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Homelessness help starts in the cities

The widespread take on the June 28 U.S. Supreme Court decision sustaining Grants Pass restrictions on public camping was widely interpreted as kicking the issue, as it did with abortion in the Dobbs decision, to the states.

In many states, few of which have state laws on the subject, that may be the effect. Oregon, which does have a state law on the subject, may be different. Here, the effect of the decision, which simply said the Grants Pass rules were not “cruel or unusual,” was to place the subject back before individual communities.

Oregon’s state law, House Bill 3115, was passed in 2021 following an earlier court decision about the Grants Pass rules. Its lead sponsor was then-speaker and now-Gov. Tina Kotek, and it sets some limits on city and county action on homeless camping, saying that communities cannot pass any unreasonable restrictions.

Following the Supreme Court decision, the next steps are likely to be – and should be – taken by local governments. As they act, they may run into the walls of state law and regulation.

That should make it clearer what action the Oregon Legislature ought to take.

HB 3115’s core provision says: “Any city or county law that regulates the acts of sitting, lying, sleeping or keeping warm and dry outdoors on public property that is open to the public must be objectively reasonable as to time, place and manner with regards to persons experiencing homelessness.”

Some of those terms are defined in the bill, but that’s about it. Local ordinances have to be “objectively reasonable,” but it doesn’t define “reasonable,” only saying that the availability of local shelters should be borne in mind in any restrictions. The anti-camping rules in Grants Pass that sparked the decision barred people from sleeping publicly with “bedding,” set fines of $295 and much more if not paid. Orders to stay away from parks could follow. As a last step, jail time was possible. The Supreme Court decision allows all that.

Would that necessarily violate the Oregon state law? We may have to wait for an Oregon court to say.

That may be the way it goes around the state, because many local communities have been moving ahead on the subject, and may move faster now.

Not all communities in Oregon have a problem with homelessness; most smaller towns do not. But larger cities, especially where more extensive social and other services are located, tend to have larger numbers, and the pressures to regulate, if not resolve, homelessness have been growing there.

Salem, Bend, Medford, Corvallis and McMinnville are among the cities that have passed rules relating to camping areas where homeless people have congregated. With the new Grants Pass ruling in hand, pressure locally likely will increase to do more.

Portland has a new revised camping ordinance, effective July 1, which Mayor Ted Wheeler said would be enforced at first on camps around the city that “present the greatest health and safety risks.” The plan is to develop a series of assessments and then refer them to city agencies, including the police.

Portland’s approach seems likely to shift and change in the months ahead, not least because the planned assessments may uncover information and ideas that change views of what should be done. Some of the same may happen in other cities, too, as they try policies to meet area concerns about homeless health and safety issues, and advocates for the homeless push back.

Although Kotek said she wants to keep the current law on the subject in place, a number of Oregon legislators are likely to weigh in as well. Two Democrats, Sen. Mark Meek of Gladstone and Rep. Paul Evans of Monmouth, have said they would like to see more specificity in the state law so that cities have clearer guidance about what they can do.

That’s true. But the way to get there probably is to allow the cities to experiment – and they should start on that promptly – and see where the problems, legal, practical or moral, turn out to be. As they discover more, legislators probably will be able to better figure out what they should do next.

This column originally appeared in the Oregon Capital Chronicle.

(image/public domain, George Hodan)



A MAGA tilt but not a lockdown

Conservative southern Oregon, often an afterthought for many other Oregonians, may be the most politically dynamic large area in Oregon.

Few other areas show as much potential for political change.

Consider a couple of large Medford-area events just a few miles apart and on the same day, June 22.

The Jackson County Fairgrounds was dominated by the Republican political rally called MOGA 2024, the acronym standing for “Make Oregon Great Again.” Its headliners included national figures, including Mike Lindell, the MyPillow founder and advocate for Donald Trump. This may be the only really large-scale Oregon event on this year’s Republican calendar, presented as “Come help us take back southern Oregon.” It was heavily promoted by the local Republican organization, by other groups around the region, and around the dial on area radio stations.

From a pro-Trump perspective, you might wonder if there’s much to take back in the southern Oregon area. Most of this large sector of the state already votes Republican.

But it may not be as locked-down some may think. The Jackson-Josephine counties seem to be on the cusp of something subtle that events like MOGA could be critical in influencing: Deciding if the area becomes MAGA-dominated enough that other points of view are swamped, which hasn’t happened yet.

