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The mind of Kelly Clark

On Friday, the ever-evolving Oregon governor’s race wheeled again as it spun – unpredictably – on the axis of one of the more intriguing personalities in recent Oregon politics: Kelly Clark.

Kelly Clark He is not an office holder, now, though he was a state representative in the late 80s and early 90s. A Republican, he was the most visible attorney (and evidently the lead) in the 2004 case against the Multnomah County Commission when it authorized same-sex marriage.

In a fascinating profile at that time on Clark, Taylor Clark of Willamette Week wrote, ” The question at this point seems not to be whether Clark’s mind is open, but what could possibly be going through it. He is a sex offender who has made a mint defending the sexually abused, and he’s also a former gay-rights advocate being paid to dismantle the biggest gay-rights victory in Oregon history. Clark sees no inconsistency, because in both cases he says he is motivated by the same dominating passion: disgust with the misuse of power. ‘I get to represent the little guy going up against the big guy,’ he says. ‘I absolutely love that, whether it’s the church, the government, insurance companies, banks.'”

Where in all this does his new action, announced on Friday, fit in? When he says he plans to file an action seeking to disqualify Constitution Party nominee Mary Starrett from the November general election ballot for an obscure gray-area possible legal violation, whose power abuse is it that he’s disgusted with?

His public statements so far seem to give little hint, only outlining the violation he or someone located.

That stems from a requirement (cited in a Secretary of State manual) of minor political parties, such as the Constitution, that “If a nominating convention is held, the following requirements must be met: The chair publishes notice of the minor political party nominating convention at least once in not less than three newspapers of general circulation in the electoral district. The notice must include all of the following information: time and place of the nominating convention and office or offices to which candidates will be nominated.”

The Associated Press quotes Clark as saying, “We searched every major newspaper, and we could not find any indication that they [the Oregon Constititution Party] publicized a notice of their convention.” If so, that might – there’s some uncertainty – be enough to toss Starrett off the ballot.

That’s countered by the Oregon Constitution Party’s Jack Brown, who said the party published notice in papers where the party was organized. Could it be that both are right – and that those are simply smaller newspapers? If so, that would seem to meet the “three newspapers of general circulation” requirement. Either way, we should get a clearer indication early next week. No doubt both sides are trying to nail down facts over the weekend. If the complaint does hold up, it would mark one of the most obscure election law violations ever to throw a statewide candidate off a ballot. (And at a fairly late stage in the process, too.)

Meantime, there’s the less documentable matter of motivation.

Starrett and the Constitution Party were quick to assign it: Clark, they suggested, was obviously a tool of the Ron Saxton Republican campaign.

The political logic is there. Since the dropout from the campaign of independent Ben Westlund, the weight of political opinion has been that Democratic Governor Ted Kulongoski – who may marginally have lost more campaign juice to Westlund than did Saxton – has gained momentum. Part of the reason has been the feisty campaign run by Starrett, who has been visible, a solid generator of press releases and easily the most quotable major candidate in the state. She stands to take a measurable slice of the conservative vote away from Saxton, a situation which must be giving his campaign fits. If only Starrett were out of the picture . . .

The Saxton campaign denies any involvement in the new challenge. The best piece of external evidence for that, it seems, is Kelly Clark.

The Willamette Week piece gives the relevant background. Read it and you come to the conclusion this is a guy who does things very much for his own reasons. A state senator at 30, positioned within his party as a Hatfield Republican just as that era was coming to an end, he was a vigorous backer of gay rights in anti-discrimination legislation when that made him unpopular within his caucus. But without any change of basic philosophical view, he had no trouble tearing into the Multnomah Commission two years ago and helping to prompt Measure 36.

Doesn’t fit the profile of a simple tool of a political campaign. Almost certainly, more is underlying this situation. Much more.

There is one other factor. The prospect of Starrett being forced from the ballot over a technicality is politically explosive. If she is forced out, the blowback could come to damage Saxton’s campaign even if he and if had nothing to do with it. If any evidence comes out that they did, the damage could be large enough that Saxton might not be able to recover.

SIDE NOTE: Anyone else notice this summary of the Oregon governor’s race in the conservative National Review? It says, “After posting a less-than-stellar performance in the Democratic primary, Kulongoski still has a lead over Republican nominee Ron Saxton in most polls, but the governor’s support is only in the low to mid 40s. Saxton, however, ruptured party unity when he came out against a spending-cap initiative on the November ballot that Oregon Republican activists have endorsed. This may confuse voters on the tax issue, which Saxton has tried to use against Kulongoski by criticizing the governor’s support of a failed 2004 tax-hike measure and talk of creating a state sales tax.”

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