The three women running to be Oregon’s next governor sparred over abortion, homelessness, guns and climate change in their first debate on Friday.
Friday’s forum, hosted by the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association at a resort in Welches, was the unofficial start of the general election campaign and the first time Democrat Tina Kotek, Republican Christine Drazan and nonaffiliated candidate Betsy Johnson met on the debate stage. But the three have debated publicly and privately during their past years in the state Legislature.
Kotek, who was the speaker of the Oregon House for nine years, argued that she alone has the experience to solve pressing issues facing Oregon, ranging from homelessness to inflation to addiction.
“No matter what the other candidates say here today, there are no quick fixes,” Kotek said. “There are no miracle cures. Only hard work is going to allow us to ensure that every part of our state can thrive.”
Drazan, the House minority leader from 2019 to 2021, contended that she should be Oregon’s first Republican governor in four decades because the state needs a new direction.
“We have got to choose change,” Drazan said. “Homelessness will not change under these two ladies. Crime will not improve. Our schools will not improve. We need real leadership and real change to hold the Democrats to account.”
And Johnson, a former conservative Democratic state senator from Columbia County who left her party to run for governor, said she’s a choice between the “radical right” Oregonians distrust and the “progressive left” they fear.
“Christine wants to be the first anti-choice governor in Oregon’s history, promising to veto pro-choice policies,” Johnson said. “Tina wants to preserve tent cities and bring the culture wars to your kid’s classroom. She’d have us all woke and broke. While these two keep fighting, I’m going to reject the political extremes and lead Oregon towards common ground.”
Oregonians listed the cost of living and homelessness as their top issues in a January poll, and all three candidates acknowledged homelessness as a crisis.
At least 14,655 Oregonians experienced homelessness on a single night in January 2020, according to the latest available data from the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department department’s annual “point in time” count.
Kotek described her work on Project Turnkey, which launched with $65 million in 2020 to convert unused hotels and motels into emergency housing. It resulted in about 900 new shelter beds in 13 counties before lawmakers added a combined $60 million in 2021 and 2022.
Ending the homelessness crisis will require increased shelter space, more housing and teams that can work with homeless people to get them the resources they need, Kotek said.
“This is complex, and there is not one single way to solve it,” she said. “You need to do all of it. It’s a personal issue on the ground, making sure people who are hurting right now get the services they need to move to a place with a locked door, and then get into permanent housing, and we need more housing.”
Johnson said she supports models like one at the former Wapato Jail in north Portland, a never-used jail that since October 2020 has been a sober living space. People pay $250 monthly for a bed and three meals a day, but they must stay sober.
She said Bend is looking at a similar model in an unused jail, though a Bend city councilor and mayoral candidate, Melanie Kebler, told the Capital Chronicle no such plan is in the works and there isn’t an unused jail. Johnson’s campaign spokeswoman didn’t respond to a request for clarification Friday afternoon.
Drazan said the state’s primary focus on housing and shelters hasn’t solved the problem, and there needs to be more money directed to wraparound services.
“What we have been experiencing in Oregon right now has enabled this problem to spiral out of control,” she said.
Each candidate was in the Legislature during doomed 2019 and 2020 efforts by legislative Democrats to pass climate legislation capping greenhouse gas emissions. After Republican walkouts denying quorums blocked the legislation from moving forward each year, Gov. Kate Brown issued an executive order requiring the state Department of Environmental Quality to develop its own cap-and-trade policy. Cap and trade sets an overall limit on emissions while creating a market to give polluters incentive to reduce them.
As the Democratic leader of the House, Kotek supported the legislation. Drazan led House Republicans to leave the state to block any legislative action. And Johnson, then a Democratic senator, remained in Salem arguing against the bill.
“While Christine was in Reno poolside, I was on the Senate floor standing up to my party fighting that bill,” Johnson said. “It’s a lot harder to be in the building, fighting for a good outcome, than it is to flee the building. That bill was a monstrosity at the end, and it would have crippled rural economies and hurt working people substantially.”