One piece of evidence in that argument is the second event held only a few miles from the MOGA event, over in Pear Blossom Park in Medford, where organizers were holding the well-attended 3rd annual Medford Pride event. One participant said, “It gives a space for young people to be free to express themselves however they want. And an opportunity in an area that’s not always the most accepting to really give an opportunity for our community to be queer.”

These two events may fit into the larger picture of conservative southern Oregon as pieces of a puzzle shifting and developing.

The two big counties in the area are Jackson (where Medford is the county seat) and Josephine (Grants Pass).

Jackson leans Republican, but not by a great deal. In the last two decades, it has voted Democratic for president just once, in 2008, but no one has won its presidential vote by as much as 51% since 2004. Its legislative delegation has included mostly Republicans, and Republicans hold county government, but Democrats as well, including state Sen.Jeff Golden and state Rep. Pam Marsh, who represent a large share of the county’s voters. There are some indicators it has been moving gently away from hard right positions. It is one of 11 counties in Oregon to legalize therapeutic psilocybin. Hard-line positions on property taxes seem to have eased a little in recent years. Jackson shows no signs of becoming a blue county, but its tint seems to be shading gradually purple.

Josephine County is more solidly Republican. No Democrat has won its vote for the presidency since 1936, the longest such run of any Oregon county, and Trump just cleared 60% in both of his runs. Its state and local officials are Republicans, and there are no indications that will change in the near future.

Still, there are indicators of attitude shifts. Josephine has been one of the most rigorous anti-tax counties in Oregon, along with neighbors such as Curry and Douglas. Having experienced some deep austerity in local services, however, voters seem to have recentered on the subject.

Libraries are a good example. All libraries in the county were closed in May 2007 for lack of county funding, but since then libraries have been reopened, and a library funding measure was passed in 2017 with 53% of the vote. Law enforcement is another useful case study. Severely crunched funding during several years for the sheriff’s office was addressed in this decade with creation of a law enforcement taxing district, also approved by voters.

Both counties seem to have developed stronger tourism, recreation and wine industry sectors, which over time usually lead to a moderation in politics, and some of that seems to be playing out. That’s especially true in the well-known cultural and tourism centers at Ashland and Jacksonville, both growing and prospering, but also to a degree in both Medford and Grants Pass and several smaller communities.

Most of the more rural areas remain hard-right conservative, and the traditional “Don’t Tread on Me” and other similar signage is not hard to find outside the cities. These areas are a MAGA redoubt, and few people outside their tribe make themselves visible. That absence of a contrary culture allows for more sweeping adoption of the MAGA message.

But increasingly, alternative messages are becoming visible in some of the cities. They are not near changing the partisan lean of the area. But they may be enough to slow an overwhelming adoption in the region of support for Trump and his allies. Much depends on whether people are exposed more to one message or the other.

The margins are close. That is why events like the MOGA event and the Medford Pride activity, in their different ways, may have some real rippling effects.


The state of Oregon journalism

Two big slices of news about Oregon newspapers fell shortly after Memorial Day, sending shock waves across the state.

One was the sale of one of the largest Oregon newspaper groups, Portland-based Pamplin Media, and the other was the announcement of major cutbacks in another, EO Media Group, which owns the Bend Bulletin and other newspapers. Both show the immediate urgency for finding a way to rescue community news in Oregon – sooner, not later. Among other things, the Oregon Legislature urgently needs to take up the subject in its next session.

Consider where Oregon newspapers were just 12 years ago, when Steve Bagwell of the McMinnville News-Register and I co-wrote a book, called “New Editions,” about the recent history and prospects for newspapers in the Northwest. We counted 82 paid-subscription, general circulation newspapers, 16 of them dailies, in Portland, Eugene, Salem, Bend, Medford, Albany, Corvallis, Pendleton, Astoria, Ashland, Ontario, Coos Bay, The Dalles, La Grande, Roseburg and Baker City.

Since then an economic hurricane, a perfect storm, swept through the ranks of those newspapers. Many of the dailies which published six or seven days a week now publish three or four days a week if they’re not gone completely. The large business office buildings they occupied nearly all have been sold, along with nearly all newspaper presses, and increasing numbers of newspapers now consist of one or two reporters working out of their homes, with no office support at all. Some Oregon newspapers have been sold to investor groups, and where the papers still are actual print papers, they’re far smaller.

