Race in eastern Oregon’s Umatilla County attracts big spending

By Antonio Sierra (OPB)
May 11, 2022 12 p.m.

Six people are vying for a seat on the Umatilla County Board of Commissioners and the cost of entry has never been higher.

In the days leading up to the May 17 primary, candidates have spent nearly $50,000 trying to win the open Position 1 seat. With candidates still needing to place in the top two to earn a spot in the November runoff, the race is already shaping up to be one of the most expensive in county history.


Related: Election 2022: OPB Ballot Guide

Pendleton business consultant Susan Bower, who has spent more than $30,000 dating back to last year accounts for the bulk of spending. Milton-Freewater business owner Cindy Timmons and Hermiston construction company owner Bob Barton have also spent thousands of dollars to get their names out. The rest of the field, including former state Sen. David Nelson, have not reported any transactions since starting their campaigns.

In a state with no limits on campaign contributions and where metro-area and statewide campaigns spend six and seven figures to try to get their candidates elected, $50,000 might seem like a drop in the bucket. But in a county of 80,000 people, campaigns typically spend far less to win office.


The last time several candidates competed for an open seat on the board of commissioners in 2020, the entire field only spent about $27,000 over the course of both the primary and runoff.

The other race in the 2022 cycle, where incumbent Commissioner John Shafer is facing two challengers, has attracted little more than $5,000 in spending so far.

Before he was elected to represent northeast Oregon in the state Senate in 2012, Bill Hansell served on the Umatilla County Board of Commissioners. Speaking from his home in Athena, about 20 miles north of the county seat in Pendleton, Hansell noted changes to the three-member board since 1982,when he was first elected and the offices were still partisan.

“Everything’s changed tremendously,” he said. “We had a primary and then we had a general. It was all local, a lot of volunteer work. I probably spent a few thousand dollars.”

With the state increasing its campaign reporting requirements over the years, Hansell said political campaigns are turning more often to professional staff to help keep them in compliance with state law. And the far-flung nature of Umatilla County’s population centers means candidates may need to spend more money introducing themselves to communities where they’re unfamiliar.

Hansell hasn’t endorsed anyone in the Position 1 race, choosing to stay neutral in races where there are no incumbents. Despite all the money being spent on county elections, he still believes that one of the most effective ways to earn votes is to do it the old-fashioned way: knocking on doors.

“It just requires time, it doesn’t cost a lot of money to go door-to-door or attend events,” he said.

While the primary is less than a week away, it seems unlikely that county commission candidates will stop spending. After the primary votes are tallied, the top two candidates will automatically proceed to the Nov. 8 runoff.


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