Betsy Johnson: ‘I’m not going to surrender a place I love without one hell of a fight’
This spring, Betsy Johnson hobnobbed in a private home in California’s Coachella Valley with some of Oregon’s most famous billionaires.
The party, a fundraiser for the gubernatorial candidate, was held in an exclusive community visited by Hollywood stars and past presidents. Nike co-founder Phil Knight attended. So did real estate mogul Jordan Schnitzer.
On a more recent sunny Saturday, Johnson made the rounds at an ice cream social held in her honor at a park in St. Helens, Oregon. Thirty or so supporters, including the local sheriff, auctioned off home-baked cookies and a hand-sewn apron to raise money for her campaign.
The two fundraisers highlight what supporters find appealing about the former conservative Democratic state senator. Thanks to deep family ties and an overflowing Rolodex, Johnson is equally at ease in plush corporate suites as she is on the Astoria docks.
She is running as the “people’s candidate,” though her campaign is largely fueled by some of Oregon’s richest citizens. The question, if elected, is whether she is capable of tending to both the specific wants of the wealthy and addressing the broader challenges facing all Oregonians.
Tim Boyle, the CEO of Columbia Sportswear and a Johnson supporter, said he is backing Johnson in part because she’s decisive.
“I’m not really expecting anything from Betsy other than to be a leader,” Boyle said. “If we look at today’s elected officials in our state, they are not leading on the topics that people want action on. There is virtually no action.”
Boyle pointed to the example of the never-used Wapato Jail. Local politicians struggled for years to figure out what to do with the empty jail, which was built in 2003. Johnson, the quintessential puller of strings, got involved. She connected her longtime friend, Schnitzer, with a constituent, Alan Evans, who ran homeless shelters along the coast.
Then she used her position on the powerful budget committee in the Oregon Legislature to funnel state money toward the project to further help repurpose the jail into Bybee Lakes Hope Center. The project came with plenty of controversy, from those that worried that it was costly to operate and had too many barriers for entry. But Boyle contends it was a solution. At this point in the crisis, he said, any solution should be welcome. Some Bybee Lakes residents now work at the nearby Columbia Sportswear distribution center.
But one of Johnson’s longtime colleagues in the state Legislature said she can be overly decisive and entrenched and it can be nearly impossible to change her mind. Sen. Michael Dembrow, a Portland Democrat, served with Johnson in the Senate for years and said she has a hard time listening. Johnson vehemently opposed a 2019 bill that would have curbed carbon emissions through a cap and trade system. Dembrow worked to try to reach a compromise, but said despite lengthy negotiations, Johnson simply became more locked into her position.
“She likes to see herself as standing up for the little guy, as we all should,” Dembrow said. “But I also think she stands up for the big guys who don’t really need us to be standing up for them because they do very well on their own.”
Johnson is running to be the first unaffiliated governor the state has elected since 1931. She describes herself as a candidate who believes women should have the “right to bear arms and bear children” as they wish.
If elected, she said she would not sign any major bill or budget into law without bipartisan support. That move would effectively cede power to Republicans if Democrats maintain control of both legislative chambers.
“The current status quo of the majority in Salem telling the rest of Oregon how they are going to live their lives or how they are going to run their business is unacceptable,” Johnson said. “And it doesn’t have to be that way.”
A fortune from timber
When Johnson was sworn in to the state House in 2001, she sat at the same desk in the House of Representatives that her father occupied 35 years prior.
“It gave me an expectation of what government in Oregon could be,” Johnson said. “I knew Gov. McCall, and I knew Gov. Atiyeh, and I went down to the Legislature with my father when people worked together, and they liked each other, and they trusted each other.”
Johnson’s family became wealthy generations before her. At one point, her family owned large swaths of timberland in California and parts of Oregon. Her father, Sam Johnson, also owned sawmills and a lumber plant. Both of her parents were civically engaged; her father was a lawmaker and also served as the mayor of Redmond.
She spent her early years in the rural town of Redmond, but attended high school at the private all-girls boarding school in Portland now known as the Oregon Episcopal School. She graduated from Carleton College in Minnesota and later attended law school at Lewis & Clark College.