That has largely been the case with Pamplin Media Group, which owned 22 newspapers from Prineville to Forest Grove and Madras to Portland, more than any other owner in the state. Their operations and staff have diminished, But they have continued to publish on regular weekly schedules with reports about their communities.

On June 1, all of those papers were sold to Carpenter Media Group of Natchez, Mississippi, which, until recently, mainly had focused on southern-state newspapers. Pamplin is not its only major recent purchase, even in the Northwest, however. Last year, with backing from two Canadian investment companies, it bought 150 newspapers and other media from Black Press Media of Surrey in British Columbia, and included dozens of Washington state newspapers. Carpenter is now by far the largest newspaper owner in the Northwest.

It appears to be operated by former executives of Boone Newsmedia, which owns dozens of papers in the southern U.S. But other than reports about Carpenter’s many purchases there’s little public information about it – or where the money for all these massive buys is coming from. Carpenter has been buying large papers as well as small, including the dailies in Honolulu, Hawaii and Everett, Washington. What that means for Oregon’s largest collection of newspapers is far from clear.

The development with EO Media Group didn’t involve change of ownership, but it did mark a drastic change of operations.

EO Media Group, named for one of its papers, the East Oregonian of Pendleton, publishes a dozen newspapers in the state, most east of the Cascades. Operated by the Forrester family of Astoria, it has been a rescuer in recent years of community newspapers. In 2019, it bought The (Bend) Bulletin out of bankruptcy and kept it running. When the daily Mail Tribune of Medford shut down, EO started a new paper there, Rogue Valley Times.

EO said on June 3 that it will cut its 185 employees by 28, end print editions at the papers in La Grande, Hermiston, Baker City, John Day and Enterprise, and reduce the number of editions per week at Medford, Bend and Pendleton.

The areas in Oregon that are news deserts – or at least extremely arid regions – are expanding rapidly. And considering the scope of these recent large developments, the collapse of Oregon’s newspapers seems to be picking up speed rather than slowing.

Oregonians need news reports to decide how to vote and participate in their communities, and the businesses that have made that possible are dissolving rapidly. This amounts to a real, immediate crisis for the government and society in Oregon, as it does in many other places.

The answers are far from clear.

The Oregon Legislature did devote some attention to the problem last year with House Bill 2605. The proposal would have prompted a study of the situation but it never had a floor vote. Still, that was a good start. Next year, it ought to mark out serious time and attention to figuring out how to help Oregon citizens keep up with the news around them, so the system of self-governance we have had for generations can continue to function.

Corrections: An earlier version of this article misidentified Boone Newsmedia Inc. and misspelled EO Media Group. It also misstated when the Oregon Legislature considered grants for local media. 

This column originally appeared in the Oregon Capital Chronicle.

Easing up on the ideology

Oregon’s highest-profile primary elections did not appear to carry strong messages: Voters sporadically showed what they wanted or didn’t.

But there were exceptions. Two examples in particular, both on the county level in Multnomah and Yamhill counties, were notably clear in demanding a change of direction from what had been endorsed before. The message in both was unmistakable: Extremes in experiments and ideological projects are unwelcome, and what’s wanted is a government that works.

The race for Multnomah County district attorney concerned maybe the most embattled political figure in Oregon so far this decade: Mike Schmidt.

Schmidt had prosecutor and policy experience when he was elected Multnomah DA in 2020 in a landslide. He ran clearly as one of several “reform” big-city prosecutors around the country. On election night that year, he said: “The message from Multnomah County voters was loud and clear: They are ready for major reform in our criminal justice system.”

Problems multiplied fast even before he started and by the time his predecessor resigned. That was the summer of George Floyd demonstrations in Portland, of long-running rioting and vandalism, and in the months to come of increased homelessness and open drug usage in the wake of passage of Initiative 110. Schmidt’s professed approach, moving away from harsh enforcement, became much less popular. Several eventual statements from Schmidt calling for a crackdown on violence and vandalism didn’t land well.

His standing was damaged, too, by accusations of weak management. But the core complaint against Schmidt, reflecting widespread polling in Portland over the last four years, is that public safety conditions needed strong improvement, quickly and decisively.

Schmidt’s opponent this year, Nathan Vasquez, who has been a prosecutor for 25 years, ran with the implicit call for a return to something like what Portlanders grew to expect during the three decades it was run by Mike Schrunk, who made gradual reforms along the way but operated in a mostly quiet and non-controversial but professionally effective, and politically popular way.

