Far from the fanfare of Monday night’s presidential debate, the two main candidates for Oregon Secretary of State squared off the following afternoon on the campus of Willamette University in Salem.
Members of the Statesman Journal editorial board moderated the forum, which was attended by around 20 people.
Republican candidate and former state representative Dennis Richardson described how his passion for public service was inspired by reading a biography of Benjamin Franklin in the mid-1990s. That later led to stints as a city councilor and in the Legislature, where he was unanimously elected speaker pro tem at the beginning of the 2005 session.
Richardson, who later served as a co-chair of the budget-writing Ways and Means Committee, said he thought he was done with politics after unsuccessfully challenging then-governor John Kitzhaber in the 2014 general election. He spent the following months volunteering at a local employment office before filing to run for Secretary of State.
Democrat Brad Avakian, a civil rights attorney and former legislator, pledged to use the Secretary of State’s office to ensure fairness and equity, and said he’s taken that approach in his current position of Labor Commissioner. Avakian said his accomplishments as Labor Commissioner include shrinking wage disparities between men and women in the state, bolstering apprenticeship programs and returning shop classes to schools.
If elected Secretary of State, Avakian said he would break down barriers to the ballot box, pursue campaign finance limits, ensure access to voter pamphlet statements via smart phone apps, return civics education to the classroom and use his spot on the State Land Board to make Oregon a global leader in the fight against climate change.
Richardson bemoaned the fact that audits were never conducted for Cover Oregon or the Columbia River Crossing project. Nearly $1 billion was spent on the Oregon Department of Energy’s controversial Business Energy Tax Credit (BETC) program, he said, yet it took six years for an audit to take place. One-third of those BETC projects were “clouded,” Richardson added, and turned over to the Oregon Department of Justice for further investigation.
The Secretary of State’s Office should function as a non-partisan Government Accountability Office, Richardson said, and can use audits to stop waste.
Differences between the two candidates became very clear in response to a question about Measure 97, a proposed corporate tax projected to bring $3 billion into state coffers annually if approved by voters in November.
Richardson cited an analysis of the measure conducted by the non-partisan Legislative Revenue Office, which estimated that its passage would result in the loss of 38,000 private sector jobs and cost the average Oregonian $600 per year. He added that the money it raised would go to the Legislature as a “blank check.”
Avakian said the measure was necessary, as schools have been “stripped” of music, art, shop and physical education programs. The Legislature has failed at revenue reform, he said, and Measure 97 will “fill the void.”
Both candidates did agree, however, on the need to have more clear and precise language for ballot measure titles and descriptions.
In his closing statements, Richardson characterized Avakian as an “activist” labor commissioner, and said the Secretary of State’s job is not to force change.
“I don’t think we need that kind of aggression,” Richardson said.
Avakian countered by stating that he has been putting Oregonians’ values into action. In concluding his remarks, Avakian said his vision for the Secretary of State’s office includes being assertive and standing up for the rights of Oregonians.