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A Eugene legislative race might be a glimpse into Oregon’s future

the Oregon Capitol
Bradley W. Parks
FILE - The Oregon Capitol in Salem.

A Eugene state House race is about to get an injection of outside spending that is rare in legislative contests — and could offer a glimpse into Oregon’s electoral future.

The Oregonians Are Ready Political Action Committee, which formed in 2022with the goal of electing moderate or business-friendly Democrats, says it will intervene in the Democratic primary for an open seat to replace longtime state Rep. Paul Holvey, D-Eugene. The race is between educator and Eugene Planning Commission member Lisa Fragala, and Doyle Canning, a legislative staffer and attorney. Whoever wins is assured a place in the state House next year.

But rather than giving directly to one candidate or the other, Oregonians Are Ready is taking another route: launching its own “independent expenditure” campaign with an eye toward souring voters on Canning.

Doyle Canning headshot
Campaign photo
Doyle Canning, a Democratic candidate for a Eugene state House seat, is the target of a rare independent expenditure campaign this year.

Brian Clem, a former Democratic state representative who founded the PAC, told KLCC he plans to spend “what it takes” to defeat Canning in the election, funding mailers and ads for a campaign that he said could reach into six figures.

It’s not that Clem supports Fragala, he says. He’s never met her and says he expects they disagree on plenty. Instead, Clem said he has a score to settle on behalf of Peter DeFazio, the longest-tenured U.S. Representative in state history. Clem once served as an intern in DeFazio’s office and describes the Springfield Democrat as a political hero. Canning attempted to unseat DeFazio in 2020, his last campaign before retiring in 2022.

“Doyle Canning represents what I don’t think is good about our Oregon Legislature, which is people who spend time attacking other people that are just trying to solve problems,” said Clem, a Salem Democrat who served in the House from 2007-2021.

Clem, a businessperson, plans to fund attacks on Canning relying partly on some of a $1 million loan he personally gave to the Oregonians Are Ready PAC. The group has already launched a website featuring an ad he said will run on streaming services.

Maybe most notably, Clem has buy-in from DeFazio. The Democrat is a well-known quantity to Eugene voters after more than three decades of representing the city in Congress. He told KLCC last week he has not forgiven Canning for a 2020 campaign that painted him as cozy with oil and pharmaceutical interests, and suggested he was anti-immigrant.

Peter DeFazio standing and speaking into a microphone.
Brian Bull
Former U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio is using his influence in Eugene to oppose a candidate for the Oregon House. This is a file photo from 2021.

“She was trashing me for being bad on the environment,” said DeFazio, who prevailed easily in the primary, but faced a tough reelection fight that year against Republican Alek Skarlatos. “That stuck with me for a long time. It did.”

DeFazio, who these days is a registered federal lobbyist for entities that include TriMet and the American Trucking Associations, sent out an email to his supporters earlier this month praising Fragala. And DeFazio is featured prominently in the sole ad Clem has produced to date, which paints Canning as an opportunist with a history of bashing other Democrats for personal gain.

“Progressive champions like Peter DeFazio are lined up against Doyle Canning because she keeps putting her ambition first and us last,” says the ad, which was funded by Oregonians Are Ready through another PAC, Eugene Is Ready.

This kind of “independent expenditure” campaign — where the people making ads that could influence a race don’t actually communicate with the candidate they are assisting — is rare in Oregon legislative races. But that might not be the case for long.

Lisa Fragala headshot.
Campaign photo
Lisa Fragala, an educator and Eugene Planning Commission member, is a Democratic candidate for the Oregon House.

Lawmakers this year passed a bill that in 2027 will institute the first campaign contribution limits Oregon has seen in decades. But with the end of limitless campaign donations directly to candidates, some say Oregon is likely to see more independent expenditures, which the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled cannot be curtailed and which candidates have no power to control.

“The money’s going to be there, we’re just not going to have any say over how it’s spent,” state Rep. Kim Wallan, R-Medford, said earlier this year when the campaign finance bill came up in a House committee.

Canning and Fragala both say they got an inkling of some outside interest in their race weeks ago when voters began getting a slanted “poll” via text message that appeared designed to paint Canning in a negative light rather than actually gauging public opinion.

Canning said she heard about the tactic from a neighbor as she was knocking on doors to speak with voters.

“She opened her door and said, ‘Doyle, hi, I just received this really nasty text about you. They were saying all this stuff that you have all these radical ideas,” she said.

Among poll questions reviewed by KLCC was one that called Canning “extreme and out of touch on issues like fentanyl.”

Canning works as legislative director for Rep. Khanh Pham, D-Portland, one of several progressive lawmakers who opposed HB 4002, the law approved earlier this year to recriminalize drug possession. She’s secured endorsements from a slate of eight other progressive lawmakers.

Canning said the negative campaigning provides more reason for Democrats to support her — and that everyone she’s talked to about the recent poll plans to support her candidacy.

“To me, it smacks of Republican tactics,” she said. “This is not what you would expect from a fellow Democrat running in a Democratic primary for a state house race in which our party is going to win regardless of the outcome.”

But Fragala says she had no idea the campaign was coming.

The candidate spent more than two decades as an elementary school teacher in Eugene and now works at Pacific University. Among her endorsements are DeFazio, Holvey, and U.S. Rep. Val Hoyle of Springfield.

Fragala said in an interview Monday that the ads, which Clem says will become widespread in coming days, don’t reflect her campaign.

“I only recently started to hear about it,” she said Monday. “I am very committed to running a positive and respectful race. I have been the entire time … I unfortunately cannot control what is happening.”

Dirk VanderHart covers Oregon politics and government for KLCC. 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.
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