The law and order message was so clear that it reached the White House. The website Politico reported, “The defeat of a liberal Portland prosecutor at the hands of a tough-on-crime challenger has hardened a view among top White House officials that Democrats need to further distance themselves from their left flank on law-and-order issues.”

Local Republicans may take notice, too, especially of the areas of Multnomah that voted most strongly for Vasquez, on the east side around Gresham but also in parts of the west Portland area.

A comparable message on competence and professionalism, with a very different background, emerged a few miles to the west in Yamhill County, in a race for county commissioner.

The incumbent was Lindsay Berschauer, a media consultant who was elected to the Yamhill County Commission in 2020. With close ties to the county’s effective Republican organization, she won a four-year term and aligned on the commission, generally, with Mary Starrett, a former Constitution Party candidate for governor in 2006.

Berschauer, now chair of the commission, became contentious enough to become the target of a recall attempt just two years later; she won that by about the same percentage she had in 2020, around 52% to 48%. Berschauer did not adopt a cautious approach, however. She faced more controversy, with culture war issues and the commission’s rejection of a proposed rail to trail project that cost the county $2 million.

An editorial in the McMinnville News-Register said this year, “Berschauer seems to relish being a lightning rod. A professional political consultant by trade, primarily in the Portland metro area, she publicly ripped members of the county staff in her first meeting.”

Her main opponent this year, David “Bubba” King, presented himself as an unaligned and nonpartisan contender, in opposition to ideologically driven anger and roiling local government battles. He engaged in efforts to tamp down some of those activities in his home Newberg area, such as in his local school district, and turned his attention to Berschauer late in 2023.

In a three-person primary race, King fell short by only a handful of votes from winning outright, but Bertschauer’s take of the vote dropped to about 44%. She is likely to fall short in the November runoff.

The result was widely seen as a shift on what a majority of Yamhill’s voters are willing to tolerate. The county is well to the right of Multnomah, but the core message from the voters was similar: Pay attention to the county’s work and put ideology to the side.

If there’s any similarity in attitude around the country this fall, that message could be meaningful in the upcoming general elections.

This column appeared originally in the Oregon Capital Chronicle.

Opting for the familiar

After all the primary campaign season drama this year, most of the Oregon results tended toward the familiar in both parties.

And most races weren’t even close.

On Tuesday, Oregon had two relatively critical Democratic primary contests, in ways important both locally and nationally that  collected plenty of attention in the state and beyond. Both were resolved sharply, by strong margins that reflected the sensibilities of Oregon’s – and the nation’s – Democratic leadership.

In Oregon’s 3rd House District, seven candidates were competing to replace veteran U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, but the race clearly was going to come down to two: state Rep. Maxine Dexter and former Multnomah County Commissioner Susheela Jayapal. Dexter has been a productive legislator working smoothly with Democratic leadership, while Jayapal was perhaps best known as the sister of a member of Congress from Seattle, U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, who is one of the most visible and sometimes controversial progressives in the House.

Dexter got the mass of support from contributors and Democratic-leaning organizations, and her lopsided win – about twice the number of votes Jayapal received – looked like a clear demonstration of Democratic organization clout.

In Oregon’s 5th Congressional District, one of the half-dozen top battleground districts nationally this year, the Democratic nominee from two years ago, Jamie McLeod-Skinner, faced state legislator Janelle Bynum, each seeking to take on first-term Republican incumbent Lori Chavez-DeRemer. McLeod-Skinner only narrowly lost to Chavez-DeRemer last time, and the primary contest was widely described as competitive, with the sole public poll giving Bynum a slight lead.

On election day, Bynum’s lead wasn’t slight at all. In results on Tuesday night, she led McLeod-Skinner in five of the six counties, with only one vote reported in that race in Jefferson County, and that was for McLeod-Skinner. Overall, Bynum led by more than two to one. Some of that probably had to do with negative headlines for McLeod-Skinner in the last few months, and reports that Republican-backed money was supporting her in an effort to elect a weaker candidate in November. But the larger factor may have been a solid weighing-in of the Democratic establishment, from Gov. Tina Kotek on down, on Bynum’s behalf.

If one trend line ran through most of the notable Oregon primary results on Tuesday, it might have been the absence of revolt against the powers that be.