Her father encouraged both Johnson and her sister to fly, and she learned to do so at an early age. While she was studying law, she was recruited to fly on a helicopter team in Europe and the Soviet Union. After the experience, she knew practicing law wasn’t for her, and she started her own helicopter company.
It didn’t take long for her to engage in local politics in Columbia County. She sat on a variety of boards, including the Port of St. Helens board. She also managed the aeronautics program with the Oregon Department of Transportation in the mid-1990s.
When she made the move to Salem, Johnson was already familiar with the political landscape.
Power of the purse
Johnson, 71, still uses a flip phone. The stories of her swinging it open to help her constituents bypass bureaucracy are too many to recount.
“My husband and I took Sunday morning off. We watched the talk shows, we read the paper, had breakfast, did domestic stuff like put the laundry in,” she said of her life before she resigned from the Legislature to run for governor.
The rest of the day and week were dominated by constituent work, she said.
“I see the definition of a legislator as an advocate. If someone in Senate District 16 had a problem, I worked on it,” she said.
Trudy Citovic’s daughter was 2 years old when she realized her daughter couldn’t jump like other children her age. Slowly, the little girl lost the ability to walk. It took years to find a diagnosis. Finally doctors identified spinal muscular atrophy, a rare genetic neurological disease that weakens muscles making it difficult for a sufferer to eat, walk and eventually live. But a child can survive without symptoms if doctors catch the condition before nerve damage is done. A simple newborn screening could detect the disease and allow medical professionals to treat a child before they are symptomatic. At the time, Oregon didn’t test for the disease.
Citovic went to Salem and fought to add spinal muscular atrophy to a list of required newborn screenings. Her bill died. Citovic, who is from Astoria, turned to Johnson. The senator used her seat on the budget-writing committee in Salem to carve out the money needed to pay for the testing and sent it to the Oregon Health Authority. No bill necessary.
The first month testing was available, a newborn tested positive.
Perhaps no one in the state knows how to use the intricacies of the state budget to get what they want as well as Johnson whether that’s to help people like Citovic or Evans of Bybee Lakes Hope Center. Johnson was appointed to the powerful legislative budget committee her first year as a lawmaker. For the past three years, she served as co-chair of Ways and Means. If there is a project that she believes in that needs funding, Johnson knows how to make the money happen.
“It’s not always headline making stuff, it’s just competence. And I think competence is important here,” said former state Sen. Mark Haas, a Beaverton Democrat who is supporting Johnson. “She is head and shoulders above the others when it comes to technical knowledge of how the government works.”
Johnson has also mastered using the state’s purse strings to register dissatisfaction.
She’s developed a reputation as someone not afraid to battle bureaucrats; fellow lawmakers would quietly recruit her to help them if they were struggling with an agency director — say, the Department of Human Services or Department of Housing — but wanted to avoid the type of tense confrontations that Johnson doesn’t shy away from.
“I want can-do, want-to, will-do people running state agencies,” Johnson said. “As governor, I expect to start with the top (with agency heads) and to set a tone of serve the customer.”
One agency in particular the timber heiress was known to battle: the Department of Environmental Quality.
Johnson’s voice rose in an interview when she talked about state agency officials who were “not responsive” or “changed the rules mid-stream.”
When a U.S. Forest Service research project revealed toxic hotspots of a cancer-causing heavy metal in Portland in 2016, Gov. Kate Brown launched the Cleaner Air Oregon program. The basic idea was to put stricter limits on companies that were polluting.
One of those companies was the battery parts manufacturer Entek International. The company fought the stricter regulations and the disclosure requirements.
“Entek was particularly egregious because it was centered in a community where there is a daycare or highly sensitive receptors, which is what we call humans,” said Mary Peveto, the executive director of Neighbors for Clean Air, a nonprofit that works to reduce air pollution.
Johnson and other lawmakers were angry DEQ planned to publish emission reports. Entek didn’t want the reports publicized and sued DEQ. The company, worried its reputation would be marred, won a temporary gag order, the Portland Tribune reportedat the time.
