It was the first major stumble of a historic campaign for Oregon governor.
Four days after 19 children and two teachers died in a Texas school shooting, a Portland crowd pushed independent gubernatorial candidate Betsy Johnson to defend her long voting record on guns. She obliged: “The style of the gun does not dictate the lethality,” she said—and was met with boos.
But the bigger misstep may have occurred three days later, when Johnson backtracked from her position, telling WW in a statement that for the first time in her political career, she would support some gun control—stronger background checks and raising the minimum age for gun sales.
That pivot did nothing to placate Angela Uherbelau, a Portland writer and literacy activist who was escorted out of the TEDxPortland event after she shouted for Johnson to answer for her voting record on guns.
“It has her political consultants’ fingerprints all over it,” Uherbelau says. “It’s laughable that she’s pitching herself as a candidate to bring people together and lecturing us on extremism when she does own a machine gun and has a 100% [National Rifle Association] rating. That’s not in sync with the majority of Oregonians and gun owners in the state.”
If Uherbelau, a Democrat who plans to vote for Kotek, and progressives weren’t satisfied with Johnson’s change of heart, she also risked alienating conservative voters who had agreed with her past position on guns. (Her campaign insisted the switch wasn’t about getting elected but about representing Oregon.)
At a minimum, the TEDx appearance and its fallout highlighted Johnson’s long-standing record of holding common cause with the NRA. But perhaps more notably for a candidate who is running as a straight-talking, no-B.S. maverick, she took a more pragmatic and political approach this time, changing her position when she faced criticism.
It’s part of the difficult path to election for an independent candidate. Johnson, 71, faces former House Speaker Tina Kotek (D-Portland), who has championed gun control legislation, and former House Minority Leader Christine Drazan (R-Canby) who, like Johnson, opposed gun control bills while never quite satisfying hardcore gun advocates.
Johnson’s sense of humor and her direct approach were on display in her past explanation of her libertarian positions on both guns and abortion: “I believe every woman in Oregon has the right to bear arms and bear children as she wishes,” she told WW less than two months ago.
But her reversal shows she is attuned to where Oregonians are on an issue on which she’d previously taken a principled stance.
Observers argue the problem with Johnson’s TEDx defense of semi-automatic weapons is how it can be used on the campaign trail in the future.
“It’s in her own voice, she’s on camera, it’s a short sentence,” says Portland pollster John Horvick. “I suspect it’s that sort of line that’s going to show up in television ads and radio ads, and that’s going to be really difficult to explain away.”
It’s not the first time Johnson, a former Democrat, has publicly defended gun rights, even after a mass shooting. She talked about her NRA membership and her submachine gun to a group of teens in the month after the Sandy Hook and Clackamas Town Center shootings, The Daily Astorian reported in January 2013.
But whether it matters will depend in part on whether voters still care in the fall, Horvick notes.
To be sure, it’s early in the campaign. Most Oregonians aren’t yet paying close attention. And as of January, only 3% of Oregonians said gun policy would be their top issue when they vote for governor, according to a DHM Research poll. (Two percent named abortion.)
That may change as President Joe Biden champions the issue of gun control in the wake of the Uvalde, Texas, massacre.
Nationally, 80 to 90% of Americans say they support expanded background checks, according to polling.
But the past week has given both sides a chance to attack Johnson. Democrats are hammering her die-hard positions on gun control. “Betsy is on the wrong side of this issue—and she has been for years,” reads a June 6 fundraising email from Kotek’s campaign.
It has also given Republicans a chance to hammer Johnson on her “flip-flops.”
“Did you know Betsy Johnson is a flip-flopper?” reads a email blast from the Oregon GOP, also sent June 6. “During her 20 years in government, Betsy Johnson has developed a serious habit of changing her mind on key issues.…Betsy Johnson is inconsistent, unreliable, and unfit to be governor.”
The GOP email mentions her vote for tolls and light rail on the Interstate 5 bridge, which she now says she’s against. It goes on to cite her vote for the corporate activities tax to fund schools, which she now opposes.
The Johnson campaign accused her opponents of politicizing the issue. “It’s sad that when people are dying, political candidates’ instinct is to try to raise money instead of moving us forward,” says Johnson spokeswoman Jennifer Sitton. “Tina wants to take away all the guns and defund the police. Drazan doesn’t want to do anything. Betsy supports practical ideas to make people safer.”
When WW asked last week what policies the candidates would support to prevent mass shootings, they offered different proposals. Kotek said she’d advocate “common-sense gun safety, including banning ghost guns, preventing teenagers from purchasing assault weapons, and requiring completed background checks for all firearm purchases.” Drazan said she supported “dedicated funding to strengthen school safety measures and fully fund mental health services.”
Johnson’s answer was the surprise—she wanted “stronger background checks and raising the age to purchase certain firearms to 21.” She has yet to offer specifics, but last week said she’d consult law enforcement and experts.
There is anecdotal evidence to suggest neither end of the political spectrum was swayed by Johnson’s change on gun control.
“It’s a bit disingenuous, because she’s had years in the Legislature to support reasonable gun safety law, and she has always been a consistent ‘no’ vote,” says Paul Kemp, who founded Gun Owners for Responsible Ownership after his brother-in-law died in the Clackamas Town Center shooting.
“For over a decade, she has voted against every single gun safety bill in Oregon,” says Hilary Uhlig, a volunteer with the Oregon chapter of Moms Demand Action. “We need a governor who is going to prioritize the safety of our schools and communities—not someone who cares more about pleasing the gun lobby than protecting our lives.”
In fact, gun control activists helped expand Democratic control of the Senate so Johnson could no longer serve as a Democratic swing vote to block such legislation.
By contrast, Mark Cosby, 64, a Republican and retired construction worker and truck driver, met Johnson when he was a member of Timber Unity, and he smiled wide earlier this year, recalling that “she likes to play with guns.”
Cosby’s still thinking he’ll vote for Johnson, depending on whom the Constitution Party nominates.
“There is a lot of dishonesty all the way around in politics,” he said June 6. “Betsy has stood for very reasonable positions. Guns aren’t the problem. People are the problems.”