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A Betsy-Proof Margin?

More than just defeating Republicans, Democrats are seeking to neutralize one of their own senators.

But some of the most intense political fights in Oregon center on this question: Will a single Oregon state senator continue to have the most powerful vote in the Legislature?

That senator would be Betsy Johnson, a business-friendly Democrat from Scappoose. Democrats hold a 16-14 edge in the Senate, so when Johnson votes with the 14 Republicans—or threatens to do so—she can stop legislation cold.

In the past two years, Johnson has stopped high-profile bills that were top priorities for organized labor, trial lawyers, consumer advocates, Secretary of State Kate Brown and environmentalists.  

"It's incredibly frustrating," says Doug Moore, executive director of the Oregon League of Conservation Voters. "Not only are she and the 14 R's blocking a lot of good legislation, but there's an opportunity cost as well because a lot of people don't bother bringing bills because they know she'll kill them."

Johnson says she didn't choose to be a hinge vote on so many key issues, but she makes no apology for being willing to stand up for her principles even if it means thwarting her Democratic colleagues.

"I try to be the embodiment of the independent-minded, politically courageous person who tries to create the best policy," Johnson says. "The position I've been put in is almost serendipitous. I just resist the lockstep orthodoxy."

Since entering the Legislature in 2001, Johnson, a timber heiress who later built an aviation company, has earned a reputation for charting her own path. Her father, Sam, a Republican from Deschutes County, served in the Legislature during the 1960s and '70s, and was the personification of the bipartisanship that defined state politics of that era.

She is blunt and irreverent, in contrast to many of her go-along-to-get-along colleagues. Johnson's willingness to go her own way came to a head after the 2013 session. That's when Howard Dean, former Vermont governor and Democratic National Committee chairman, demanded her ouster on Twitter after she opposed a change in Oregon voter registration.

"Single Democratic state senator kills pro-voting rights bill in Oregon," Dean wrote. "We need a new senator."

Johnson is up for re-election this year, and Dean's tweet raised the possibility that critics might find a Democratic candidate to challenge her in the primary as they did with another centrist, state Rep. Mike Schaufler (D-Happy Valley), who lost in the May 2012 primary.

It's rare for Democrats to cannibalize one of their own in a primary. OLCV's Moore was one of the architect's of Schaufler's surprise defeat, and he acknowledges that he and others considered pursuing Johnson the same way.

"Would we have preferred to see another senator in that seat?" Moore says. "The answer is yes, but the opportunity did not present itself."

Johnson remains popular in her district—which covers Columbia, Clatsop and portions of Tillamook counties—and faces no threat of defeat this year. In the primary, she won the Democratic and Republican nomination and faces only token opposition in November.

Johnson is well aware of the enmity her votes have created. She says trial lawyers especially are angry with her for her opposition to rewriting laws governing class-action lawsuits.

"I've seen the emails they write about me," she says. "They say, 'If we can't beat her, let's neutralize her.'"

Democrats can do that by widening their margin in the Senate to 17 votes or more. 

There are four state Senate seats in play this cycle that could affect the balance.

In downstate races, incumbent Sen. Alan Bates (D-Medford) faces a tough re-election race against Dave Dotterrer, who nearly beat Bates four years ago. State Rep. Sara Gelser (D-Corvallis) stands a strong chance of defeating incumbent Sen. Betsy Close (R-Albany).

In the Portland metro area, Democrats have a chance to unseat incumbent Sen. Alan Olsen (R-Canby) with challenger Jamie Damon. And based on voter registration, they may have an even better chance that onetime state Rep. Chuck Riley (D-Hillsboro) will defeat incumbent Sen. Bruce Starr (R-Hillsboro).

Starr is feeling the heat in his race against Riley, whom he defeated handily four years ago. OLCV, using money contributed by California billionaire Tom Steyer, is hammering Starr's environmental record. Starr says that's unfair, pointing to his votes alongside Democrats on Oregon's renewable portfolio standard, an off-shore drilling ban. 

He says he's just a pawn in a larger game. "It's not about me or my opponent," Starr says. "It's about Democrats having another vote, and that's a little frustrating."

Democrats need to win any two of those four seats, and—all else remaining equal—they would have what some are calling "a Betsy-proof majority."

