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Rancher Eyes Oregon Governor's Race

Chris Lehman

Conventional wisdom in Salem is that Governor John Kitzhaber will run for re-election next year. But that’s not a given. The 66-year-old Democrat has repeatedly said he’s not made up his mind. That's left potential Republican candidates wondering what the governor’s race will look like next year. There’s one candidate who has entered the fray that you may not have heard of. He says everything he needs to know, he learned in the fields of central Oregon. He even wrote a song about it.

I'm riding shotgun in a pickup with rancher Jon Justesen. As we round a bend on this bumpy dirt lane, a weathered farmhouse comes into view.

Jon Justesen: "This is the head of Jackknife Canyon down here. And that's the old homestead right there. Five generations have been calling this ranch the home place."

When he was a teen, Justesen and his parents moved to a newer house out by the county road. These days, Justesen and his two adult sons raise cattle and grow wheat and barley. But he’s afraid his family’s way of life is becoming less common in Oregon.

Jon Justesen: "The graveyards are full of wore-out ranchers and farmers. And every time one of them old boys goes, that's a history book gone forever."

Justesen says he hopes to bring the knowledge passed down through a century of Justesen cowboys to the Oregon governor’s office. He hasn't raised any money yet but he's sunk more than $33,000 of his own cash into a preliminary effort. The big question: What will John Kitzhaber do?

Jon Justesen: "I believe that if he decides to run again, he would be very strong, really very difficult to beat. So we're real interested in what he's doing."

Justesen say he wants to run because he thinks the state's budget is growing out of control. That puts him squarely in the Republican fold. But the 62-year-old rancher holds some other views that might not match up well with GOP primary voters. Take same-sex marriage, for instance. It could be on the Oregon ballot next year. And Justesen says he's fine with that.

Jon Justesen: "It's none of my business. And it's none of the Republican party's business, is my opinion."

He's also in favor of a sales tax, and he's not afraid to say so.

Jon Justesen: "Every state around us has a sales tax. Why don't we get the tourists to help us pay our bills?"

Justesen would pair the sales tax with targeted cuts to property and income taxes. Whether those views will fly in a Republican primary remains to be seen. Long-time Oregon GOP strategist Greg Leo says on the one hand, a more well-established candidate who’s held elected office before might have an advantage with Republican voters. On the other hand…

Greg Leo: "They might want to select an outsider who hasn't been part of that, doesn't have the record and hasn't had to vote on tough issues.”

The norm for Oregon governors is to have some experience in elected office. The other Republican in the race so far is long-time state representative Dennis Richardson. But like Justesen, the last GOP nominee for Oregon governor never held elected office. He was former NBA player Chris Dudley. In 2010, he came within 22,000 votes of defeating Kitzhaber. Back at the ranch, Justesen checks in on his horses.

Jon Justesen: "We do everything in our cattle operation on horseback. Honest work of horseback. That's what we love. And we handle our cattle as gentle as we can."

In addition to ranching, Justesen leads elk hunts and fishing expeditions on his property. He's also invested heavily in a successful Vancouver, Washington based payroll management firm. That’s not very cowboy-like, but consider this: he does pick up a guitar once in a while. He’s even produced a CD.

Jon Justesen (singing): "I learned everything I thought I needed to know in the fields of Sherman County, where I still call home…"

He's quick to add the singing is mainly for friends and family. So don't look for any concerts on the campaign trail.