State Rep. Teresa Alonso Leon came up short last month in a bid for Congress.

Now a shakeup in the race for a Salem-area state Senate district could give her a rare second chance to stay in public office despite the defeat.

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Woodburn Mayor Eric Swenson, whom Democratic voters tapped as their nominee for Senate District 11 in May, announced Friday he’s decided not to run after all. Swenson said he’ll instead attempt to win another two-year term as mayor, and is encouraging Alonso Leon to pursue the Senate seat instead.

Woodburn Mayor Eric Swenson is abandoning his bid for state Senate, despite winning the Democratic nomination in May.

Woodburn Mayor Eric Swenson is abandoning his bid for state Senate, despite winning the Democratic nomination in May.

City of Woodburn

“Campaigning for the Oregon State Senate in the Democratic primary taught me many things, particularly in Woodburn, where I was reminded of how much I appreciate the chance to serve as our mayor,” Swenson said in a statement shared with OPB. “This wasn’t an easy decision to make, the chance to serve as a state senator was also calling.”

Swenson’s announcement was immediately met with speculation that he ran for the Senate district in order to act as a placeholder for another eventual candidate, rather than intending to hold the seat himself. Under state law, if a major-party nominee steps down prior to the November election, it’s up to the party to select a replacement. That creates the possibility that the ultimate nominee could be someone who did not run for the seat in the first place.

Swenson filed for the Senate seat — currently held by Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem — four days before the filing deadline in March. He denied doing so as a placeholder candidate.

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“I’m an awfully nice person, but I wouldn’t have thrown myself into a Senate campaign and spent months knocking on thousands and thousands of doors to that end, and then given all of that up had not the desire to be my city’s mayor been this strong,” he said in an email.

Swenson defeated two other candidates to win the Democratic nomination for the district, which stretches from Salem to Woodburn. Swenson got 44% of the vote, compared to 34% for attorney Rich Walsh and 21% for Anthony Rosilez, director of the state’s Teacher Standards and Practices Commission.

Rather than voicing support for one of his former opponents, Swenson said Friday he was instead backing Alonso Leon, a former Woodburn city councilor.

“Teresa is a transformational leader with a track record of public service to our community and she has my wholehearted support,” Swenson said in a statement. “Senate District 11 is the most diverse district in Oregon, and there are currently no Latino/a members of the Oregon Senate. In a representative democracy, representation matters.”

Teresa Alonso Leon, candidate for Oregon’s 6th Congressional District, 2022.

Teresa Alonso Leon, candidate for Oregon’s 6th Congressional District, 2022.

Craig Mitchelldyer / Courtesy of Teresa Alonso Leon f

A three-term state representative, Alonso Leon was the first indigenous Latina immigrant elected to the Oregon Legislature. She opted not to run for re-election this year, choosing instead to pursue the Democratic nomination in the state’s brand new 6th Congressional District. She wound up finishing seventh in the nine-way race.

Alonso Leon did not respond to an inquiry Friday morning about whether she would pursue the Senate seat. Oregon law bars failed candidates for a major party’s nomination to run for the same seat during the general election under a separate party designation. But in this case, Alonso Leon would be running for an entirely different office.

It’s unclear when Democratic precinct committee persons within Senate District 11 will meet to select a new nominee. Carina Perez Europa, chair of the Marion County Democrats, said Friday that the date would be set by the state party.

Whoever is ultimately nominated will face state Sen. Kim Thatcher, R-Keizer, whose home was included in SD 11 during redistricting last year. Given Thatcher’s long political career, Alonso Leon’s existing voter base within much of the district could give her an advantage over other possible nominees.

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