"It's vitally important to our members that we have a different makeup of the Senate next year," says Heather Conroy, executive director of Service Employees International Union Local 503, the state's largest public employee union.

Johnson says she would be fine if Democrats extended their margin and took some of the heat off her for the votes she casts.

But she also sees an irony: Oregonians say they want legislators from both parties working together, but many people in the Capitol do not.

"This hasn't always been a comfortable position for me, but I come from a tradition of bipartisanship," Johnson says. "So many of my colleagues, be they Republicans or Democrats, say they want to reach across the aisle. But if you do practice bipartisanship, then you're a rat bastard."


Democrats are working to pad their margin in the Oregon Senate to prevent Sen. Betsy Johnson (D-Scappoose) from holding as much sway over key votes in the 2015 session. Here are examples of bills Johnson has blocked:

Voter registration

In the 2013 session, Secretary of State Kate Brown, a Democrat, sponsored House Bill 3521, which would have automatically registered Oregonians to vote whenever they received or renewed their driver's licenses. The bill could have added as many as 500,000 new voters to the rolls over time.

Republicans did not like the bill, at least in part because many of the new voters were likely to be young or Hispanic voters. Both of those groups tend to vote Democratic.

The bill passed the House and went to the Senate, where all 14 Republicans opposed it and 15 Democrats voted for it, leaving Johnson in the spotlight.

Johnson voted no. She says she sees registering to vote as an act citizens should take independently of other interactions with state agencies.

She also argued Oregon has made it so easy to register that the state didn't need to tie voter registration to driver's licenses. "You can register in five minutes," Johnson says. "I just don't think it asks too much that people affirmatively register."

"We are planning to reintroduce the bill," says Tony Green, spokesman for the secretary of state, "and are hoping it will get a more favorable result."

Toxic chemicals

In 2013, two unlikely allies, state Reps. Alissa Keny-Guyer (D-Portland) and Rep. Jason Conger (R-Bend), who occupied opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, teamed up on House Bill 3162, which would have required the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality to compile a list of toxic chemicals used in children's products.

The measure would have required manufacturers to seek DEQ waivers for products that still contained the chemicals after five years.

The bill sailed through the House, but all 14 Senate Republicans opposed it. When Johnson also signaled a thumbs-down, the bill died in committee without a floor vote.

Johnson says she thought the bill was too expansive and would have taken years to accomplish what parents were already demanding in terms of labeling from manufacturers. "I thought it was just too big a bill," she says.

Low-carbon fuels

In 2009, the Legislature approved a measure to reduce the carbon content of fuels sold in Oregon by 10 percent within the next decade. The bill was set to expire at the end of 2015, and lawmakers sought to extend the law with new measures in the 2013 and 2014 sessions.

Johnson joined with Republicans to kill the 2013 measure, and the threat of her no vote stopped a similar measure this year. 

Johnson says she supported the bill in 2009 but since then has been hearing from agricultural interests, trucking companies and other groups that the carbon standard could drive up fuel prices in Oregon.

"Too many people are questioning the economics of that bill," Johnson says.

Backers intend to make another run at extending the law next year. "It's an incredibly significant bill," says Doug Moore of the Oregon League of Conservation Voters. "It was the No. 1 priority for the environmental community last session."

Class action lawsuit awards

In the short February 2014 legislative session, House Democrats proposed House Bill 4143, which would have directed unclaimed awards from class action lawsuits to go to legal aid services for low-income Oregonians.

The bill won support from former Gov. and Attorney General Ted Kulongoski, former Attorney General Hardy Myers and scores of other Democratic bigwigs.

The bill passed the House easily but died in the Senate after business interests led by BP, which faces a big class action payout in Oregon, lobbied hard to kill it.

Johnson voted against it. 

"I was very disappointed when the D's could not get a majority in the Senate and instead Big Oil stopped the bill," says N. Robert Stoll, a retired trial lawyer who backed the bill. "I'm working with a lot of like-minded progressives to make sure we have a working majority next session."

Johnson says the short session in 2014 gave lawmakers too little time to consider a measure that would have had far-reaching effects on the state's class action rules. "That bill was simply inconsistent with a short session," she says. –NIGEL JAQUISS.