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Top 3 Oregon gubernatorial candidates Drazan, Kotek and Johnson meet for first debate

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — The three leading candidates in Oregon's gubernatorial race on Friday used the first debate of the campaign as an opportunity to define themselves, but also to throw some early sharp criticism at their opponents.

The Statesman Journal reports that over the 90-minute debate, candidates answered questions from a panel of newspaper editors during a meeting of the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association in Welches, near Portland.

Former House Speaker Tina Kotek is the Democratic nominee. Former House Republican Leader Christine Drazan is the Republican nominee. Former state Sen. Betsy Johnson is running as a nonaffiliated candidate and is working to gather more than 23,000 voter signatures to make the November ballot.

Drazan and Johnson largely pitched themselves as “change” candidates who would bring a different perspective to a governor’s office that has been held by Democrats since 1987, Drazan by being a balance on Democratic control and ideas, and Johnson by rejecting both parties, which she said have become “too extreme.”

Kotek promoted herself as the most experienced candidate who knows what needs to be fixed and has the track record proving her ability to get things done.

Each candidate was also given an opportunity to ask one other candidate a question: Johnson to Kotek, Drazan to Johnson and Kotek to Drazan.

Johnson asked: “Without saying the phrase 10-year-plan or 5-year-plan, what would you do in the first year of getting elected governor to end tent cities and why hasn’t it happened already?”

Kotek responded by saying her immediate actions would be to send more outreach teams onto the streets to build relationships with homeless people and get them into shelters with an eye toward eventual permanency. However, this plan would also require additional shelter space, navigation centers and mental health and addiction services statewide, she said.

“I’ve worked hard to get shelters funded and build new shelters and make sure people can move from tents to shelters to permanency and get the services they need, and we need more of that,” Kotek said.

Drazan asked Johnson: “You voted for the corporate activity tax. Since that time you have been very public about the fact that you regret that vote, you wish you hadn’t taken that vote. What I would like to know is: Did you not know at that moment to vote ‘no?’” Why did you vote yes?”

Johnson responded by saying lawmakers have failed to apply sufficient oversight of spending in the state, including of the Student Success Act, which the corporate activity tax funded (both were passed in 2019). She said the legislation that led to the tax was rushed and not thoroughly debated in public.

“In the end, my belief that we needed to have more money in education was substantiated by my vote,” Johnson said. “As governor, I would work to modify the punitive effects of the corporate activity tax."

Lastly, Kotek asked Drazan: “You’ve been asked many, many times about the 2020 election and each time you’ve pivoted when asked. You’ve never directly answered the question, as far as I know, you have never publicly said that Donald Trump lost the presidency in the national election. Not just in Oregon, but nationally. So, will you say today that the results of the national election in 2020 were legitimate and that Donald Trump lost?”

“As it relates to the 2020 election, there has never been an issue for that with me. Donald Trump did not win. Joe Biden did. He is our president,” Drazan said.

Drazan also responded by saying that she is focused on Oregon and is not running for a federal elected position.

Earlier, on forest and timber issues, Kotek said, “My commitment is to listen, to learn and to work collaboratively to solve problems.” Drazan called for increased timber harvests: “You can manage those forests faithfully, or you can watch it burn.” Johnson also called for more thinning and prescriptive burning “so we don’t have a conflagration every year.”

On the hot-button issue of the growing ranks of homeless living on the streets, Kotek said her five-point plan includes more organized street response teams. Johnson said she’s been part of the group that revived the never-opened Wapato Jail as “a place of healing and hope” but that firm rules are key – “If you drink or use drugs, you’re kicked out, and you have to contribute to your own room and board by working.” She also said the "silos" and endless arguments about what method is best need to end.

Drazan spoke of a program she’d backed to improve assistance for homeless youth and said “homelessness must be temporary and not chronic.”

When the “Greater Idaho” movement was raised, Johnson vowed, “I will be a governor who knows there’s an Oregon east of Bend and south of Eugene.” Drazan said the rural-urban divide took time to develop and “we need to be a unified Oregon.” Kotek said, “The next governor needs to be a listener and spend a lot of time out of Salem.”

Johnson at this point asked for time to accuse Kotek of exacerbating the rural-urban divide with a social media post that said someone at one of her rallies flew a divisive Confederate flag.

“She is suggesting that because someone was at one of my rallies with a Confederate flag that rural Oregonians are racist and that you have to be racist to support my campaign. That is anything but the truth. That exacerbates the divide … Somehow to imply that racists are attending my rallies just drives home the point that urban Oregonians don’t respect rural Oregonians.”

“I’m glad you read my press releases,” Kotek responded. “The issue there is that when people go to work with people running for office that they feel included. And a Confederate flag is seen in communities as a racist symbol, and it is not inclusive.”

When the topic turned to mental health issues, Drazan called it "ironic to hear my opponents say how terrible this is, that is," when Democrats have had a firm grasp on the state's levers of power for a long time.

"And they’re looking around, saying,’ Everything’s broken, we’ve got to fix it.’ If they could have fixed it, if they had known how to fix it, they would have done it. We are here because of them. We need change.”

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Barney Lerten

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