Johnson sided with Entek. To drive home her discontent, she refused to vote for a grant application the Department of Environmental Quality wanted to submit to the Environmental Protection Agency for $650,000. The money was to study diesel pollution in the Portland area.
“The way you guys went after Entek,” Johnson told DEQ, as reported by The Oregonian, “I simply cannot support a grant application that advances your agency’s work on this issue.”
Peveto, with Neighbors for Clean Air, said Johnson was also a driving force in systematically defunding the agency to the point that it became difficult for them to enact any regulations.
“Our state Legislature played an aggressive role in defunding DEQ and that was under her leadership as Ways and Means co-chair,” Peveto said. “She really wielded that power to control DEQ and to bully them … The brutal hearings they had to endure, coming to testify and defund their budgets.”
Some people have called Johnson a bully. At first, she objected to that characterization in a conversation with OPB. Then she paused.
“If asking for accountability and demanding results and answers is a bully, well, then, maybe I shouldn’t object,” she said. “Maybe I should say, yes, in Ways and Means, I think it’s my responsibility to ask how the money is spent.”
“The most powerful woman in the building”
During the ice storm of 2021, Rep. Rachel Prusak’s phone rang. It was Johnson.
Johnson wanted to talk to Prusak, a Democrat from Tualatin, about a seemingly innocuous land-use bill that she wanted Prusak to vote against in her committee.
“‘Sure,’ I thought, ‘how do I do something for the most powerful woman in the building that has never called me before?’” Prusak said. “That is how that building (the state Capitol) works a lot of the time.”
Plus, Prusak had several health care bills she cared a lot about in Johnson’s committee. She didn’t want to anger Johnson for fear her bills would perish.
“She told me all the reasons I should oppose this bill,” Prusak said. “She just said, ‘I know this land. My family has been part of this land … what those people want to do is misguided.’”
“Those people” were the Lundgrens, a family that, like Johnson’s, are wealthy and own large amounts of property in Camp Sherman. The area is considered one of the state’s environmental gems, attracting fly-fishers, hikers and campers who seek refuge near the pristine Metolius River.
Johnson’s dispute with the Lundgrens goes back years. Shane Lundgren wanted to develop parts of Camp Sherman into an “eco” destination resort with 630 homes on more than 600 acres in Camp Sherman. Johnson fought the development; it would have dramatically changed the area where she still owns a home and more than 100 acres along the Metolius River.
In 2009, Johnson got what she wanted. Then-Gov. Ted Kulongoski prohibited development in the area by using an obscure part of the state’s land-use law and declared the land an “area of critical state concern.”
But in the midst of the Metolius battle, as some of the state’s wealthiest families battled over one of its most precious resources, separate news broke questioning Johnson’s involvement in a land deallocated in Scappoose. She bought some land, sold it after three months and made a profit of $119,000. Then she wrote a bill to help the developer who bought the property. She didn’t disclose any of this when writing the bill, The Oregonian reported at the time, which she admitted was a mistake. It prompted an investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The land deal was seemingly unrelated to what was happening with Camp Sherman, but it came at the same time and contributed to more unflattering media coverage of Johnson, then a state senator.
Kulongoski’s declaration barred the Lundgrens from building in Johnson’s beloved Camp Sherman, but they got a consolation prize. They were told they could have a “transfer of development opportunities” — a phrase essentially made up for them — and the ability to build a resort elsewhere in Oregon without going through the often cumbersome and lengthy land-use process.
They were unable to find property for another destination resort due to a variety of obstacles. In the 2021 legislative session, lawmakers were set to extend the timeline for which the TDOs or transfer of development opportunity rights were available.
But Johnson wanted the bill to die.
On the other side of the debate, Rep. Brian Clem, a Democrat from Salem, was trying to help the Lundgrens by pushing legislation to help them develop elsewhere.
More than a decade after Kulongoski declared the Metolius area protected, Prusak was at a hotel when she got that phone call from Johnson. Prusak had lost power in her house due to the ice storm and had gone there partly to warm up. She remembers the conversation with Johnson well. The senator told Prusak she had no idea why Clem was trying to help the Lundgrens after all these years.