In the top statewide race, for Secretary of State, speculation had run in favor of the well-established Treasurer Tobias Read, who two years ago had experience running for governor. On Tuesday, he drew a stunningly wide lead, winning about 70% of the vote in the Democratic primary over his chief opponent, Democratic state Sen. James Manning. The margin of the Democratic legislator seeking to replace him, state Sen. Elizabeth Steiner, against a candidate who had run for the office twice before, Jeff Gudman, was even larger – 77%.

The familiar and the established mostly did well on the Republican side, too. In the 1st Senate District on the southern Oregon coast, a determined effort to take out incumbent Sen. David Brock Smith fell far short as he received twice the vote of the nearest of his three competitors. In the 2nd Senate District in Josephine and parts of Douglas and Jackson counties, Noah Robinson, the son of incumbent Art Robinson, decisively won the nomination for the seat there. And in the 28th Senate District in Klamath County, Diane Linthicum, the wife of Dennis Linthicum, the incumbent and the Republican secretary of state nominee, was winning easily.

The most striking but not surprising result in the whole state may have been in the 12th House District in rural Lane County, where incumbent Rep. Charlie Conrad, a Dexter Republican who split from his party on a vote concerning abortion and gender care, was getting only about a fifth of the vote against Darin Harbick, a challenger opposing him mainly on that issue.

There, as elsewhere, the message seemed to be: Stick with the party line or it may line up against you.

This column originally appeared in the Oregon Capital Chronicle.


Fill out your ballot

When my Oregon primary election ballot arrived in the mail and I unfolded it, my first thought was: This won’t take long.

My second thought was whether to bother. But that stray idea passed quickly.

My ballot, slight as it is, does matter, and even when it’s not packed with critical inflection points, the decisions on it can have real impact.

I’m in the largest plurality of Oregon voters, those registered as not affiliated with any party. Since a lot of the interest in primary elections concerns choosing party nominees, especially for major parties, I’m a non-participant in a lot of the action this season.

That’s worth noting because 1.1 million Oregonians are in my boat, considerably more than the next-largest group, the Democrats, fewer than a million. Many registrants of the smaller parties have little role this season, either. State law bars all of those people from joining in critical partisan primary contests: You have to be registered with a party to obtain a ballot with those choices.

For unaffiliated voters, a ballot looks like this: Some local government races and some judicial seats, mostly uncontested, and occasionally a ballot issue. In Oregon, the highest-profile of those may be the bond ask for the Portland zoo.

In the case of the uncontested offices featuring only a single name – the norm for most judicial and many local government offices outside the metro areas – a voter can withhold support from a candidate but realistically has little chance of affecting the outcome. For many unaffiliated voters, ballot issues are the main reason to cast a vote at all.

Oregon is one of only nine states to limit primary participation, and citizens here have brought forth a number of proposals to open its primary elections to those not registered with a party.

Still, the group All Oregon Votes, which has backed open primaries in Oregon and filed an initiative proposal for the 2024 general election, said in February, it has “paused work on 2024 Initiative Petition 26 to focus on more promising strategies to enfranchise voters in Oregon.” Those other strategies weren’t specified. The group, which has been trying since 2020 to put a measure on the ballot, has run up against conflicts with state officials over ballot titles, which the group said left the intent of the measure unclear for voters.

Meanwhile, many major party members are seeing slim ballots, too. The presidential nominating process, which often drives primary turnout in presidential years, is effectively done – long before Oregon voters got a chance to weigh in. Only one Republican, Donald Trump, is even on the ballot, and the Democratic contest is just about over as well.

Two congressional districts do have heated primary contests, those being in the 3rd and the 5th districts, both on the Democratic side. The race in the 5th District does have serious national implications, because in the fall it may be among the handful determining whether the Republicans or Democrat will control the U.S. House next term.

And legislative primary contests are sprinkled all over the state. But for many voters, there’s still little there.

So why bother, especially for unaffiliated voters??

In my case, the ballot has several unopposed judicial races and several unopposed local offices – little to debate about there. But the main reason I wasted no time filling out and turning in the ballot was the one race on it which is contested.

This is a battle, a real political knock-down, for one of the three Yamhill County Commission seats. The incumbent seeking re-election is locally controversial enough to have been the subject, a few years back, of a recall attempt. She prevailed then, but not by much, 52.5% to 47.5%, and she hasn’t won office by much more than that.

Many commission races in Yamhill County in recent years have been similarly close. And this season’s contest, in which she has two challengers, may be another. One of those contenders hasn’t been seriously active, but the other has been running a highly energetic campaign, and local conventional wisdom is split on the probable outcome. As in many Oregon counties, the seats are officially non-partisan, but they party they belong to is an open secret.

