State Rep. Knute Buehler attempted to make the first gubernatorial debate with Gov. Kate Brown a referendum on her leadership, but the format — fielding questions from high school students from all over the state — made such a direct confrontation difficult.
The lowkey debate Tuesday pit two familiar foes against each other; Brown, the Democrat, and Buehler, the Republican, ran against each other for Oregon secretary of state in 2012. Since the candidates were taking questions from students, they touched on topics that haven’t been dominating the airwaves.
There was no mention, for example, of abortion, President Donald Trump or Judge Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court nomination. Instead, the candidates were asked questions about a wide range of issues which included climate change, vaping, access to high-speed internet, gun control and support for disabled students.
And more than once during the debate, the students pushed back with frustration when they felt the candidates weren’t directly answering their questions.
Patrick Starnes, the Independent Party of Oregon candidate, joined Brown and Buehler on the stage at Portland’s Roosevelt High School.
The two leading candidates had a rare moment to trade jabs when Viktoria Rosqvist, 19, of Portland, who was in the foster care system, asked Brown and Buehler how they would work to ensure foster children had access to dental and mental health.
Buehler seized the opportunity to point out that during the last legislative session, he suggested spending $50 million to create a "rapid improvement team" to focus on stabilizing the state's foster care system and implement the recommendations outlined by a damning secretary of state's audit.
Buehler told the crowd he had been rebuffed by Brown.
"In the Brown administration," Buehler said. "Too many kids are slipping through the cracks and being starved and beaten and worse."
Brown fired back, calling Buehler’s characterization “a whopper” and said the state’s troubled foster care system was an issue that kept her up at night.
“Unlike my opponent, I didn’t start [working on these issues] when I was running for governor,” Brown said.
The debate was aired live and was an opportunity for Buehler, a Bend doctor, to introduce himself to much of the state. Buehler’s strategy in this general election has been to appeal to the nonaffiliated and undecided voters. Voters not affiliated with any major party outnumber the two leading parties. The last time Oregonians had a Republican governor was 1987. A handful of polls have signaled that the race is competitive.
The two candidates were often asked to address broad topics in a short format, which led to vague answers.
Jeremy Clark, 14, of Portland, asked whether they support legislation to curb carbon emissions. “When you were a kid, you didn’t have to consider the possibility of an inhospitable climate in your future,” Clark said. “But I do and so does my whole generation."
Buehler responded by saying he believes in man-made global climate change, but demurred when answering directly as to whether he would support the proposed cap-and-trade policy likely to move through the state Legislature next session.
When it came to strengthening the state’s gun laws, Buehler said he believed in common sense legislation. But Brown pointed out to the crowd that Buehler didn’t vote for a 2017 measure that allowed law enforcement to seize the guns of those who are deemed mentally unstable.
Rose Lawrence, 15, asked the candidates how they will protect LGBTQ students from bullying and twice said she was not satisfied with the candidate’s responses.
Brown, the nation’s only openly bisexual governor, said she knew what it felt like to be “different because of [her] sexual orientation and gender” and Buehler said he would use the bully pulpit as governor to help convey that bullying is not tolerable.
Buehler tried to veer the debate back to failing schools and placed the blame on Brown’s inability to go against the unions and protect what he called the status quo. He closed on familiar talking points painting himself as the independent-minded candidate.
Brown made a nod to education funding and said investing in education, under her watch would not be done by cutting into teacher’s retirements.
Starnes touted his central platform — to reform campaign finances.
The candidates are scheduled to square off again on Thursday in Medford and Tuesday, Oct. 9, in Portland. Ballots hit the mail in mid-October and are due Nov. 6.