In Oregon governor’s races, math is everything: Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 9 percentage points—about 282,000 voters. That advantage largely explains why Democrats have won every governor’s race since 1986, tying Oregon with Washington state for the longest partisan winning streak in the nation.
That dominance is imperiled this year. Understandably so.
Oregon’s woeful response to homelessness, its inadequate strategy for treating mental illness and substance abuse, and the dismal performance of the state’s public schools have many voters wondering whether Democrats, who have controlled both chambers of the Legislature every year but one since 2007, are complacent, incompetent or both.
That feeling of dissatisfaction with Democrats’ governance of Oregon propelled former state Sen. Betsy Johnson (D-Scappoose) to run for governor as an unaffiliated candidate. The 20-year lawmaker quit the Democratic Party because she couldn’t stomach another four years of what we are seeing now.
Johnson, the 71-year-old daughter of a Redmond timber baron, is as comfortable drinking with Astoria fishermen as she is tippling with the state’s most affluent citizens. She has a deep knowledge of state government, a biting sense of humor, and a precise diagnosis of how Oregon has lost its way.
She is the candidate who’d be the most fun to meet for coffee or a pull of Jack Daniel’s. But her frightful voting record on the environment, her lack of support for an increase in the minimum wage, and her opposition to restricting no-cause evictions make clear her candidacy is out of touch with the values of many Oregonians.
The Republican nominee, former House Minority Leader Christine Drazan (R-Canby), emerged from a scrum of candidates in the primary with the skimpiest legislative record of the three front-runners in the general—she served less than two terms—and the burden of Republicans’ long losing streak. Drazan, 50, is not without experience in Salem. She served as a senior legislative staffer two decades ago when her party controlled the Legislature, and later lobbied for the Oregon Restaurant & Lodging Association and ran the Cultural Advocacy Coalition.
As a lawmaker, she did little more than lead her caucus in walking out of the Capitol, frustrating Democrats’ agenda. But on the campaign stump, Drazan has shown herself to be a natural. She’s an incisive communicator who can laser in on the state’s failings. She’s also done her best to avoid topics that put her at odds with a majority of the electorate: her party’s leader, former President Donald Trump, and her opposition to abortion rights, all mention of which she wiped from her campaign website before running in the general election.
Drazan is smart, a realist and not, despite what Democrats fear, a MAGA-style Republican. But for all her talk of bipartisanship, she can point to few examples of working productively with the party in power. We have difficulty imagining her leading a coalition to shelter the unhoused or deliver more effective behavioral health care. What’s more, her opposition to abortion and gun control—or taking any meaningful steps to slow climate change—put her at odds with WW’s values. We cannot endorse her.
That brings us to Tina Kotek, the longest-serving House speaker in Oregon history until she resigned in January to focus on the governor’s race.
As speaker, Kotek, 56, drove legislation and the members of her caucus with precision, discipline and remarkable success. Under her leadership, Democrats passed family medical leave and historic increases in the minimum wage, expanded health care coverage and made Oregon the first state in the nation to scrap zoning for single-family homes, an impediment to building more housing.
Let’s make one thing clear: Kotek is different from the woman she hopes to succeed, Gov. Kate Brown. Yes, both are Portland liberals who have broken barriers for LGBTQ people. But Brown lucked into the governor’s office and never articulated a clear agenda for her six-year tenure. Kotek is decisive, focused on bettering the conditions of working-class Oregonians, and driven to the point of ruthlessness to achieve her goals.
Kotek is a taskmaster. As speaker, her task was passing bills. She bowled over anybody who stood in the way of bills she wanted passed—Democrat or Republican. For some, that was a traumatizing experience—but showed the kind of determination the state needs. As governor, Kotek’s task will be to ensure that agencies do their jobs and taxpayer dollars are spent efficiently. We think her legislative skills would translate well to an executive position. Kotek’s challenge will be to widen her circle beyond the public employee union leaders who are her closest advisers, and convey a vision of Oregon that works for everyone, not just Democrats in the Willamette Valley.
There’s some irony in Democrats nominating their strongest candidate in a decade, only to see her run headfirst into the fiercest opposition to her party in recent memory. But the seriousness of the alternatives posed by Drazan and Johnson makes it imperative to elect someone who can bring about meaningful change. Vote for Kotek.
On the menu for Kotek’s last meal: Sour cherry dumplings from Kachka.
Oregon Labor Commissioner
For many Oregonians, the Bureau of Labor and Industries will always be the agency that fined a Gresham bakery a lot of money for refusing to bake a wedding cake for a lesbian couple. The matter went to the U.S. Supreme Court and back, making headlines all the way.
But there is much more to BOLI than that one notorious case. The agency is charged with protecting workers’ civil rights and making sure they are treated fairly by employers. It ferrets out wage theft, one of the most widespread crimes in the country, and punishes discrimination in the workplace. It aims to build a competent workforce through apprenticeship programs. And BOLI’s commissioner is one of just five Oregon offices elected statewide.
The current commissioner, Val Hoyle, is running to fill the open seat of U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, who is retiring next year. (That congressional district is outside our circulation area, so we aren’t making an endorsement.) Two women are vying to fill the nonpartisan position Hoyle leaves behind: Bend restaurant owner Cheri Helt and Portland civil rights lawyer Christina Stephenson.
Helt, a former Republican state representative, says she’s running because BOLI often treats businesses unfairly, fining them for violations before saying what they did wrong. “A lot of people are just getting fines and not understanding why they got them,” Helt, 52, says.
Stephenson, 39, says the opposite is true. Her experience—honed by her legal career representing workers—is that BOLI doesn’t side with employees nearly enough.
Call us crazy, but we feel putting a restaurant owner in charge of an agency that deals with a lot of complaints from restaurant workers is a mistake (see: fox, henhouse). Helt seems animated by her experience during the pandemic, when one of her three restaurants closed. State policies aimed at controlling the spread of COVID-19 caused “instability,” she says, and BOLI did nothing to help. Her critique lacked specifics. If elected, she’d create a more predictable environment for business, which in turn would be good for labor, she says.
Her plans seemed vague to us, while Stephenson’s seemed concrete, formed by a decade representing businesses and workers at BOLI. “It’s no secret that I’ve had a to-do list for BOLI for 10 years,” Stephenson says. “I write down things like, ‘Why can’t they send me less paper?’” She contacted the agency about updating its website because information on a statute of limitations was wrong, she says.
As voters, we like that kind of attention to detail. Stephenson’s overarching vision for the agency appeals to us, too. She sees BOLI’s primary role as providing assurance that workers get the kind of fair treatment that secures them a pathway to the middle class. And her track record, which includes championing paid bereavement leave and tighter requirements in the workplace to prevent sexual harassment and discrimination, suggests she’ll get the job done. Stephenson works for us.
On the menu for Stephenson’s last meal: Vegetarian crispy rolls at Pho Van Fresh.