Each tried to stake out being the only choice for the better, but no one was interrupted
BEND, Ore. (KTVZ) – The three top candidates to be Oregon’s next governor sparred over a wide array of issues during an over 90-minute debate Tuesday evening at OSU-Cascades, often critical of (but never interrupting) each other over the best path forward on challenges ranging from homelessness to healing the urban-rural divide.
It wasn’t their first (or last) debate, but amid a unique three-way race that some analysts rate a toss-up, the three former lawmakers’ differences came into sharper focus: Republican Christine Drazan portraying herself as a needed break from the Democrats’ damaging status quo, Democrat Tina Kotek taking issue with some of outgoing Gov. Kate Brown’s decisions but vowing to stay the course on others, and unaffiliated maverick Betsy Johnson saying she’s beholden to no party or agenda, only to Oregonians.
The debate was co-hosted by OSU-Cascades, where it was held at Tykeson Hall, KTVZ, which aired and livestreamed it, and the City Club of Central Oregon.
In her opening statement, Johnson said that “Oregon is going in the wrong direction, and the two political extremes represented by my opponents just want to keep fighting with each other." Kotek pointed to examples of success on tough issues like homelessness, such as the Central Oregon Veterans Village, while Drazan said: “I have one simply question: Are you happy with the way things are going?”
Moderator Cathy Marshall presented a series of questions offered by viewers and others, one on Measure 114, the gun legislation on the Nov. ballot, touching on Wednesday marking one month since the tragic shooting at Bend’s Eastside Safeway.
Kotek said she endorsed the measure and is the only one of the three “fighting for common-sense measures” such as expanded background checks and the Red Flag Law. Drazan said as a Second Amendment supporter, she believes Oregon already has some of the strongest, most restrictive gun-control measures but that “more gun laws will not prevent every single tragedy from happening.”
Johnson said her opposition to Measure 114 includes the undue burden it will be put on police departments with no funding mechanism for processing permits. She said the measure has an “interesting Catch-22,” and may require taking a gun to a shooting range before you can qualify for a permit to buy it. She does support raising the minimum age for buying some guns from 18 to 21.
On the homeless issue and danger of illegal homeless camps in forested areas near homes, Drazan said she will declare a homeless emergency but wants to hold people accountable. “This is a solvable problem,” she said. “Homelessness can be rare. It should not be viewed as chronic.”
Johnson claimed to be “the only one on this stage doing something about the homeless,” helping turn an unused jail in the Portland area into “a place of redemption, hope and healing.” She also said she’ll work hard to repeal Measure 110, which removed penalties for small amount of some drugs in exchange for funding more substance abuse and mental health programs.
Drazan said her two opponents “voted to enable Measure 110” but are “now regretting that vote. All along, it was a terrible idea.” Kotel said Gov. Brown was “absent” when it came time to press for quicker follow-through on the treatment side of Measure 110.
The need for more and more affordable housing prompted Johnson to say it’s a “supply crisis” and that “we’re better at pitching tents than pulling permits.” She said the 50-year-old state land use laws need updating with a “serious look at what land to bring into cities, without damaging forest or farmland,” and to “remove a lot of burdensome regulations.”
Kotek talked of the workforce training issues to make sure there are enough people who can build the needed housing. Johnson said the state needs to do better at providing “what builders say they need,” rather than “tax after tax” and regulation.
Kotek said lawmakers faced opposition when trying to keep people from being evicted during the pandemic, but Johnson said “somebody needs to stand up for landlords with tenants who go two years without paying rent.” Drazan said “this eviction moratorium went on and on and on,” and that funds to help landlords were delayed due to a “failed level of accountability.”
Another question turned to an inevitable topic: Gov. Brown’s response to COVID-19. Each were asked to assign a letter grade and what they’d do, faced with a similar crisis.
Kotek said she’d assign a grade to her fellow candidates instead, saying “they were not responsible” in their opposition to the eviction moratorium and efforts to streamline unemployment benefits.
Drazan gave Brown a grade of F, “not specifically for the health response, but what she did to our children.” As a mother of three, she said “the groups that took the greatest hits were our kids,” as evident in a drop in test scores and other issues: “It is unconscionable where we are right now,” she said.
Johnson also gave Brown an F grade, for much the same reason: “The worst single thing she did was to shut down our schools.” Kotek acknowledged, “I wish our schools had not been closed as long as they were. … We can politicize this all we want, but our children need our help now.”
Drazan claimed, “There were opportunities to not only encourage the governor to be better, but require it.” Johnson countered, “There was never a bill that asked that question without politics. … Neither of us voted to keep schools closed.”
Asked what can be down to support hospitals, Drazan soon shifted to the overall public health issue.
