It’s mid-June, in St. Helens, Oregon, and several hundred people have come out to the Columbia County fairgrounds to see a local political star.
A cover band plays hits as the crowd spills over a broad lawn, mingling over mocktails and Mexican food. Children do cartwheels, the local sheriff glad-hands, and watching over it all are an owlish pair of glasses.
They are Betsy Johnson’s glasses, frames the longtime lawmaker has stuck with since the bygone decade they were first in fashion, and which she has now adopted as a political totem. The glasses adorn every yard sign, banner, t-shirt and sticker Johnson’s campaign puts out, and in St. Helens, they are witnessing the first major push to get her the nearly 24,000 signatures she needs to run for Oregon governor.
“If you have not already signed the petition to get Betsy on the ballot, it’s right around the corner,” the cover band’s lead singer tells the crowd. “Please don’t leave without signing it. We want change for Oregon.”
Johnson, a timber heiress and former commercial pilot, represented this area in the state Legislature for more than two decades. She did so as a Democrat, though she often sided with Republicans on issues like gun safety and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
But last year, Johnson left the Democratic Party to run for governor as a non-affiliated candidate. To qualify for the ballot, she’ll need to collect 23,744 signatures from voters by mid-August. And there are few places she’s as sure of finding them as her home turf.
“We’ve known Betsy for probably close to 40 years,” says Craig Smith, a Rainier resident who has come to the fairgrounds with his wife. “She’s a no-bullshit lady. She speaks very straightforward, and you know where she stands.”
Johnson’s bid for governor is serious. She’s so far raised millions more than Democrat Tina Kotek, the former House speaker, and Republican Christine Drazan, the former House minority leader. But to ultimately win, the former professional helicopter pilot will need to pull off a tricky maneuver: She’s hoping to attract not only nonaffiliated voters, but also Republicans tired of seeing their candidate lose and Democrats weary of the status quo under their party’s long statewide dominance.
“I don’t care if you voted for Biden or Trump or you wrote in your dog, I want your vote and Oregon needs your vote,” Johnson tells the crowd, recycling one of her favorite campaign lines.
At the St. Helens rally, though, that kind of political diversity is hard to come by. Shirts bearing the Confederate flag and “Let’s go Brandon” — a coded epithet against President Joe Biden — dot the crowd, and most people you talk to tend to support one political party.
“I’m a Republican. I’m a harsh Republican,” says Keith Forsythe, a Deer Island businessman keen to tell a reporter about his displeasure with President Biden. “I slam my TV set off if that dickweed shows up on it.”
But Forsythe, like many people here, is setting aside his typical support for the GOP. He’s known Johnson for years and trusts her to deal fairly with both ends of the political spectrum.
So does Heather Epperly, another Republican who believes enough in Johnson’s candidacy that she is busy collecting signatures on the candidate’s behalf at the fairground pavilion.
“She has a better shot at winning than the Republican candidate because she is more in the middle,” says Epperly, who lives in nearby Columbia City.
It’s perhaps because of this crowd’s conservative tilt that when Johnson takes the stage, her message is also tilted. She describes Drazan, the Republican, as a “nice lady” but says a GOP candidate has little chance of winning. She’s less charitable with Kotek.
“I would submit to you that right now I am the only thing standing between you and Tina Kotek as governor,” Johnson tells the crowd. “Tina will take us in a direction that I don’t think Oregonians want to go — another hard-left turn.”
Johnson isn’t just sticking close to home as she looks for the signatures necessary to make the ballot. Since early June she’s traveled the state, riding in parades and meeting crowds for informal events.
Three weeks after her rally at the Columbia County Fairgrounds, Johnson schedules a “Beers with Betsy” gathering at a tamale restaurant in Milwaukie. The liberal Portland suburb feels worlds away from St. Helens, and the 50 or so people who’ve come to see Johnson are just as distinct: It’s fairly easy to find Democrats within the crowd.
Mary Jo, a Tualatin resident who declines to give her last name, says that, if pressed, she would vote for Kotek.
