Oregon Democrats have chosen their nominee for governor, and Republicans are close to knowing theirs. But there’s an unaffiliated candidate likely waiting for them on the November ballot: Former state lawmaker Betsy Johnson.
Johnson left the Democratic Party this year and is trying to gather enough signatures to make the general election with no party affiliation. She has her own personal fortune and a long list of deep-pocketed supporters, including Nike co-founder Phil Knight, who has already given her $1 million.
Johnson is pitching herself to voters as a pragmatic moderate alternative to the two big party nominees. She joined OPB “Think Out Loud” host Dave Miller the day after the primary to discuss her campaign and her apparent opponents, former House Speaker Tina Kotek and former House Republican Leader Christine Drazan. Here are highlights:
Dave Miller: What has it been like to watch from the sidelines during this primary?
Betsy Johnson: Well, it’s been interesting. We’re going to come on to the ballot through the power of people’s signatures, which I think is profoundly meaningful. We aren’t running with the traditional party labels and that’s the whole premise of this campaign. The biggest change that Oregon can make this year is to elect a pro-jobs, pro-law enforcement, pro-choice independent governor that is loyal only to the people, not to any political party or any of the political extremes.
Miller: You did, though, serve as a Democrat in the Legislature for 20 years in the House and then the Senate. What makes you not a Democrat now?
Johnson: Well, let’s be honest, I’ve been a Republican. I’ve been a Democrat, and I’m running as an Oregonian. I had a front-row seat to watching the extremes of the political parties just tear at the fabric of our beloved state, and I think I could have been easily reelected in my Senate seat. The last time I was the Republican, I was the Democrat and I was the independent nominee and had 82% of the vote. But as a native Oregonian, I just couldn’t continue to sit by and watch the extremes of the political parties throw us into partisan paralysis and the kind of infighting that Oregonians are just flat sick of.
Miller: What went through your mind [election] night when you saw the results and got a pretty clear sense of who your opponents will be? What do you think about you and your Democratic and likely Republican opponents as three people all going at it?
Johnson: Sure, Tina Kotek is, in my opinion, and in the opinion of others, more Kate Brown than Kate Brown. I mean, if you’re happy with things how they are now, you should probably support Tina. I think she’s way too far to the left.
And Christine Drazen is not going to end the Republicans’ 40-year-losing streak the same year that women are losing the fundamental right to choose. She’s way too far to the right.
And so the whole premise of this candidacy is to try to bring Democrats and Republicans together, take the best ideas from both parties, hammer out solutions and get to a place where Oregonians feel as though they’re being heard and enfranchised by a political system that many people feel has left them behind because of the partisan rigidity and lack of willingness to compromise and come together on solutions that are durable for all Oregonians, not just urban Oregonians, but rural Oregonians – people that make their living in the natural resource economy as well as in an urban setting. That’s the whole reason that I’m running.
Miller: What are the top issues for you? What do you want to make this election about?
Johnson: A variety of things, not the least of which is dealing with the homeless problem and crime. Our education system is failing too many kids. We’ve got a housing affordability crisis because we’ve got a supply crisis. Our well-fed state government has failed to show up when Oregonians need them, for example, in getting unemployment checks out or rent relief checks out. And finally, we’ve got to stop disrespecting job creators and jobs. We’ve got to get our economy going again. We’ve got to get people back into the labor force.
Miller: You’ve raised more than $5 million so far. Do you have a ballpark sense for how expensive this race is going to be in total?
Johnson: Sure, these are going to be expensive races. I mean, just look how much money has been spent in Oregon so far on some of the congressional races. Unfortunately, the gubernatorial race is going to be expensive. I’m guessing it’s going to be somewhere in the neighborhood of $25 million dollars per candidate.
Miller: You say, “unfortunately.” What do you mean by that? How do you feel about the fact that tens of millions of dollars are going to be spent in the process of Oregonians deciding who the chief executive should be?
Johnson: You’ve just stated the problem. We’ve got a lot of pressing issues in this state that could profit from having the kind of money they’re going to be spent on these campaigns. But we all have to get our message out. We all have to explain to voters why we’re the best choice – in my case, a historic choice. So this would be the first time in the country that we would elect a woman governor. That’s never happened before. And I think that that is right now exactly what Oregon needs to stop all this partisan fighting and paralysis.
Miller: I may have misunderstood what you’re saying there, but obviously we have a woman who is governor right now?
Johnson: This is a chance to elect an independent woman, an independent — sorry — someone not connected to a political party. That’s what I meant. This is a historic opportunity. It’s not lost on me that we’ve got three women that will be vying for the top job, in all probability, depending on what the Clackamas County returns are.
I was just reflecting back. Often, I’ve been the first or the only woman in the room. It was 42 years ago today, at this very hour, that I was the only woman flying a helicopter on Mount St. Helens assisting the work that was going on up there and getting out the visual pictures for the international and national media. I ran a helicopter company for 20 years, and all of our ships were deployed, working with the scientists and the news media, filming what was happening on that historic day 42 years ago.
So, I think the fact that we’ve got three women in this race is going to be interesting. You’ve got the choice between extreme partisans on both sides and an independent woman trying to bring Oregonians together to get our beloved state out of the ditch.