Gubernatorial hopefuls face off in debate

Scott Swanson

The three women running for the Oregon governor’s seat in November faced off for the first time Friday, July 29, kicking off an historic election season.

Republican Christine Drazan, nonaffiliated candidate Betsy Johnson and Democrat Tina Kotek appeared in the debate, held in Welches and organized by the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association.

The event, streamed live and viewable online as indicated above, was the first opportunity for the candidates to stake out their positions in a debate format.

Kotek, who was elected to the state House of Representatives in 2006 and was Speaker of the House from 2013 until she stepped down from the Legislature earlier this year to run for governor, portrayed herself as an accomplished progressive who will “bring people together,” emphasizing an intention to “work collaboratively” to solve problems.

Johnson, a Democratic state lawmaker from 2000 until 2021, who left the Democratic party last year to run unaffiliated, portrayed herself as the candidate who can provide “common-sense change” and who is not beholden to either party.

Drazan, who was elected to the state House in 2018 and served as Minority Leader from 2019 until she stepped down in 2021, portrayed herself as an agent for change, accusing the Democrats, who have controlled the Legislature and the Governor’s Office since 2012, have “lost sight of serving everyday Oregonians.”

Not only is there no incumbent in the governor’s race, as Kate Brown is termed out of that position, this is the first time in state history that three women are running for the office.

The debate was moderated by Mark Garber, president of the Pamplin Media Group, which publishes 24 newspapers in the Portland metro area and in Central Oregon.

Questions were posed by four working journalists: Danielle Jester, a reporter for the Lake County Examiner; Laura Gunderson, editorial and opinion pages editor for the Oregonian; Andrew Cutler, publisher and editor of the East Oregonian newspaper and regional editorial director for the EO Media Group, which publishes 17 newspapers in Oregon and southwestern Washington; and Mark Miller, editor-in-chief for Pamplin’s Washington County newspapers.

Candidates were given 90 seconds to answer questions, with limited opportunities to respond further, and were also given a brief opportunity to address questions individually to each other. Below are condensed summaries of their responses. For a fuller sense of their positions, we recommend viewing the debate at bit.ly/3OKtNJq.

Timber As Natural Resource

Jester led off by asking the candidates how they would take steps “to help rural Oregon better capitalize on its timber resources,” noting that the decline in timber industries has taken a toll on many rural Oregon communities.

Kotek acknowledged that rural communities have suffered from “changes in the timber industry and natural resource economies” and said she believes it’s important “to make sure we’re utilizing products for other purposes,” noting that as Speaker of the House she “was making sure we could utilize mass timber products to make new homes.”

Drazan, who emphasized through much of the afternoon that she was born in Klamath Falls into a working-class family, noted that her father worked in a veneer plant that “disappeared, went away” after “political winds shifted” and state leaders “just walked away.” She said the timber industry, in particular, is necessary to Oregon’s economy and safety.

“You can manage those forests faithfully or you can watch it burn,” she said, adding that the former is “the better choice.”

Johnson told the crowd she’d just been in Elgin, where “I went over to stand with the men and women” employed at the Elgin Boise Cascade veneer plant, which she said, was about to be shut down by the DEQ, which would have cost 230 jobs.

“What I can do as governor is to make sure that the regulatory agencies treat those remaining timber companies with respect and help them comply with the law, not trying to put them out of business,” she said, adding that the industry has cut waste by creating “value-added products.” She added that she agreed that forests must be managed “effectively” in “conjunction with our federal partners.”

Homelessness

Gunderson, describing Ore-gon’s homelessness problem as reaching “a level of humanitarian crisis” and acknowledging that it is “complicated,” asked what the candidates would do to address it from the Governor’s Office.

Kotek said she was the only person onstage who had been working hard over the last five years to make sure, as a legislator, that “I could do what I can.”

She cited a “five-point plan on my website” that acknowledges the urgency of “helping people move from the streets into permanent housing” and said the key is to “have more organized street response teams that can work with people develop those relationships.”

Kotek cited her support for Project Turnkey, which was funded by $65 million allocated by the Legislature to acquire motels/hotels for use as non-congregate shelter for the homeless.

In less than seven months, Project Turnkey created 19 new shelters in 13 counties, leading to a 20% increase in the state supply of shelter beds, according to the Oregon Community Foundation.

“That type of concrete innovation is what we need to do in urgency and I will say that my two opponents, neither of them like that project,” Kotek said. “It’s working and it’s working in communities.”

Johnson countered that she was part of an effort to convert the Wapato Jail in Multnomah County, built in 2003 and never used, into the Bybee Lakes Hope Center homeless shelter, which opened in the fall of 2020.

