Republicans in Oregon have had trouble fielding candidates for statewide office. This November, the party is pinning its hopes on a Bend surgeon, who’s running for secretary of state. He’s never held elected office, but has a knack for raising money. Democrats, meanwhile, are looking to an incumbent and veteran officeholder.
In Oregon, the secretary of state has a number of responsibilities - but really there are three big ones. The secretary oversees elections and ballot initiatives. The jobholder is also the state’s chief auditor. And finally, that person is second in line to the governor and would have to step in should anything happen.
These days Republican candidate Knute Buehler is spending a lot time talking to voters around the state about why he thinks he’s the best candidate for that job. And inevitably those conversations come back to the Center for Orthopedic and Neurosurgical Care and Research.
Buehler is both a partner there as well as one of the center’s practicing surgeons. Although his day job is as a fix-it man for ailing hips and knees, Buehler says he wants to now turn his attention to what he sees as a secretary of state’s office that has in recent years become overly political.
“Well, you know I may be an outsider to the partisan politics of Salem, but I have a deep insiders knowledge of Oregon and its people.”
But despite never holding elected office, Buehler isn’t a complete political neophyte.
He’s been involved to two statewide ballot initiatives. The first: a successful 1994 campaign finance measure. The second: a 1998 open primary ballot initiative.
In 1992, Buehler helped run Ross Perot’s Oregon presidential campaign.
Coincidentally, that was also the same year that the current secretary of state, Kate Brown was first elected to the Oregon’s House. Brown served two terms before getting elected to the state Senate. She served there as both Democratic leader and the Senate majority leader.
Brown says when she ran for her current job in 2008, she promised to engage Oregonians in the political process, to crack down on fraud and abuse in the state’s initiative process and focus attention on the department’s performance audits as a way to save taxpayer money.
“I’m a firm believer when you make commitments that you deliver on those commitments. And I think by any measure I’ve delivered and delivered strongly.”
Brown says when she took office, efficiency-driven performance audits were delivering about $8 in recommended savings for every dollar spent on the department’s budget. By 2010, she says that number was up to $64 in recommended savings.
Brown touts other accomplishments - specifically launching online voter registration and expanded voter accessibility for military personnel and voters with disabilities. Brown also points to her implementation of the changes passed by the Legislature designed to crack down on fraud and abuse in the ballot initiative process.
But Brown also has her critics. A surprise decision to move the state labor commissioner’s race from May to November has drawn accusations from Republicans that the secretary was playing politics to give an advantage to Democrats. Brown says politics did not play a role in that decision.
“My staff correctly interpreted the law and the court upheld our decision,” she says. “That is the bottom line. I believe that we could have communicated better.”
Brown’s tough enforcement of paid petition gathering has also drawn a lawsuit from the supporters of a failed marijuana legalization measure.
And Buehler, for his part, says these criticisms have merit.
“I think when you’re secretary of state you have to check party at the door and treat everyone fairly and I think that’s where a lot of the opposition to the current secretary of state is coming from,” he says.
Buehler seems to be actively reaching out to independents. He wants to take legislative redistricting out of the hands of the Legislature and make it more independent. He supports open primaries as a way to include unaffiliated voters in the election process.
Jim Moore, a political science professor at Pacific University and the director of the Tom McCall Center for Policy Innovation, says Buehler’s going to need those independent votes to have a chance at winning.
“As a Republican he needs to come in safely with 35 to 40 percent of the votes in Multnomah County.”
Moore says Buehler would also need to win in either Washington or Clackamas counties and do reasonably well in other Democratic strongholds.
While that might be difficult, Moore says it’s not impossible. But he points out that Buehler doesn’t doesn’t have much name recognition.
Money might help Buehler with that. To date, Buehler’s outpacing Brown in fundraising. He’s brought in about $750,000 in cash contributions. Brown has raised a little over $415,000.