In theory, it’s a race that could go down to a single vote. I wouldn’t want it to go what I consider to be the wrong way because I failed to vote.

Local Oregon ballots have lots of individual races like that, and they all matter.  So, look closely at your ballot. It may offer more chances to make a difference than you initially think.

This column originally appeared in the Oregon Capital Chronicle.

Few common threads

Republican primary contests this year in many states – Washington and Idaho for two –  have evolved into battles between traditional conservatives and more uncompromising activist and often Trumpist groups.

Oregon is mostly an exception.

The state has no lack of Republican primary contests, five in the state Senate and 10 in the House, with about four times as many House seats are up for election. While some candidates identify themselves along the lines of former President Donald Trump, few do so very explicitly.

The reasons why aren’t clear. The state’s late presidential primary, which will feature only Trump on the Republican side, may have lowered the attention level a little in Oregon at the local level. Maybe, too, Oregon’s nature is more inclined to focus on local concerns and individual personalities.

Oregon’s Republican contests seem at least to have evolved that way.

That holds true for the statewide and ideologically-oriented Republican Unity Caucus PAC, which has become involved in Republican primary contests, one of the few state organizations to do so. Its finances are not massive, with it reporting so far less than $17,000 in either contributions or spending for the primary. It describes itself as “uniting activists and legislators to empower the Freedom Movement in Oregon,” and does not get much more specific from there, freeing it to act in the primaries however seems desirable.

Its most visible activity concerns incumbent Republican Sen. David Brock Smith of Port Orford, who is facing three primary opponents for his southern coastal seat, with logger Todd Vaughn winning RUC backing. The PAC’s blasts at Brock Smith led to cease-and-desist letters from Brock Smith’s attorney with indications that he might sue over what he described as false campaign statements. The complaints against Brock Smith are hard to parse, but seem to argue that he was too supportive of Democratic initiatives and might have been helping a Chinese businessman.

Brock Smith describes himself as a staunch conservative, and RUC leader Ben Edtl said his group is “bound by America First values.” The group’s core complaint against Brock Smith remains unclear.

RUC also weighed in on the Republican primary in House District 51 in Clackamas County. With no Democrats filing, the seat will go to Christine Drazan, who represented the area before resigning when she ran for governor in 2022, or James Hieb, who was appointed to replace her and now is the incumbent. The PAC described Drazan, the Republican governor nominee two years ago, as “supported by special interest groups who want to continue their agenda of socializing housing and health care and continue to undermine election integrity and local democratic control of our school districts.” Hieb, it said, had begun his legislative term similarly but then “he began an assent to fearlessly representing his voters.” The reasons for involvement never get much more specific.

The Unity Caucus seems to be about as large a group as has become involved in the many Republican primaries.

In only one case among the 15 Republican primary contests was a significant policy difference between two candidates clearly central. That is in House District 12 in rural Lane County where incumbent Rep. Charlie Conrad of Dexter faces a challenge by Darin Harbick over Conrad’s  vote in 2023 for a Democratic-backed reproductive health care bill. Conrad went against his party on the bill, which sparked a Republican Senate walkout that lasted for six weeks. Harbick told the Capital Chronicle: “When I found out that my state representative (was) the only Republican in Oregon who voted with the rest of the Democrats on that bill, I was outraged because I do not believe that is what House District 12 represents,” Harbick said. “That was kind of a catalyst that put me into running a primary against Representative Conrad.”

Most of the candidate differences, however, relate more to approach to the job than to policy or even personality differences.

In Senate District 2, which includes Josephine and parts of Douglas and Jackson counties, incumbent Art Robinson was legally barred from running again, so his son Noah Robinson has filed to replace him. He is opposed by current Rep. Christine Goodwin of Canyon City. She told the Capital Chronicle:  “I filed because the threat of another Robinson was frightening to me.” She said the elder Robinson only opposed bills while she said she would compromise, when necessary, to find solutions. The thread of practical legislating against an uncompromising edge runs through several races. In the coastal House District 32, where incumbent Cyrus Javadi of Tillamook is rematched against Glenn Gaither of Seaside, Javadi talks about working across the aisle, while Gaither’s message does have clear echoes of a Trump-like view but in the context of being uncompromising.

