Canvassers were going door-to-door in Hood River County earlier this month, seeking signatures for a recall effort against Republican Sen. Chuck Thomsen just as the coronavirus pandemic was starting to take off in the U.S.
Leaders of the canvassing effort say they took precautions to avoid furthering the spread of the virus and that they stopped altogether by March 16, the day Gov. Brown issued an order banning gatherings of 25 or more people and in-house service in restaurants and bars.
But Thomsen said he heard reports that the canvassing continued well after that, and he said it was irresponsible for the campaign to have used the practice at all after it was clear COVID-19 had reached the U.S.
“I think they would have stopped when everybody was talking about the coronavirus,” he said. “Because how did they know if they have it?...It’s just not safe.”
The canvassers included both volunteer signatures and paid canvassers hired by Our Oregon, which coordinates political activity for unions and several other major liberal groups.
Becca Uherbelau, the executive director of Our Oregon, the group that's financed most of the recall effort, said canvassers “began taking precautions before there was any guidance from other entities.”
She said canvassers stepped back from the door after knocking, asked voters to use their own pens to sign the forms and observed social distancing among the canvassers.
Uherbelau said that as the extent of the disease in Oregon became evident, organizers of the recall decided to shut down in-person canvassing on March 15. A few canvassers continued to go out the next day, she said. Now signature gathering has moved online, according to an email from Lara Dunn, the recall’s chief sponsor.
Dunn, a board member of the Hood River County Transportation District, first filed the recall petition on March 4. She charged that Thomsen shouldn't have joined the Republican walkout to halt legislative action on the "cap and trade" bill aimed at reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.
Thomsen isn't up for re-election this year, but he's in a competitive district and is seen by Democrats as vulnerable. The recall quickly raised more than $90,000 with contributions from Our Oregon, the American Federation of Teachers and Chip Shields, a former Democratic state senator from Portland.
Dunn said on Wednesday that the campaign had collected about 2,800 signatures. It needs 9,025 valid signatures by June 2 to force a recall election that could oust Thomsen from office.
A list filed with the secretary of state showed that 39 paid canvassers were signed up for the recall campaign, starting on March 5. Oregon had announced its first case of coronavirus just two days before that. However, in the Seattle area, the first hot spot in the country, there had already been 11 deaths by March 5.
Uherbelau said about 15 canvassers worked on average each day before the recall campaign ended canvassing altogether.
Thomsen said he continued to hear reports about canvassers and that Senate Minority Leader Herman Baertschiger, R-Grants Pass, called Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, to get him to get to shut down. Baertschiger couldn’t be reached for comment Thursday.
Courtney declined to comment, saying he was focused on battling the coronavirus pandemic in the state and that “this is a time when there is no politics.”