She said her “concern about Project Turnkey related to its sustainability. Those motels are being turned over to not-for-profits and I voted for it, but I never saw a clear path that when the state money ran out there would be an opportunity to continue to fund those facilities.”

Describing the state’s homeless situation as “an absolute crisis,” she asked Kotek, “What’s gotten better?” during Kotek’s nine years as speaker of the House.

Drazan acknowledged that “we all care deeply about resolving this problem,” noting that when she became aware of the extent of the homelessness among youth just in her home turf of Clackamas County as a freshman legislator, she was “stunned and amazed.”

She said as a legislator she supported legislation which created Second Home, a program of Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon, which serves students in Portland-area and Lincoln County school districts, working with the Senate and House majority leaders to expand the program.

“I want to say this,” Drazan said: “If we’re going to resolve this challenge, it cannot be partisan politics, because what we need is both compassion and accountability.

“What we have been experiencing in Oregon right now has enabled this problem to spiral out of control, and it will only get better if Oregonians themselves and the people who are leading in local governments and the state level are willing to look at these challenges on a person-by-person basis.

“We can solve this challenge together,” she added, “but we have got to stop looking at it like it’s an anonymous issue and a political football. It should not be.”

Urban/Rural Divide in Oregon

Citing the Greater Idaho movement, Cutler asked candidates why they thought Oregon residents are voting to move to Idaho, and how they would address those concerns.

Johnson responded by saying “when eight counties actually vote and a total of 13 are looking to abandon our beloved Oregon, that is a clarion call for government to do something about it.”

Gov. Brown, she noted, “has been somewhat sanguine about the fact that those counties are willing to leave.”

“I believe the difference between urban Portland and the rest of the state is not just based on geography,” Johnson said, adding that she believes rural Oregonians feel “disrespected, not part of the system.”

Oregon’s governor, she said, needs to understand the economies of rural Oregon and “be cautious about urban solutions being put on rural Oregon.”

Drazan said Oregon has “far too long” experienced “single-party control.”

“We did not get here overnight,” she said. This rural-urban divide that we’re experiencing is one that took time to develop.

“The people who are living in the parts of the state that want to leave and go to Idaho, their concerns and their issues are real. They deserve respect. They deserve local control. They cannot continue to live under an oppressive, frankly condescending expectation that if it works in Portland or if it works on the I-5 corridor, that they must live underneath those rules.”

She agreed with Johnson that rural residents are not understood in Salem “and a lot of the proposals that are rammed down their throats are not workable. They’re not welcome and nobody in Salem has been accommodating enough to recognize that we need to be a unified Oregon.”

Kotek acknowledged that policies from Salem “don’t always help rural Oregonians” and said she learned “early on” as a legislator “that when you do public policy, it’s going to have different impact in different parts of the state.”

She noted that as Speaker of the House she worked with U.S. Rep. Cliff Bentz to figure out how to modify the state minimum wage law for communities on the Idaho border so businesses could stay competitive with Southwest Idaho.

“I look forward to sitting down and talking about those issues,” Kotek said. “But at the end of the day, I hope we can come together as Oregonians and work on issues that are not partisan issues – health issues, good schools.”

Climate Change and Energy

Miller asked candidates how they would address climate change while taking the state’s energy needs into consideration.

Drazan noted that Oregon has “some of the cleanest energy sources in the nation” and has adopted hydro, solar and wind as power sources, while “completely” halting use of coal. The next governor, she said, will need to “protect access to reliable, affordable energy” for residents and protect dams.

Drazan promised to continue to support existing “climate action” programs “and I would tear up the governor’s executive order on climate, which she chose to adopt after cap and trade, California South cap and trade, would not move through the legislative process.”

“If that would have passed, we would see $3 more, at a minimum, at the gas pump today. We would see 30 percent higher costs to heat and cool your home today.

“It was the wrong concept. It was the wrong idea.”

Kotek said, “Climate change is real and Oregonians are feeling it.” She believed it to be a top priority for state voters this fall.

“In addition to trying to keep the problem from getting worse, we have to mitigate the issues and help our communities be resilient because there are droughts and wildfires and adverse weather effects that are killing people,” she said.

Kotek noted that she “worked hard last year to pass 100% clean electricity by 2040” and said “oversight” will be needed to achieve that.

She also noted that she supported a change for the state Public Utility Commission so it “could take into account rates, and how they would affect low-income Oregonians.”

She added that “those executive orders were put in place because (House) leader Drazen led a Republican walkout for us to take a market-driven approach to address carbon emissions in our state, adding that the governor’s executive orders “are reasonably moving us forward” while protecting citizens.

