None of the three major candidates for governor hail from Eastern Oregon, but they all took their best shot at connecting with the audience at the Eastern Oregon Economic Summit in Hermiston Friday.
The three former legislators running for Oregon’s top job – Republican Christine Drazan, unaffiliated candidate Betsy Johnson and Democrat Tina Kotek – all made an appearance in front of a few hundred local government and business leaders at Hermiston High School.
Each candidate was brought out for a one-on-one interview, so the format didn’t give them a chance to directly respond to each other. Johnson and Kotek appeared in person while Drazan had her speech pre-recorded on video.
Kotek leaned on her record as Oregon House Speaker, highlighting her role in the creation of the Eastern Oregon Border Economic Development Board in Malheur County and securing emergency funding for Umatilla County after the Umatilla River floods in 2020.
Kotek, who won the May Democratic primary, acknowledged that she spent her political career representing North Portland, but promised she could be a governor for the entire state.
“I’ll also be honest with you: There is no magic wand to bring people together,” she said. “There are divisions in our state. There are a lot of people who feel left behind in urban areas and suburban areas and rural areas. We have a lot of work to do.”
Johnson said she could bring Oregon’s various factions together through her independent candidacy. She served as a longtime Democratic state senator and is attempting to gather enough signatures to make the November ballot as an unaffiliated candidate, and she pointed to some of her endorsements as evidence that she could unify Oregon, including two retired politicians who used to represent Eastern Oregon in the Legislature: former Democratic state Sen. Mike Thorne and former Republican U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith.
Johnson said crime and homelessness are problems across the state, but spent time focusing on Portland.
“Oregon cannot succeed if Portland fails,” she said. “Portland is as important to an onion grower out here as it is to somebody making cheese in Tillamook. And Portland by every measure right now is failing.”
During her pre-recorded interview, Drazan stressed her roots in Klamath Falls and said she would provide Eastern Oregon communities with more “local control” as governor.
Drazan said a “decade of decline” under Democrats was causing Oregonians to consider leaving for elsewhere.
“These are generations of Oregonians that are picking up and talking about crossing the border and leaving for Idaho, or moving to Texas, or Tennessee, or I don’t care where,” she said. “I want to keep them here.”
Staging the candidates’ forum was a boon for the Eastern Oregon Economic Summit, which is in its second year after COVID-19 disrupted its previous events.
The summit is organized by the Eastern Oregon Women’s Coalition, a group headed by state Rep. Bobby Levy, a Republican from Echo. Levy previously endorsed Drazan but did not moderate the forum.
Given Eastern Oregon’s small population and solidly Republican politics, it’s rare to see candidates from any party campaigning in Umatilla County outside of making appearances at the Pendleton Round-Up in September.
Umatilla County may be the largest in the region, but it’s far from the most politically engaged. Most years, the county has one of the lowest voter turnout rates in the state.
The three major candidates have not agreed on how many debates and forums they’ll each participate in. This week, Kotek and Johnson both suggested more than a half dozen forums in various parts of the state.