Thousands of people showed up at Moda Center’s Theater of the Clouds today for the 10th TEDxPortland. They expected to see an announced lineup of 15 overachievers who rarely eat junk food or forget to microdose, all talking about “audacious” ideas.
But at about 11 am, an unscheduled speaker hit the stage: former state Sen. Betsy Johnson (D-Scappoose), who is running for governor as an unaffiliated candidate.
As The Oregonian noted when it reported Johnson’s appearance, 501(c)(3) nonprofits such as the TED Foundation are supposed to refrain from providing platforms to political candidates.
Many in the audience reportedly did not take kindly to what amounted to a campaign appearance by Johnson, whose support for gun owners has struck a discordant note in Portland after the Uvalde, Texas, school massacre earlier this week. (Although she was a Democrat in the Oregon Legislature, Johnson broke with her party and regularly voted against gun control measures, earning a 100% rating from the National Rifle Association.)
One of the the people who objected to Johnson’s appearance was Angela Uherbelau, a Portland writer and advocate for children’s literacy, who said on Twitter that she was booted from the event for asking inconvenient questions.
Johnson drew ire from some in the crowd when she trotted out an NRA talking point about the futility of legislating against certain weapons.
“The style of the gun does not dictate the lethality,” Johnson said.
Steve Law, a retired reporter for the Portland Tribune and the Salem Statesman Journal, was one of the many people in the audience who objected.
“Betsy’s comment that it doesn’t really matter what type of gun someone owns is ludicrous, after a teenager used an automatic weapon to murder so many innocent students and teachers,” Law tells WW. “The host should have challenged her on that but didn’t. She shouldn’t have been on that stage in the first place.”
Johnson took to Twitter after the event and addressed the crowd’s response.
Law wasn’t impressed.
“I spent a tidy sum for two seats at this event to honor one of the speakers, and I am outraged the organizers chose to offer Betsy Johnson an unannounced free infomercial for her governor’s campaign,” he says. “I would not have supported TEDxPortland had I known they were going to do that.”
Johnson’s Democratic opponent, former House Speaker Tina Kotek, took the opportunity to denounce Johnson’s gun votes, as she had earlier in the week. “I’m disgusted by the way Senator Betsy Johnson today dismissed concerns about deadly firearms,” Kotek wrote in a statement. “As the nation reels from one of the deadliest school shootings in history, Betsy continues to spout the talking points of the NRA.”
In a statement, TEDxPortland later called putting Johnson onstage “an error in judgment.”