Johnson said Oregon “has to do its share to lower our carbon footprint,” but said the burden shouldn’t be placed on “the blue-collar guys that I used to represent in the Senate to pay for how expensive the progressive agenda is to moderate climate change.”

She said keys will be forest management and that it would be important to make sure offshore wind power projects do not interfere with the state’s fisheries industry.

She said she supports hydropower, calling it “a boon to us.”

Brown’s executive orders, Johnson said, “are a complete usurpation of the legislative process.”

“What the governor could not get through the people’s branch of government, the legislature, she imposed her executive order. The rule writing has been excessive. And I think the outcome will be much higher prices for Oregonians struggling with inflation.”

In an exchange following on cap and trade and the Republican walkout that stymied the Senate’s vote on the issue in 2020, Drazen said Republicans could have supported the cap and trade proposal, but efforts to find compromise were “rejected and not supported” and the “legislation got more and more onerous.”

Johnson agreed that “there was not a lot of flexibility in offering amendments” but pointed out that “while Christine was in Reno, poolside, I was on the Senate floor standing up to my party, fighting that bill.”

Kotek said the Republicans objected to the bill, but “no solutions were laid on the table.”

“It was just, ‘We don’t like it,” she said. “And when you have a challenge as big as climate change, and you’ve gone through a two-year process of develop a piece of legislation that is market-driven and would benefit many parts, particularly rural parts of our state to be part of the transition to renewable energy and to have that fail, that was just saying ‘Oregonians, I’m gonna throw in the towel even if I know how big the deal is.’ And that was wrong.”

Mental Health

Jester asked what the candidates would do to “improve outreach and service access” to Oregon residents who have mental health needs.

Kotek noted that Oregon was “at the bottom of the list of providing services to folks who need them” and said she wants those who “are ready for help, are asking for help, you can find that help and you can afford that help.”

She said that the Oregon Health Authority has revenue from Measure 110, which legalized recreational marijuana use, but “has failed to move that money. There is more money, potentially, in the system now than I’ve ever seen. She said mental health care access would be “one of my top priorities as governor.”

Johnson said the problem started “when people left institutions with the promise they would get mental health care in their communities. And the state was a faithless partner in making sure that that service was there.”

She agreed with Kotek that “we are 50th in the provision of mental health services” and emphasized that she sees a need particularly in rural communities.

Johnson blamed the COVID-19 pandemic and the passage of Measure 110 for exacerbating the problem in Oregon.

“For anybody to lose track of the fact that there’s a nexus between mental and behavioral health problems and drugs must be living in a parallel universe,” she said. “We have become so lackadaisical about drugs in this state that we are accelerating what I think is a mental health crisis.”

Drazan, who noted that she is the mother of three, agreed that COVID has had impacts on young people, which, she said, may not be known “for some time to come.”

“In my family, just speaking personally, it was brutal,” she said.

“We’re not just talking about the mentally ill that are on fentanyl and are struggling and have slid into a place they hadn’t expected. We’re talking about friends and family and kids and people that are just struggling.”

She blamed her opponents, saying, “they’ve got all the levers of government in their hands. They’ve been in charge and we got here because of their choices.

“If they could have fixed it, if they would have known how to fix it, they would have done it,” she said.

Abortion in Oregon

Gunderson asked whether candidates fully support Oregon’s current laws on abortion, which leave it essentially unrestricted in the state. If not, she asked what restrictions they would support and how they would address “the expected increase of out-of-staters seeking abortions here,” whether they supported “spending public money to help them.”

Both Johnson and Kotek stated their full support for abortion rights.

Johnson stated that she is “unapologetically pro-choice and at one time served on the board of Planned Parenthood.

“Without hesitation, I would be a pro-choice governor and stand by the policies that are in place in Oregon,” she said.

Regarding funding abortions for out-of-state residents, Johnson said “Oregon tax money ought to be used to support Oregonians” and that “Planned Parenthood has a long tradition of being able to find sufficient funds to support others.”

Kotek said she anticipated the overturning of Roe v. Wade by the U.S. Supreme Court and note that Oregon legislators have “made sure” they provided “the strongest protections in the country for access to reproductive health care.”

She said that although “I want our money to go to Oregonians, we’re in too big a moment in our country to say no to women who need access to care.”

Drazan said she has “never shied away” from her “pro-life” stance, “but you can’t really have it both ways.”

She said her opponents were responsible for Oregon’s laws, which she described as “some of the most extreme laws on the books related to this issue,” beyond those in most other states.