“But I like a Betsy option best,” she says. “She’s our best last hope at this point to get Oregon back on track. To get us back to the [former moderate Republican Gov. Tom] McCall days where you could negotiate and you could actually come up with solutions.”
Another Democrat in attendance has far more personal reasons for supporting Johnson. Roxanna Matthews lives in Milwaukie now, but grew up with the candidate in Central Oregon. Her father was in business with Johnson’s father, Sam, who was a lumberman, state legislator and mayor of Redmond.
“Betsy was raised to be in politics,” Matthews says. “Betsy knows where all the bodies are buried and she gets things done. She doesn’t fart around. She’s not self-serving.”
Here on Portland’s doorstep, Johnson’s sales pitch changes a bit. She doesn’t hold up Kotek as a threat to the state’s future – she doesn’t even mention the Democratic nominee. Instead, she focuses on the dissatisfaction many in the area are feeling.
“Eight percent of people in Portland think Portland’s on the right track,” Johnson tells the crowd. “I’d like to know who those 8% are because I sure haven’t met them.”
Johnson argues she’s the candidate who can turn the tide, nodding to a still-skeletal platform that includes easing business regulations, bolstering police and fighting homelessness. Her stance on those things isn’t too different from Drazan, the Republican. But Johnson says her long history as a Democrat offers an alternative for Democrats who’ve tired of their party.
“I believe that this is kind of a magical moment in Oregon politics when there are enough people angry,” she says. “Rural people. Urban people. They don’t like the status quo.”
Magic might be precisely what Johnson needs in November.
Many political experts believe it’s more likely she’ll act as a spoiler — harming Drazan or Kotek’s chances by siphoning away key votes – than win herself.
Part of that is based on how notoriously difficult it is to run as a nonaffiliated or third-party candidate in the two-party system that dominates U.S. politics. The political prediction site FiveThirtyEight currently gives Johnson a less than 1% chance of succeeding in November.
The centrism that Johnson has made a bedrock of her campaign pitch comes also with its own difficulties.
Johnson supports abortion rights, and once served on the board of a Planned Parenthood chapter. That, along with her decades as a Democrat, is likely to turn off a segment of Republicans.
She’s also long opposed tighter gun control laws and was a key opponent when Democrats attempted to pass a law capping and reducing greenhouse gas emissions in 2019. That could make her too conservative for Democrats.
Johnson’s opponents have not waited until she actually qualifies for the ballot to attack. Democrats created a political action committee, Oregonians for Ethics, that has attempted to tie her to “extremist politicians” on the right by highlighting pieces of her voting history.
Drazan’s campaign, meanwhile, is running television ads that paint both Johnson and Kotek as loyal footsoldiers for Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat and one of the least popular governors in the nation, according to polls.
And both Democrats and Republicans piled on this month, after Willamette Week reported that Johnson had attempted to use her position as a lawmaker to dodge responsibility for a 2013 car crash she caused. The Oregon Republican Party used the story as a jumping-off point to highlight a 2007 incident in which Johnson admitted to breaking state ethics rules by failing to report profits from a land deal.
Even as she touts her independent views at every turn, Johnson has yielded at times to the current political tides. Under pressure after recent mass shootings, she modestly walked back her opposition to gun restrictions, saying she’d favor some tighter laws.
Whether that shift will earn her more supporters is not clear. It did lead Republicans to label her a flip-flopper and hasn’t stopped Kotek and other Democrats from hammering her over past votes against tougher gun laws.
Before Johnson can be too concerned about those attacks, though, she needs to make the ballot. Her campaign declined to share how many signatures she’s collected to date, but with more than $9.5 million raised and a sophisticated campaign operation, she’s widely expected to meet the mark by her Aug. 16 deadline.
Assuming she does, Oregonians in many more places will presumably hear the pitch Johnson made to the crowd in St. Helens.
“We have got to get our maverick spirit, our mojo back,” she said. “I think that’s only possible with an independent governor responsible to you Oregonians … If it can happen anywhere, it can happen here.”