“The governor led with fear,” she claimed. “That was her go-to, that little kids were going to harm grandma. I would lead with facts, not fear.” And Johnson said, “Tina managed to put so many strings on that money (to help hospitals), including new labor requirements, so hospitals paid traveling nurses far more than in-house staff, hurting morale. “That is unconscionable,” she said.
But Kotek said she “supported people on the ground doing the work, not CEOs. Johnson, who said more than once she would not be beholden to unions (teachers or nurses, etc.), said, “We polarized this debate, at a time of great crisis.”
Drazan said, “We need balance,” and that “choosing winners and losers throughout this process just harms Oregonians in the end,” later adding, “We cannot erode the hospital system itself and just act like they’ll have places to work. It’s just not realistic.”
On the topic of lower student test scores, Johnson said standards need to be raised, not lowered, and schools need to go back to “focusing on core competencies. We have turned them into political Petri dishes, to the detriment of our kids. We should all be embarrassed. … I would not let the teacher unions run the schools.”
Kotek agreed that the test scores were “unacceptable” but called it “not terribly surprising, how hard the last few years have been.” She said the Student Success Act is putting $1 billion a year in what schools and students need.”
Drazan said Kotek as house speaker opposed legislation “to fully fund our schools.” Johnson in her rebuttal said she didn’t believe lawmakers “established adequate accountabilities" for that money and said the measure had “too much tax, too little PERS reform.”
Drazan, in some of her sharpest words of the night, said, "Tina Kotek threw my kid under the bus. She threw your kids under the bus. She picked winners and losers. And the losers were our kids. She is the wrong person to put in charge of turning our schools around. She didn't care for 10 years. She doesn't care now.
All three voiced words of support for a strong focus on higher education, including community colleges. Johnson said, “We haver got to have the institutions stop cannibalizing each other. Each university can’t be all things to all people. Last but not least, not every kid needs a four-year college degree.”
On an even more hot-button issue – abortion – the candidates were asked, “When do you think life begins?”
Drazan said she’s “never shied away from pro-life values” and called Oregon’s law some “of the most extreme in the nation, where you can pursue an ‘elective abortion’ up to the day before birth.” But she also vowed to “uphold the law,” while “my opponents want to distract and divide. This is a lightning-rod issue for Oregonians. We need change in our state.”
Johnson said she’s "unapologetically pro-choice. I am not a doctor and am not about to opine on the moment of conception.” And Kotek said the state’s laws aren’t extreme but “where our values are. The next governor has to make sure to stay the course.”
“When (Drazan) says, ‘I’ll just follow the law,’ a governor can do a lot of damage even if there’s a law on the books: stopping agencies, not being a champion, not moving resources to help Oregonians," Kotek said. "So you cannot trust that statement.”
Returning to Measure 110, Johnson said she would actively work to repeal it after what she calls “a disingenuous campaign” that got it a majority of voters’ support. If the Legislature does not refer it back to voters, “I would lead the charge to gather signatures to put it to voters again.”
Kotek said the goal of “a better way than throwing (drug abusers) in jail” is still worth pursuing. “I’m not going to throw in the towel,” she said, acknowledging that Brown was “absent on getting these dollars out.” Drazan said “people are dying” because of the measure, which is “enabling continued use of illegal drugs in open spaces. Eighteen percent of all Oregonians 12 and up are addicted to a substance. It’s shocking, People are dying because we passed misguided legislation. … Our social fabric is fraying because of Measure 110.”
Johnson said $800 million has been distributed :with two little accountability.” But Kotek said: “We have an epidemic, and we’re going to spend time repealing it? We can talk about (changes). We can walk and chew gum at the same time.” Drazan said, “This a perfect example of why we need change.”
A question on climate change, drought and wildfires also brought expected differences, with Johnson saying “we need to hit fires faster and smaller. .. Let’s put these things out before they become mega-fires.” She also said Brown could not get “draconian cap and trade” past lawmakers so it’s being “baked into the rules. We need practical solutions, not Portland solutions that come on the backs of rural Oregonians and rural economies.”
On wager issues, Drazan said Kotek “held drought funding hostage” until a special session on another issue. Johnson said “I believe the best solutions come locally” and gave an example in Umatilla County. Kotek agreed with Johnson that “the state has to be more collaborative.”
On the urban-rural differences that have led to the Greater Idaho movement, Johnson mentioned a joke on the acronym PGE standing instead of Portland General Electric, for “Portland Gets Everything.” She said many rural residents are angry and feel disrespected and ignored. An independent governor could bring an opportunity for all to be at the table and seek practical, implementable solutions, not the minority telling the majority what to do.”
Kotek also said she wants to be a governor for all of the state, meaning spending “a lot of time listening and a lot of time outside Salem.” Drazan said she’s a “small-town girl from Klamath Falls" and that Bend has shown how a community can be re-imagined but that other rural communities across the state “have been left struggling.”