She stated that she believes she’s not “out of line” with state residents’ views on third-trimester abortions, “when, if that baby were born, otherwise, it would be viewed as preterm, that that is somehow a woman’s right.”

“So, I am a pro-life woman,” Drazan said, adding, “This issue is an Oregon statute and I have been very clear that I will abide by the law.”

Gun Control

Cutler asked what steps candidates would take to “improve gun safety in Oregon, including the limitation of the types of weapons that can be sold and who can purchase them.”

Drazan responded that she believes “the Second Amendment is a constitutional right and Oregon’s current laws on the books in this particular category are doing a good job of safeguarding safety in our state,” noting that those laws require universal background checks and a red flag provision that allows people living with someone who may be a risk to contact law enforcement.

She said she opposes AIP 17, which has been approved for the November ballot. The measure would establish a state-run government registry of gun owners’ personal information, requires a permit to purchase a firearm, imposes an indefinite delay on background checks, and bans any magazine with over a 10-round capacity.

” Can you even imagine if somebody wanted to go and protest and you had to sign up and there was a listing of who was going to participate in the protest?” Drazan asked. “Because what if they rioted? What if they threw a brick in a window? What if, at the at the end of that protest, they committed a crime? Can you imagine if you had to get a list and sign up if you want to go to your synagogue, your temple, your church? What if they approach our other rights in the same way that they’re talking about approaching our Second Amendment rights?

“We need to recognize this is a critical issue. I care about keeping people safe, but we cannot abandon our concepts of what our freedoms mean.”

Kotek said she’s supported “common-sense gun safety legislation” during her entire time in the Legislature and “as Speaker, made sure we got important things done,” she said, My opponents have voted or are not in favor of those things,” she said, listing background checks, red flag laws, safe storage requirements as examples – “things that we know work.”

She said she supports AIP 17 “because in other states it has worked to reduce gun violence but it’s not enough just to talk about gun safety as it relates to these types of things.

“We have too many guns out there where people are getting them and hurting people and hurting themselves. We have to be proactive.”

Johnson described herself as “a responsible gun owner and collector” who has “supported Second Amendment rights straight along,” and advocating a more central approach.

Drazan, she said, “doesn’t want to do anything” and “Tina wants to take away your guns.”

She said she favors raising the age from 18 to 21 to purchase “certain weapons: and instituting “really aggressive background checks” that incorporate records from schools that include “data that says that little Johnny was killing cats or was writing dark emails that needs to become part of the permanent record.”

She said she believes that schools need to be “hardened, commensurate with community standards,” with additional mental health professionals and school resource officers.

High-Tech Flight From Oregon

Miller, citing Intel Corp.’s decision to move operations to Ohio, asked “what happened and what can we do to be more competitive and attracting investments like this Intel plant or other high-tech enterprises, or other business sectors.

Kotek said she believes “it’s really important that the next governor makes sure that we do everything we can to expand the high tech industries to all parts of our state and what’s a critical part of that is making sure we have full broadband access around the state.”

She said Oregon needs education to train people for high-tech jobs, and “appropriate levels of incentives” to keep industries in the state.

She said she didn’t know what happened in the Intel move “because I’m not the governor.”

“But what I would say is that, as governor, I would have that personal relationship with the CEO and Intel and have that conversation, and make sure that we keep jobs here. Our high-tech industry, outside and including Intel, is very important to the state.”

Johnson responded that she did know the answer to the question of why Intel left “because I talked with Intel executives and the answer was answering that damn phone.”

She termed it “benign neglect.”

“Nobody in the governor’s office saw the warning signals or reached out to Intel when the tallest tree in our Silicon Forest is headed out the door to Ohio. There were plenty of warning signs. And because Kate Brown has not been tuned in the economic development allowed Intel’s needs to go unheard.

The issue, she said was that Intel wanted to expand and “nobody asked the customer what do they need?”

She said that, as governor, she would be “bent on economic development, having the phone numbers of the CEOs of our major corporations on speed dial, reaching out to them, constantly saying, ‘What can the state of Oregon do to partner better with you to anticipate your needs?'”

Drazan called Intel’s departure “shocking” and noted “there was a lot of finger-pointing after the fact.”

“Can you blame them?” she asked. “We have one of the worst regulatory and tax environments in the nation for businesses in Oregon. And Intel made this decision. And Ohio said, “Listen, we want to be supportive of national security. We are going to find the land for you. We’re going to work for you and they built that relationship.”

She said Oregon needs to address those issues to “keep and grow” businesses.

