Former Gov. Ted Kulongoski and Onetime U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith Endorse Betsy Johnson for Governor

The bipartisan show of support for the unaffiliated candidate kicks off a three-way race in the general election.

Two of the state’s best-known former officeholders, Gov. Ted Kulongoski, a Democrat, and U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith, a Republican, today announced their support for former state Sen. Betsy Johnson (D-Scappoose), who is seeking to become only the second unaffiliated candidate to win an Oregon governor’s race.

“One of us is a proud Democrat and one a proud Republican. First and foremost, we are Oregonians. But like so many others, we are worried about the state we love,” the men said in a joint statement.

“From the homeless crisis to public safety, to our schools, and to the urban-rural divide, our next governor will have some big problems to solve. We are in complete agreement that Betsy Johnson is the best person to solve those problems. We have both worked with Betsy, and we know she has the courage, the common sense, and the ability to find common ground needed to get Oregon moving in the right direction.”

Johnson, who will face former House Speaker Tina Kotek (D-Portland) and former House Minority Leader Christine Drazan (R-Canby) in the November general election, expressed her gratitude in a statement.

“I am thrilled that Gov. Kulongoski and Sen. Smith have endorsed my independent candidacy for governor,” Johnson said. “Like you, they know Oregon needs a really big change in our politics and leadership and are ready to put the people back in charge of our state government. I am truly grateful to have the support from two of Oregon’s finest leaders and citizens.”

Kulongoski, 81, who served as governor from 2003 to 2011, is the first ex-governor to endorse Johnson. Kulongoski began his political career as a lawmaker from Lane County. In that capacity, he wrote the Public Employee Collective Bargaining Act, which facilitated the rise of the state’s public employee unions. He went on serve as the state’s insurance commissioner, won election as attorney general, and served as a justice on the Oregon Supreme Court before winning election as governor in 2002.

Smith also boasts sterling political pedigree. The scion of a wealthy Pendleton farming family, he won a seat in the state Senate in 1992 and rose to become president of the Oregon Senate in 1995, in the days when Republicans enjoyed more power in Oregon than they do now. That same year, he ran for U.S. Senate against Ron Wyden following the resignation of U.S. Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.). Wyden won but the following year, U.S. Sen. Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.) announced his retirement. Smith easily won Hatfield’s seat. He would go on to serve two terms, often working collaboratively with Wyden, his Democratic colleague. In 2008, then-Oregon House Speaker Jeff Merkley (D-Portland) defeated Smith as Smith sought a third term. After leaving the Senate, Smith, now 70, stayed in Washington, D.C., as the CEO of the National Association of Broadcasters, a position from which he retired this year.

For her part, Tina Kotek scored the endorsement of the man who thought he would be the Democratic Party nominee today: Nicholas Kristof.