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Politics & Government

Democratic state Sen. Betsy Johnson will launch an independent campaign for Oregon governor

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Kaylee Domzalski
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State Sen. Betsy Johnson is running for governor, but not with her current political party.

In a long-rumored move, the Senate’s most moderate Democrat told supporters today she’ll run as an unaffiliated candidate, not as part of any party.

“Having to choose between another left-wing liberal promising more of the same or a right-wing Trump apologist — is no choice at all,” Johnson wrote in an email to supporters. “Oregonians deserve better than the excesses and nonsense of the extreme left and radical right… That’s why I have decided to run for Governor as an independent leader unaffiliated with any party and loyal only to the people of Oregon.”

Johnson’s pending candidacy has been a curiosity for political observers for months and will prove an intriguing factor in what’s expected to be a hypercompetitive race for governor. Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat who has held the state’s highest office since 2015, is term-limited from seeking re-election.

While third-party candidates and independent candidates are frequently an afterthought in Oregon elections, Johnson, 70, has forged connections throughout the state in two decades in the Legislature. She’s also a wealthy timber heiress, and connected to other people of means who will be able to ensure her message is out before voters, political observers say.

How that breaks for candidates of the two major parties — whether Johnson might entice moderate Democrats to Republicans’ advantage, or attract Republicans with a more politically middle-of-the-road message — has been a matter of speculation. In her message to supporters on Thursday, Johnson suggested she would rely on her famously plainspoken and direct style.

“I will be a no-nonsense leader with the backbone and life experience to tame the partisan excesses and with the humility to know that delivering results matters more than who gets credit,” the email said. “As Governor, I will force the two parties to work together to put Oregon ahead of narrow partisan politics.”

Nonaffiliated candidates in Oregon face a different path to the November 2022 general election ballot than those affiliated with major parties. Rather than vying for the Democratic nomination against a growing list of candidates in the May primary, Johnson only has to collect about 23,750 valid signatures, equal to 1% of the statewide vote in the 2020 general election.

Johnson says she will launch that campaign after the first of the year.

Originally from central Oregon, Johnson lives in Scappoose and has represented the North Coast since 2001. In recent years, she has served as one of the Legislature’s lead budget writers, a powerful position that gives her an outsized say in state spending.

Johnson votes with Republicans more than any other Democrat, and in recent years has opposed major Democratic bills on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and imposing more gun control measures.

Johnson could well see her influence flag in coming years if she remains in the Legislature. Senate President Peter Courtney, a Salem Democrat and the longest-tenured lawmaker in state history, is widely expected to retire following his current term. There’s a very real chance the Democrat that next fills the Senate president role will be more political liberal than Courtney and would not tap Johnson to control the budget.

“Rest assured, my bedrock values will not change. I was raised in a moderate Republican family and became a Democrat because the Republican Party had moved too far to the right,” Johnson wrote in her announcement. “For twenty years, I’ve been an independent-minded, pro-choice, pro-jobs Democrat proudly serving the people of Northwest Oregon.”

Johnson’s announcement helps bring the governor’s race into clearer focus. Earlier this week, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof signaled he is likely to seek the Democratic nomination in the race, forming a candidate committee. Kristof has also resigned his long-time position at the Times, the paper reporter on Thursday.

If Kristof jumps in as expected, he’ll join Yamhill County Commissioner Casey Kulla, House Speaker Tina Kotek, Treasurer Tobias Read and others vying to be the Democratic nominee.

On the Republican side, Salem oncologist and former Republican nominee Bud Pierce is running, along with Sandy Mayor Stan Pulliam, political consultant Bridget Barton, Ashland businesswoman Jessica Gomez, Baker City Mayor Kerry McQuisten, and others.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting. 

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