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Oregon governor candidates stake their positions in first debate

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Screenshot of streamed event
The three main candidates for governor met in their first debate Friday, July 29. They are (from left) Republican Christine Drazan, Democrat Tina Kotek, and unaffiliated candidate Betsy Johnson.

This year's race features three viable candidates, and is expected to be one of the most competitive and unpredictable in the country.
The three main candidates for Oregon governor got an early chance to set themselves apart Friday, touting their own records while arguing they are far better positioned to lead the state past a series of daunting challenges.

Meeting in Welches for a debate organized by the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association, Democrat Tina Kotek, Republican Christine Drazan and nonaffiliated candidate Betsy Johnson attempted to stake out the political lanes they hope to ride to victory in November: Kotek as the accomplished progressive, Johnson as the centrist unifier, and Drazan as the change agent for a state that has languished under one-party control.

The event, streamed live, was the first chance for many voters to see the women address some of the most pressing topics facing the state together, including homelessness, substance addiction, climate change, abortion and the deepening differences between urban and rural Oregonians. What emerged was a lively, and mostly substantive, debate that helped clarify the differences and similarities the candidates bring to those matters.

Drazan, a former House Republican leader, and Johnson, a 20-year legislative Democrat who ditched the party last year, found plenty to agree on when asked about natural resource management and climate change.

Both women support increased logging and more robust forest management, they said, and would both rescind a 2020 executive order by Gov. Kate Brown capping and reducing greenhouse emissions from some polluters. Kotek, a former House speaker who repeatedly pushed regulations capping carbon emissions, promised to build on what the state has already done.

On homelessness, the candidates each argued they’d bring urgency to what all agreed was an unacceptable humanitarian crisis.

Kotek, who made housing a policy and funding focus while in the Legislature, has preached an approach of building up better outreach to homeless Oregonians while increasing shelter space and working to ramp up housing production.

“I’m the only person on this stage who’s been working hard over the last five years to make sure as a legislator that I do what I can,” Kotek said.

Drazan and Johnson countered they’d both been active on the issue — Johnson in helping to morph a never-used jail in Portland into a shelter — and each have hinted at a harder line approach they’d use to force accountability on houseless Oregonians and reduce public camping.

“What’s gotten better during your period of time [as speaker]?” Johnson asked Kotek at one point. “We have pitched more tents than we have pulled permits, I would submit, for housing.”

The three women most sharply diverged on guns. As speaker, Kotek helped push through gun safety bills to expand required background checks, create a mechanism to confiscate guns from people in crisis, and force gun owners to safely stow weapons not in use. She supports more restrictions, including a measure on the November ballot that would require a permit to purchase a gun.

Drazan uniformly opposes any further restrictions but suggested she respects existing laws and would not try to circumvent them. Johnson, a reliable opponent of gun control while in the Legislature, has since shifted her stance. She said Friday she favors increasing the age requirement for purchasing some guns to 21 and said she would push for far more aggressive background checks before a person may purchase a firearm — including, potentially, school records.

‘I would give schools immunity if they’re providing data that says little Johnnie was killing cats or was writing dark emails,” Johnson said. “That needs to become part of the permanent record that would go into a background check.”

Johnson suggested hers was a middle ground between Drazan’s inaction and Kotek wanting to “take your guns.” That was a mischaracterization of Kotek’s stance with which the former speaker took issue. “It’s really unfortunate and frustrating to have the politicization of an issue that is really important to people right now,” Kotek said. “People are scared.”

There was further separation between the candidates on abortion. Kotek and Johnson both support abortion rights, but Kotek said Oregon should take more steps to help make the procedure available, including helping pay for care for people from out of state. Johnson disagreed with that spending priority.

Drazan opposes abortion, but, as on guns, seemed to suggest she’d have little power to act unilaterally as governor to change state laws. She signaled support for altering Oregon abortion laws by limiting the availability of the procedure in the third trimester.

The candidates also got to ask a question of one of their opponents. Kotek used her question to ask Drazan whether she believed Joe Biden won the 2020 election. Drazan said she does. Johnson asked Kotek what she would do immediately on homelessness, building on her contention the Democratic nominee has lacked urgency. Kotek talked about expanding outreach teams and building shelter space. Drazan asked Johnson why she’d supported a tax on businesses in 2019. Johnson said she believes taxes can be worthwhile but has come to regret the vote.

Beyond policy specifics, the three women attempted to sell voters Friday on an overall narrative of their candidacies.

Kotek, typically a staid policy wonk, pitched herself as a steady hand with a long background in leadership. She spoke of falling in love with the state after moving to Oregon in late 1987, and her belief “in the possibility of Oregon and what it could be for everybody who lives here.”

“Being able to deliver results right now is what really matters for Oregonians,” she said in a closing statement. “I know how to work with people and solve problems. I have the track record to show that.”

Despite her continuous messaging about helping find accord between Republicans and Democrats, Johnson was the most aggressive candidate in the debate. A fan of pithy phrasings, Johnson said Kotek “wants to preserve tent cities and bring the culture wars to your kids’ classroom. She’d have us all woke and broke.” Johnson painted Drazan as a right-wing candidate and repeatedly suggested only she could bring “big bold change” to the state as a centrist leader.

Drazan argued she is the only true change agent in the race, pointing to the influence Kotek and Johnson both held as some of the most powerful Democrats in the Capitol — Kotek as House speaker, Johnson as a lead budget writer.

“They’ve had all the levers of government at their hands. They’ve been in charge,” Drazan said. “We got here because of their choices. … If they knew how to fix it they would have already done it.”

Publicly released polling in the race has been limited but has suggested the race is tight months ahead of the Nov. 8 election. Two polls from late June — one from the Johnson campaign and another from Republicans — showed Kotek at or near the front, but varied in whether Drazan or Johnson was most closely challenging the Democrat.

The race has similarly confounded political prognosticators and is being closely watched by national Democrats and Republicans in part because of the rarity of three viable candidates in a general election.

When the candidates will meet to debate next is not completely clear. All three women have agreed to attend an Oct. 6 event in Medford, but other potential events were up in the air on Friday.

Johnson last month suggested seven televised debates in cities around the state. Kotek countered by suggesting eight, including one on gun regulations.

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.