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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.

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