Candidates Debate as Oregon’s Three-Way Race for Governor Tightens to a Toss-Up


With the Oregon governor’s race now rated a “toss-up” by both the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics and the Cook Political Report, three candidates are busy staking out what they hope will be their path to victory in November.

On Sept. 27, Democrat Tina Kotek, Republican Christine Drazan, and non-affiliated candidate Betsy Johnson answered questions from residents in the state’s central region before Oregon State University-Cascades students and staff.

In a state that hasn’t elected a Republican for more than 40 years, former Oregon House Minority Drazan is running as an agent of change.

“After a decade of one-party rule, this state is a mess,” Drazan said in the opening.

Independent Stance

“My opponents represent the status quo and would follow Kate Brown’s leadership. We need a new direction for our state.”

A seasoned progressive, Kotek served in the state legislature for 14 years, including nine years as House Speaker.

“We have real challenges: housing and homelessness, an addiction and overdose epidemic, and threats against our democracy right here in our state,” she opened. “We have attacks against our freedoms and gun violence. We need leaders who can solve problems.”

A straight-talking timber heiress and private pilot, Betsy Johnson served as a state senator from 2007 to 2021. She left the Democrat party last year to mount a third-party run.

“I’m not captive to the far left or the far right,” she said. “As an independent governor, I’m the only one who can actually crack down on crime and homelessness and protect a woman’s right to choose.”

The winner will have her work cut out for her.

After two terms under Gov. Kate Brown—a Democrat who polls as the least popular governor in the nation—Oregon is a hot mess.

The state has a drug epidemic and a homeless crisis. Crime is up and schools are failing. Eight rural counties have voted to secede and become part of ‘Greater Idaho.’”

Johnson summed up the problem.

“I’m a native Oregonian and my state is going to hell,” she said.

A State on Drugs

Oregon leads the nation in meth use, is ranked ninth in the nation for highest drug use, and third for teenage drug use, according to a report by WalletHub.

In 2020, it was the first state in the nation to decriminalize hard drugs, such as meth and heroin, when voters passed Measure 110, which was supposed to allocate millions toward addiction services.

Since its passage, overdose deaths are up 20 percent and less than 5 percent of users have called for drug treatment as part of the Measure 110 plan.

Johnson said the measure has “without a doubt” compounded the substance abuse problem and is contributing to the rise in homelessness.

“I campaigned against it and I voted against it, and I will work to repeal it,” she said.

Drazan agreed.

“Measure 110 has been a complete policy failure,” she said, adding that she voted against it and would support asking voters to repeal it.

Kotek, who supported the measure, agreed that the rollout of the treatment programs was botched, but said she won’t give up on the measure and plans to “deliver what the voters demanded: expanded recovery services statewide.”

That approach is what’s wrong with politics, Johnson argued.

“We roll out these programs and we fail and we just say ‘oh well,’ and move on,” she said.

homelessness

More people are sleeping on the streets, in tent cities, or in RVs parked along Oregon roadsides than ever before.

According to the US Interagency Council on Homelessness, Oregon has the seventh largest homeless population in the nation.

The candidates agreed that Oregon’s homeless crisis goes hand in hand with drug use, crime, and mental health issues.

Kotek vowed to issue an executive order on her first day in office to create a 10-year plan to build more homes in the state as well as form a special emergency management team to address homelessness.

She may be vulnerable on this issue as she pushed through a policy that legalized tent camping in the state, leading Johnson to dub her “Tent City Tina.”

Drazan would declare a state of emergency for homelessness, which includes repealing Measure 110 and “accelerating the rollout of addiction and behavioral health support” programs.

“We have to help Oregonians get sober and stay sober,” she said, and follow up with supportive housing, work training, and supporting them with a goal of achieving self-sufficiency.

Johnson called for creating more designated camping areas and emergency shelters and following a model in which she helped to turn an unused prison into a living space for the homeless.

Failing to Educate

A “Kids Count” study released in August ranked Oregon 26th for overall child well being and 41st in the nation for education. And the impact of Oregon’s extended pandemic-related lockdowns are only now becoming evident.

According to 2020-2021 assessment tests released last week, K-12 student test scores have dropped by 9 percent.

“The test scores are unacceptable, and, I would think we would all agree, not surprisingly surprising given how hard the last two years have been,” Kotek said.

She said students need smaller classes, more career and technical education options and support for their mental wellness.

But Kotek’s support for extended school closures and reducing academic standards, as well as her alliance with teachers unions, may make her vulnerable.

Both Johnson and Drazan called for returning to “core competencies,” focusing on class time on math, reading and other core subjects.

They would reinstate academic standards and graduation requirements that were reduced under the Brown administration and support educational options like charter and homeschools.

On Abortion and Gun Control

Oregon abortion laws are among the most liberal in the nation. Abortion is legal up to the time of birth and there is no requirement for minors to obtain parental consent or notification.

Kotek is adamantly pro-choice and wants the state to provide free abortions to women from states where access may be limited.

“We’re at a critical time,” she argued. “We have to be a champion on this issue.”

Johnson is unapologetically pro-choice, but doesn’t want Oregon taxpayers to fund abortions from residents of other states.

Drazan is personally pro-life, but vows to follow Oregon laws as they are written.

She draws the line at “using public funds for abortion tourism,” which she called “extreme.”

gun control

Oregonians will vote on a ballot measure this November that opponents say would make it impossible for anyone to legally own a gun in the state.

“We need to work to support responsible gun ownership and keep people safe in public spaces,” said Kotek, who supports the measure. “That’s the role of the government.”

“No.” Drazan, who believes the state has enough gun control laws, fired back. “The role of government is to safeguard our rights and operate within our constitution.”

Johnson also objects to the measure.

“This new measure will just take police officers off the streets and limit Second Amendment rights,” she said. She supports background checks and would like them to include information from schools.

The candidates continue to hone their message, knowing the race could come down to the wire.

A DHM research poll conducted days before the debate showed Drazan and Kotek in a statistical tie at 32 percent and 31 percent, respectively, with third-party candidate Betsy Johnson at 18 percent.

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As founding editor of GeoIntelligence and Geospatial Solutions and editor in chief of GPS World, Scottie Barnes has examined the implications of public policy and emerging technologies on areas ranging from homeland security and national defense to forestry and urban planning. She now provides breaking news and investigative reporting from the Pacific Northwest for readers of The Epoch Times.

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