“We want people to stay here and grow here. But our business environment, our regulatory environment, our taxation environment indicates that Oregon government expects to do everything for all people and somebody’s going to pay the bill. It’s essentially Oregonians themselves, but the middle man is always business.”

Individual Questions

Johnson asked Kotek, “without saying the phrase ’10-year plan’ or a ‘five-year plan,’ what would you do in the first year of getting elected governor to end tent cities and why hasn’t it happened already? Why haven’t you done it already?”

Kotek responded that the “homelessness crisis is an absolute priority for me.” She said it would be critical to have “the workforce we need” to put people on the streets to build relationships necessary to get the homeless into shelters, emphasizing that permanent solutions are needed.

Drazen asked Johnson about her vote for the Commercial Activity Tax, imposed on businesses which have $1 million in gross receipts, which took effect Jan. 1, 2020.

“Since that time, you have been very public about the fact that you regret that vote. Do you wish you hadn’t taken that vote? What I would like to know is did you not know at that moment to vote no? Why did you vote yes?”

Johnson responded that “It’s not evil that the state raises and spends revenue. What’s evil is that we have not held government accountable.”

She said the tax was “debated behind closed doors in a building where public policy was occurring without the public being present.

“I believe it was rushed. I don’t believe there was adequate opportunity for debate. There were promises of significant PERS reform that accompanied the Corporate Activity Tax. We ended up with too little PERS reform and too much Corporate Activity Tax.”

She added that the Legislature has failed to demand accountability for “our investment” in the state’s $2 billion investment in the Student Success Act of 2019.

She said as governor she would “work to modify the punitive effects of the Corporate Activity Tax and certainly build in benchmarks and accountability to accompany the spending in on the education side of that ledger.”

Kotek asked Drazan: “You’ve been asked many many times about the 2020 election and each time you’ve pivoted when asked, you’ve never directly answered the question. As far as I know, you have never publicly said that Donald Trump lost the presidency in the national elections, not just in Oregon, but nationally. So do you say today that the results of the national election in 2020 were legitimate and that Donald Trump lost?”

Drazan responded that she’s running for office in Oregon, not a “federal level,” and she’s concerned “to ensure that we don’t have fraud in any category in government, from Employment Department checks all the way through to our elections. So that is important to me.”

She added, “But as it relates to the 2020 election, there has never been an issue for that with me. Donald Trump did not win. Joe Biden did. He is our president.”

Closing Remarks

Kotek described how she arrived in Oregon as a 21-year-old and “fell in love with this state.”

She recounted her experience with the Oregon Food Bank and Children First of Oregon before getting into politics, saying that as a legislator she was “trying to make things better and solve issues so we can all have the type of life we want to have.”

She said Oregonians are concerned and as governor, she would not “spend time playing partisan games, or playing games at all. My job is to fight for every Oregonian to get the work done to take on our toughest challenges because the challenges are real,” listing homelessness, education, climate change and clean energy as examples that would “benefit every part of the state.”

“I know how to work with people and solve problems because I have the track record to show that I’m dedicated to working for all Oregonians,” Kotek said.

Drazen said the election “comes down to one very basic idea: Do we want more of the same or do we want change?”

She said Kotek and Gov. Brown have been closely associated throughout Kotek’s time in the legislature, and “where we are today is a direct result of the leaders that are on this stage and the Democrat Party.”

Johnson, she said, “has been a Democrat for 20 years” and has exited the Democratic Party, talking about uniting people “in a way that is perpetually divisive,” adding that “now it’s expedient and convenient to shed that skin and take on a new one and erase her own history.”

She complained about being “disrespected” in the Legislature “for the benefit of a political agenda” which, she said, “is happening way too much on this stage.”

“Homelessness will not change with these two ladies, crime will not improve, our schools will not improve.”

She concluded: “We need real leadership and real change to hold the Democrats to account, not just shed your skin, change your title and do more of the same.”

Johnson accused Drazan of being divisive, saying the minority leader was “always pleased to see that I was poking at the Democrats, and now, suddenly, her ads have changed.”

She emphasized her independent posture, saying that neither opponent would not “get very far beholden to the same narrow set of interests on either side of the political spectrum. Simply trading one set of extremes for another is no change at all. In fact, I think it’s going to make things worse.”

She characterized herself as “a governor who isn’t owned by the public sector unions or Oregon’s Right to Life.”

She said she wanted to “recapture that maverick spirit and get Oregon back on track.”

“We need a governor who’s loyal only to the people of Oregon, regardless of party, a governor who will demand bipartisan support for legislation, budgets and appointments to boards and commissions, so that all Oregonians, not just a single political party, will have a seat at the table.”

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