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Democrats tap new nominee in Salem-area state Senate race

Keizer attorney Rich Walsh is the Democratic nominee for Senate District 11.
Courtesy Rich Walsh
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Keizer attorney Rich Walsh is the Democratic nominee for Senate District 11.

Oregon Democrats have a new nominee for what’s expected to be one of the hardest fought state Senate races of the year.

In a meeting at a Keizer middle school Thursday, local party officials tapped attorney Rich Walsh over two other candidates seeking to represent Senate District 11. The former Keizer city council member will face Republican state Sen. Kim Thatcher in November.

Walsh beat out state Rep. Teresa Alonso Leon, D-Woodburn, and Anthony Rosilez, director of the state’s Teacher Standards and Practices Commission, for the nomination. Out of 40 votes cast by Democratic precinct committee persons within the district, Walsh claimed 29, Alonso Leon took 11 and Rosilez got none.

The unusual nominating vote came after the dynamics of the SD 11 race were upended last month. In mid-June the initial Democratic nominee, Woodburn Mayor Eric Swenson, announced he’d decided not to pursue the seat despite defeating both Walsh and Rosilez in the May primary. That meant that party officials within the district, rather than Democratic voters, got to choose Swenson’s replacement.

Swenson’s decision immediately generated rumors in both political parties – particularly since he recommended Alonso Leon to replace him as nominee instead of one of his two primary opponents. A three-term state representative from Woodburn, Alonso Leon mounted an unsuccessful bid for the state’s new sixth U.S. House seat this year, forfeiting her ability to run for the Legislature in the process.

Some suspected Swenson’s decision was a way to make room for his political ally to continue her political career. He has denied that, saying he decided to instead run for another term as Woodburn mayor after being unable to recruit a qualified replacement for that job.

“I’m an awfully nice person, but I wouldn’t have thrown myself into a Senate campaign and spent months knocking on thousands and thousands of doors to that end, and then given all of that up had not the desire to be my city’s mayor been this strong,” Swenson said in an email in June.

The Woodburn City Council this week hired an outside attorney to help officials decide how to publicly release a police investigation the mayor participated in in February. The nature of that investigation, and of Swenson’s involvement in it, is not fully clear. According to a memo sent last week, Swenson volunteered information to Woodburn police after he learned they were investigating criminal activity at a local business.

Swenson declined to offer details, but told OPB that his participation in the investigation was “way down” on his list of reasons for ending his Senate run.

Walsh runs a Keizer law firm specializing in auto accident cases. He served on the Keizer City Council for more than a decade, beginning in 2000.

Walsh’s pitch to Democratic officials Thursday hinged in part on the fact that he’d come in second in the May primary, he said.

“The best way to honor the voters, encourage voting and to validate the entire process was to simply do the normal thing and that’s advance the runner-up to the vacant spot,” he said. “Anything else would just cause unnecessary questions.”

Senate District 11 stretches from Salem up Interstate 5 to Woodburn. The district is currently held by Senate President Peter Courtney, a Democrat and the longest-tenured lawmaker in Oregon history.

But Courtney is retiring this year, and after last year’s redistricting process the district now includes Keizer, Thatcher’s long-time political home.

Walsh said Friday his deep roots in the community would be an asset.

“I’m well positioned to cut into the base of Kim Thatcher,” Walsh said. “If I can do that, I think I have a better chance than other candidates to win.”

Democrats have a built-in advantage in SD 11, currently making up 29% of the district’s registered voters, compared to 23% Republicans.

But a plurality of the district’s voters, 41%, have no party affiliation, and with the possibility of a “red wave” year favoring Republicans nationally, the campaign is expected to be competitive. In a possible sign of Republican enthusiasm, GOP voters in the district voted in higher numbers than Democrats in May, despite their registration disadvantage.

Copyright 2022 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Dirk VanderHart covers Oregon politics and government for OPB. Before barging onto the radio in 2018, he spent more than a decade as a newspaper reporter—much of that time reporting on city government for the Portland Mercury. He’s also had stints covering chicanery in Southwest Missouri, the wilds of Ohio in Ohio, and all things Texas on Capitol Hill.