At least one other House race is specifically shaped around the background of the incumbent, in this case the longest-serving House Republican, Greg Smith of Heppner in eastern Oregon. Challenger Raymond Akers drew on headlines about Smith’s extensive private-sector but government-related contracts, chronicled by Malheur Enterprise, and said on his Facebook page that “while Greg is out and about telling about all of his corporate endorsements (voters should) hold his feet to the fire (since) you may not see him again for many years.”

On the day after primary election day, Oregon Republicans – and political analysts – may have a hard time drawing any sweeping conclusions about what the party’s voters want. Whatever it is, apart from liking or disliking their incumbents, they won’t have a lot of room to express it on the ballot.

This column originally appeared in the Oregon Capital Chronicle.

What is a state treasurer?

The central campaign issue in Oregon’s Democratic primary contest for state treasurer turns out to be the nature of the job itself.

Maybe that shouldn’t be rare. Probably few voters consider the actual work a president, senator or school board member does when casting their ballots, though we should. In the case of the current Democratic treasurer primary in Oregon, quite a few voters likely will.

That’s partly because of the contrasting backgrounds of the two candidates on the ballot: state Sen. Elizabeth Steiner, a 13-year legislator from Portland, and Jeff Gudman, whose filing describes him as a “financial analyst, controller, treasurer, investor.” You can make an argument that both have parts of the background needed for the job.

The winner will face Republican Brian Boquist, a state senator who cannot serve another term because he participated in a six-week Republican Senate walkout. He’s running unopposed for his party’s nomination.

Treasurer may be the most technical of Oregon’s statewide elected posts, with core tasks that involve investment and bookkeeping. The treasurer oversees $100 billion in state investment, including in the Public Employee Retirement System, PERS.  The job also includes smaller responsibilities, including serving on the state Land Board, managing unclaimed property and some estates. But the essence is in managing that bankroll and  investing it. The more the investment yields, the less needed from taxpayers.

That technical side to the job is candidate Gudman’s calling card. He was a city councilor for Lake Oswego for eight years. But his emphasis on qualification concerns his education and professional background, a finance and management MBA from the Wharton School of Business, and work as a financial analyst for Hyster Company, which makes forklifts and lift trucks, and treasurer for divisions of Northwest Natural Gas. He has also helped run several nonprofits and been an investor for about 30 years.

He has a highly detailed platform relating to how the state invests money, calling for finding ways to invest to help local economic development and shift the entities where the state places money. The link between Gudman’s background and the treasurer’s work is clear.

At the same time, the treasurer’s office is not just money management: It also is political, and legally it is a partisan office. It is second in line of succession to the governor, after the secretary of state, a reasonable factor for voters to bear in mind. And questions of political philosophy do come into play even in finances. Gudman, for example, has said he would scale back the state’s policy of disinvesting in fossil fuel businesses, a shift from the current practice.

Politics is a problem for Gudman. His run for treasurer this year is his third. He lost twice to Democrat Tobias Read, who’s retiring as treasurer, while running as a Republican. He has said that he left the Republican Party, or that it left him, because of philosophical differences. His political background still may make a difference with Democratic primary voters, and it might matter as well in dealings with other Democratic elected officials.

The other candidate and apparent frontrunner, Elizabeth Steiner, doesn’t have that problem. She is well-established within the state’s Democratic Party, and her endorsement list offers an ample demonstration, with backing from many of the leading Democratic state officials, all the Democrats in the congressional delegation and Read, plus many of the usual Democratic support groups.

She is not a finance professional: By occupation, Steiner is a physician. She does have experience as a legislative budget writer and co-chairs the legislative audits committee, but her statements on state money management and investment have been thinner — aside from a general view on smart investing — than Gudman’s.

The counter would be that the treasurer’s office is extensively, and some would argue expensively as well, staffed, with officers who are professionals in finance and investment. The treasurer’s job is more in the area of policy direction and relations with outside organizations, including the Legislature.

In its editorial endorsing Gudman, The Oregonian/OregonLive argued, “We disagree on the importance of political experience for this position. In fact, deep political alliances can be problematic for a treasurer who has a legally binding responsibility to make decisions in the best financial interest of the beneficiaries whose funds are under management.”

Neither perspective should be absolute. Read is actually a mix of the two roles. He has an MBA from the University of Washington and worked as an assistant to the federal Department of the Treasury from 1999 to 2001, though his main private sector experience was mid-level corporate. He also served in the Oregon Legislature for years, developing close political relationships on the way. He’s now a candidate for secretary of state.