Only she said it in a more colorful, Johnson-esque style:
“They must have a picture of Brian with a goat,” Prusak recalls Johnson telling her.
Shane Lundgren was surprised at the extent to which Johnson worked to kill the bill, to allow him to develop elsewhere in the state — after all, she got what she wanted. The Metolius would be preserved.
“That she continued to call people and like a mob boss twisted people’s arms in the background, that was surprising to me,” Lundgren said. “I knew Betsy wasn’t a big fan, but to actively go after us was pretty mean spirited.”
Johnson got her way again. The bill died.
The Lundgrens are now suing the state, as first reported by The Oregonian. Johnson did not respond to a question about the Lundgrens.
The old guard
For more than two decades, Johnson has been a fixture in the state Capitol. She has deep connections, long friendships and understands the politics and the dynamics in the building better than most.
A lot of the people in Johnson’s corner are long-time players who have dominated Oregon’s political and business scene for decades. Even her political consultants, Dan Lavey and Kevin Looper, are established insiders who have worked on some of the state’s better known politicians and campaigns.
Normally, the familiarity and institutional knowledge works in her favor. But the game has also changed a lot in the years that Johnson has served, and she isn’t always the first to recognize that.
In the midst of the me too movement, one of Johnson’s Republican colleagues, Sen. Jeff Kruse, R-Roseburg, was accused of harassing several women, including legislative interns.
Anne Montgomery was a law student when she worked in Kruse’s office. At that time, Kruse’s tendency to touch women inappropriately or ask them about things sexual in nature was well known.
Montgomery moved her desk out of Kruse’s office and into Johnson’s where she could both work on more interesting projects and avoid Kruse. At the time, Montgomery thought she would finish law school and work in the state Capitol as a policy researcher. Johnson could be a gruff boss, but Montgomery respected her.
But as soon as Montgomery was pulled in to the #metoo reckoning that rocked the state Capitol in 2019, Montgomery said Johnson’s support disappeared.
Johnson simply didn’t see the issue, telling Montgomery at the time that unless Kruse threw her “down in the hallway and made passionate love” to her, nobody would care.
“It was sort of disappointing for someone I admired a lot as a female politician and someone who isn’t scared to say ‘This is bullshit,’ when it’s bullshit, when it came to this she just fell flat,” Montgomery said.
At one point, Montgomery went to see Johnson. She was told by Johnson’s aide that the lawmaker wouldn’t be seeing her. That was the end of their relationship.
Montgomery said she understands that Johnson came up in a time when men dominated state politics.
“She’s tough. She’s always been tough and that has worked for her, but for any women that are young and coming into politics, which is still male-dominated … we’re trying not to do it the same way ... We are asking for more because we deserve more,” said Montgomery, who became a public defender instead and said she hopes she never has to return to the state Capitol.
When asked about Montgomery, Johnson’s was indifferent.
“I paid virtually no attention to her,” she said. “I was writing the state’s budget or helping to write the state’s budget. I wasn’t there as a counselor. I gave her a desk. End of report.”
Recent polling has shown Johnson lagging in the governor’s race. Republican Christine Drazan and Democrat Tina Kotek appear locked in a tight race. Some of Johnson’s financial supporters, including Knight, have started donating to Drazan’s campaign worried that Johnson has failed to prove she could win.
Polling has suggested she could siphon more votes from the Democratic candidate, Kotek, potentially putting a Republican in the governor’s mansion for the first time since the 1980s. Johnson pushed back on the idea that she could act as a spoiler candidate.
She doesn’t believe Oregon would elect a governor who opposes abortion access. Drazan has called Oregon’s current laws around abortion some of the “most extreme in the country.”
“This is a solidly pro-choice state, and it’s gonna remain so,” Johnson said.
And despite dismal polling, she’s not backing out now.
“Sitting around watching Oregon in a death spiral, I have one last fight in me, and this is it,” Johnson said. “And I’m not going to surrender a place I love without one hell of a fight.”
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