now Meek has a Republican challenger, 27-year-old Josh Hill, whose pockets are full of contributions from real estate interests. Hill talks in slogans; no amount of prodding could get him to detail his policies, but he votes the GOP line, including supporting measures to restrict abortions and end sanctuary for immigrants.

Two years ago, we endorsed Meek's Republican opponent, Evon Tekorius, in part because the Democrat couldn't give us a straight answer on corporate tax Measure 97. He's developed a backbone since then. His opposition didn't keep pace. Meek gets our vote in a landslide.

What scares Meek most: "Spiders give me the heebie-jeebies."

District 42 (Inner Southeast Portland)

Rob Nosse, Democrat

Nosse, 50, represents the state's second-bluest House district, including neighborhoods like Sunnyside, Reed and Woodstock. Only neighboring District 43, in Northeast Portland, contains more Democrats.

After two terms, he's already earned plum assignments, as vice chairman of the Health Care Committee and a member of both the Revenue and Rules committees. His union ties run deep: An official for the Oregon Nurses Association, he previously worked for both Service Employees International Union Local 503 and SEIU Local 49—and, before that, lobbied for the Oregon and Ohio student associations. His familiarity with Salem and labor got him off to a fast start. He was the "rookie of the year" in our 2015 ranking of lawmakers and scored higher than all but three House members in 2017. Nosse passed House Bill 4005 last year, a bill aimed at making prescription drug pricing more transparent. He calls the bill "a weak step but a first step."

We'd like to see some sign of independent thought from Nosse—just one place where he's not a party-line, rubber-stamp Democrat. That question stumped him in 2016 and again this year.

His opponent, Libertarian Bruce Knight, a semi-retired grocery store manager, learned he was running from a letter the state party sent him and did not bother filling out a Voters' Pamphlet statement.

What Nosse is afraid of: "That my grandson won't have a middle-class life."

District 49 (Gresham, Fairview and Troutdale)

Justin Hwang, Republican

This is a race with no good outcomes. But the incumbent, Chris Gorsek, doesn't deserve another trip to Salem.

Gorsek, 60, was the third-most absent lawmaker this year. He missed 33 votes because he was too busy teaching classes at Mt. Hood Community College to show up at the Capitol. If serving as an elected official were a college course, he'd flunk.

When he was present, Gorsek's grasp of the issues left much to be desired. In six years, the incumbent hasn't led a committee or taken a stand against his party. He says criminal justice reform is one of his key interests, but the only proposal he offered up was adopting a kid-friendly version of the Miranda rights for juveniles who are detained by police. The next legislative session is likely to tackle historic reforms, but you wouldn't know it after talking to Gorsek.

Heather Ricks, the Libertarian running against Gorsek, is a one-issue candidate—housing—whose understanding comes from renting in New York City rather than studying Oregon.

That leaves voters with Justin Hwang, 32, a fresh-faced Republican candidate who owns 22 teriyaki restaurants in the Portland metro area. His top priority is securing tax cuts for LLCs, which serves his self-interest (his businesses would get a break). But Hwang also immigrated to the U.S. from South Korea when he was 4, and that life experience has led him to split with his party on anti-immigrant Measure 105. And we like his eagerness to press for reforms in school spending.

Hwang could add an interesting voice to the Legislature. At least he'd be there.

Hwang's biggest fear: "Other than my wife?" he joked. (He followed up to say he fears losing good teachers to underfunding.)

District 51 (Happy Valley)

Janelle Bynum, Democrat

This race is a rematch, and it's a good one. The incumbent Democrat, Janelle Bynum, is defending her title against Republican challenger Lori Chavez-DeRemer. Bynum defeated Chavez-DeRemer by just 2 percentage points in 2016.

Bynum, 43, who owns five McDonald's franchises, quickly displayed independence from her caucus—often moving to the right. She was one of two Democrats who opposed a bill that decoupled Oregon's income tax from federal tax cuts under the Trump tax plan, because "tax policy shouldn't be based on a vendetta." She also voted against a hefty transportation package that aims to raise $5.3 billion in 10 years, because she worried it would open the door to road tolls.

Despite her "no" vote, Bynum got $110 million into the transportation package to upgrade the eastern stretch of Powell Boulevard. She supported legislation to require equal pay and flexible scheduling—a vote against her business interests.

Chavez-DeRemer, 50, is worthy competition. She has plenty of governing experience in the district, most recently as mayor of Happy Valley. Her positions on taxes and infrastructure are well-reasoned and compelling. Yet we're troubled by some of her stances: She says she is a moderate Republican, yet she opposes the Metro housing bond and supports the ballot measure that would restrict access to abortion. Most importantly, she doesn't offer a compelling reason to unseat a moderate Dem.

Bynum deserves another chance to apply her smarts and independence.

Bynum's biggest fear: Falling. "I've been pregnant four times and felt unsafe and wobbly," she says. And she's had some close calls, nearly tripping over piles of laundry she says her husband left in her path.

District 52 (Hood River, Sandy and Cascade Locks)

Anna Williams, Democrat

Talk about a close race: Anna Williams and Jeff Helfrich live five doors apart from each other in Hood River.

Helfrich, 50, was appointed to this seat last year when four-term Republican lawmaker Mark Johnson left to run Oregon Business & Industries, a lobbying group. A retired Portland police officer and Multnomah County sheriff's deputy, Helfrich hasn't had much time to make waves in Salem—but he did buck his party by voting for college scholarships for "Dreamers," immigrants brought into the country as children by their undocumented parents.

We'd typically say Helfrich is exactly the kind of incumbent who deserves another bite at the apple. But his Democratic challenger, Anna Williams, 38, ranks among the most impressive new voices we've encountered in years. A social worker specializing in domestic and sexual violence response, Williams brings on-the-ground knowledge that would help repair Oregon's busted foster care and elder care systems. She's willing to defy teachers unions to get more funding into rural schools. And she makes a compelling case that Helfrich voted irresponsibly—and against his own better judgment—by opposing a bill that took guns away from stalkers and abusive boyfriends.

The voters of this district have a pleasant dilemma: two bright and qualified candidates with deep roots in the district and detailed knowledge of the issues. We'll take Williams, at the wire.

What most frightens Williams: Outliving her children.

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