Voters in this primary will be faced with an unusually straight-ahead choice: What set of qualifications is most important? That direct consideration of personal backgrounds makes this possibly the most unusual election on the ballot in Oregon this season.

The column originally appeared in the Oregon Capital Chronicle.

(image/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

An official first spouse?

For her own sake as well as the state’s, Gov.Tina Kotek ought to propose the Legislature write into state law rules governing what a governor’s spouse can and must not do.

She could even write the policy as a temporary executive order until the Legislature acts –and pledge to abide by its terms.

She seemed to indicate the need for some structure when on April 3 she asked for guidance from the Oregon Government Ethics Commission. That may yield some useful advice, but it’s likely to be thin since Oregon law and rule barely touch the subject.

Headlines in the last couple of months of turmoil in Kotek’s office, including on Friday, are enough of a warning that guard rails are needed on the role of the first spouse. The experience of her predecessor once removed, John Kitzhaber, different though in key ways, also made that plain.

We give governors leeway in deciding who their advisors will be, and spouses sometimes have a role. It can often be unofficial, but spousal involvement can become uncomfortable, disconcerting and disruptive for staff at times, even when the top executive makes a serious effort to avoid problems. A spouse active in policymaking often can easily outmaneuver even experienced and highly capable staff, including people who may have more valuable expertise.

The same often goes for political campaigns. Political campaign managers who have uneasy relationships with candidate spouses can throw campaigns off balance.

These situations tend to be more the exception than the rule, however. Many spouses, even in the families of many presidents, have little interest in government or elective office and stay clear of them. In a recent collection of Oregon officials’ comments on the subject assembled by Willamette Week, U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden noted that his wife operates her own business and spends much of her time working on it. The other senator, Jeff Merkley, indicated that while he and his wife often  talk about Senate business, she keeps her involvement away from the office.

The spouse story isn’t always negative. State Sen. James Manning of Eugene, now a candidate for secretary of state, recalled that, “When my wife was here – she passed away almost three years ago – she served as my chief of staff in the Senate. I conferred with her all the time. People would stop by to see her and not me.”

In the case of two other recent governors, Kate Brown and Ted Kulongoski, first spouses were active in limited areas – a few environmental and cultural projects, respectively – but not as central actors in the office.

But personnel and budget considerations, among other things, make the meshing of family roles and executive office management a complex subject. The case of Kitzhaber and his fiancée make for a standing red flag and a marker of how those relationships can destroy a governorship that in many other respects would have been considered sound.

That case involved Kitzhaber’s partner, Cylvia Hayes, who, many news reports said, used not only her position as first lady but also state resources and personnel to build her consulting business while maintaining an occasional role in the governor’s office.The combination of those factors, and Kitzhaber’s defense of her, eventually led to both federal and state investigations (though no criminal charges) and the governor’s resignation.

That offers a clear rule: Do not mix state activity with outside interests, especially any of a financial or personally beneficial nature.

The Kotek case differs in that, to this point, no outside involvement or personal enrichment is alleged. At the same time, Aimee Kotek Wilson is clearly more involved in the office. She isn’t paid and doesn’t hold an official state title. But the departure of three senior staffers in the governor’s office has been linked in news reports to Kotek Wilson’s role in the office. And news surfaced last week that her communications director is also leaving.

Is there a way to structure first spouse involvement to minimize those issues while taking advantage of the assets that can bring?

Other states offer limited guidance. Most have no official or formal role at all for the first spouse, even when, as in Florida, North Dakota and elsewhere, they are independently active on issues.

A few provide formal organizational structures.

The California governor’s office publishes an office organization chart, and one side of it falls under the “first partner.” The organization under her includes six state staffers. At least two other states, Pennsylvania and Georgia, list chiefs of staff for first spouses on their websites. Washington state may have something generally similar, on a smaller scale, with one state employee detailed to help with the first lady’s schedule.

Those states all are larger than Oregon, and if Kotek tries to launch a full-scale office for the first spouse, there’ll be blowback – and it could be fierce. A small amount of support from a staffer or two might be more supportable.

What’s more clearly needed is a set of rules around the authority and role a first spouse might assume without becoming a state employee. Given the recent rush of headlines, Kotek might be wise to address that soon.

This column first appeared in the Oregon Capital Chronicle. (image/Oregon Capital Chronicle)