If elected, Drazan said she would repeal Brown’s executive order, and Johnson described it as a “usurpation of the legislative process.” Both said they supported hydropower and maintaining existing dams.
Kotek said Brown’s executive orders on climate should remain in effect.
Both Kotek and Johnson have emphasized their long support for abortion rights since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, while Drazan has carefully described her personal opposition to abortions while not proposing any changes to policy. They maintained those stances during Friday’s debate.
“I am a pro-life woman,” Drazan said. “This issue was in Oregon statute, and I have been very clear that I will abide by the law.”
As governor, she couldn’t singlehandedly change the law – but she could veto legislation or budget line items like the $15 million provided by the Oregon Legislature this year to help abortion providers prepare for increased demand from women in states where abortions are illegal.
Johnson said she stands by Oregon’s abortion laws, but she doesn’t support using state money to pay for abortion services for people from out-of-state.
“I believe Oregon tax money ought to be spent on Oregonians,” she said. “That’s not to say that you turn away a pregnant child or young person from Idaho. Planned Parenthood has sufficient resources to be able to do that without spending Oregon tax money.”
And Kotek, who has been endorsed by Planned Parenthood, said she backs the Oregon abortion laws she helped pass and supports using state resources to maintain access to abortion, even for non-Oregonians.
“We’re in too big of a moment in our country to say no to women who need access to care,” she said.
They also drew distinctions on gun policy, with only Kotek saying she supports a November ballot measure that would require a permit and training before anyone can buy a firearm and would ban assault weapons. Both Drazan and Johnson also opposed gun-control legislation during their time in Salem, though Johnson said she now supports some restrictions.
“When it comes to gun safety legislation and common sense, evidence-based approaches to reduce violence, I’m going to be there every time,” Kotek said.
Johnson, who owns and collects guns, said she believes the minimum age to buy a gun should be raised from 18 to 21 and that the state should institute “really aggressive” background checks, including incorporating information from schools.
“I have the confidence of responsible gun owners that I am exactly the person to broker the conversation that would bring us to even more practical solutions,” she said. “You can’t do it to the rest of Oregon; you’ve got to do it with the rest of Oregon.
Drazan said she sees no need for additional restrictions.
“Oregon’s current laws on the books in this particular category are doing a good job of safeguarding safety in our state right now,” she said.
All three said they would have worked hard to make sure Intel, the state’s largest private employer, opened its next campus in Oregon instead of choosing Ohio.
Kotek said she didn’t know why Intel chose Ohio because she’s not the governor, but that she would make sure as governor to have a personal relationship with the CEO of Intel and other business leaders.
Johnson said she has talked with Intel executives, and said Brown didn’t pay attention to the company’s needs. As governor, Johnson said she would have business leaders on speed dial and constantly ask them what the state could do to help meet their needs.
“Nobody in the governor’s office saw the warning signals or reached out to Intel when the tallest tree in our Silicon Forest headed out the door to Ohio,” she said.
Drazan blamed Oregon’s tax and regulatory policies, saying the state’s high taxes and strict regulations make it difficult for companies to expand.
Along with the tech industry in the so-called Silicon Forest, they discussed Oregon’s declining timber industry. Both Johnson and Drazan grew up in the industry – Johnson’s family owned a successful mill and timber holdings in central Oregon, while Drazan, 20 years younger, saw her father and neighbors lose jobs when mills and plants closed in southern Oregon.
“Natural resources have to be a part of that equation, particularly the timber industry,” Drazan said. “It shouldn’t just be a part of our past. It has to be a part of our present and our future.”
Johnson said as governor she would direct state regulators to help timber companies comply with state laws rather than trying to shut them down.
Kotek said she would work with communities that rely on timber to adjust to changes, including supporting the production of mass-timber projects like the new roof on the Portland airport. Mass-timber consists of boards glued together to create a wood product as strong as steel.
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