Image for Candidate Betsy Johnson: ‘I’m Alternative to Politics Run Amok’

Describing herself as an “equal opportunity pisser-offer”, independent gubernatorial candidate Betsy Johnson told Willamette Week reporters she would “work like hell to tame the extremes…because we’re governing from the extremes on both sides.”

“I’m not asking anybody to change their party,” she said in a very entertaining interview. “I’m appealing to what I think is an Oregon populism that says we want to get back to being proud of our state.”

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Shemia Fagan bounced Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Nicholas Kristof off the ballot for failing to meet Oregon’s constitutional three-year residency requirement. Kristof grew up in Yamhill and has assumed ownership of his family farm, but Fagan said Kristof voted in New York as recently as 2020, undercutting his claim of Oregon residency. Kristof, who has raised $2.5 million for his candidacy, is appealing Fagan’s decision while continuing to campaign. 

Historic Election Achievement
Claiming to be an alternative to politics run amok, Johnson is seeking to become only the second non-affiliated candidate to win the governorship in Oregon history. She would be the first woman in the nation to achieve that distinction. “What’s different is how many disaffected people there are,” Johnson says. “There are pissed-off Portland Democrats, and there are pissed-off Helix Republicans. And I am of the opinion that there are enough of them that there’s a path.”

With a 20-year legislative record as proof, Johnson doesn’t easily fit into a partisan mold. She self-describes as “pro-choice, pro-gay and pro-civil rights” as well as “pro-gun, fiscally responsible, big on public safety and big on business.” Johnson served as a Democrat and held leadership positions, but she was no stranger to voting with Republicans on high-profile issues.

She likened herself to former Governor Tom McCall who “ran as a Republican, but with that same independent spirit Oregonians are proud of.”

Willamette Week reported Johnson has collected $3 million in campaign cash, tapping into her “golden Rolodex” of business leaders and supporters who admire her hold-no-punches political persona and “clarion call for accountability” on large state expenditures. She mentioned two examples of uncharted outcomes in her interview – the $65 million Project Turnkey expenditure to buy 865 hotel rooms and $50 million to shore up Oregon performance venues hard-hit by the pandemic. 

I’ve been sort of an equal opportunity pisser-offer. It’s because I have voted with my core beliefs.

Part of Johnson’s appeal as a politician is her plainspoken, occasionally profane manner of speaking. It wasn’t uncommon for Johnson to hail a lobbyist in a Capitol hallway with “Look what the wind blew in” – or something saltier. Johnson would say she reflects the working-class Senate district she represented that includes Columbia, Clatsop and Tillamook counties, plus a smidgeon of western Washington and Multnomah counties. Johnson resigned her seat before the 2022 legislative session to devote full-time to her gubernatorial campaign.

Asked about her experience managing a large organization, Johnson said she and her husband own a commercial helicopter company based in Scappoose that has logged, fought fires, erected power lines, assisted movie productions and removed “bad bears” from national parks. In a 2017 Portland Business Journal interview, Johnson said she faced a choice of staying in Portland after graduating from law school to take the bar exam or fly helicopters in Europe and the Soviet Union for the US flying team. “I was gone like that,” she said, “and my mother never forgave me.”

Johnson says her biggest legislative regret is voting for the Student Success Act that imposed a $1 billion per year commercial activity tax. “I voted for it, absent a lot of future, unknowable-at-the-time information. In hindsight, the worst piece was just continuing to provide money without demanding actual reform.”

True to form, Johnson awarded President Biden a failing grade in his first year for not taming COVID or spawning bipartisan cooperation. She also flunked President Trump for being too divisive, though she indicated she supported some of the former chief executive’s policies.

Johnson was kinder (sort of) to Governor Brown. “She’s a very empathetic, affable person. I think she could have used those attributes to draw people together more, but she has abrogated that responsibility. She has presided over an administration that has done it to Oregonians, not with Oregonians.”

Her ’positive’ comment about frontrunning Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tina Kotek: “She has taken the unchecked exercise of power to an art form.” Her comment about Kristof was more of a straight jab: “I don’t disrespect the fact that he’s a fine writer and a Pulitzer Prize winner. But I’ve been immersed in Oregon’s budget for the last 20 years. Mr. Kristof has not, and it is one thing to sit in Manhattan pontificating about problems. It’s another thing to be back here in Oregon trying to fix them.”

Democratic hopeful Nicholas Kristof was booted from the ballot last week after state elections officials determined he failed to meet Oregon’s constitution three-year residency requirement. Kristof is appealing the decision. Photo Credit: Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

Kristof Appeals Ruling

Kristof’s attorneys filed a writ of mandamus asking the Oregon Supreme Court to reverse Fagan’s disqualification of his candidacy. In the writ, Kristof says he has owned property in Oregon since the 1990s, has spent time in Oregon every year and considers himself an Oregonian.

In a public statement, Kristof blasted the decision to disqualify him as political. “A failing political establishment in Oregon has chosen to protect itself, rather than give voters a choice.” “At stake is nothing less than the right of Oregon voters to freely choose their next governor,” Kristof’s lawyers wrote in the brief that accompanied the filing.

Kristof is seeking a speedy hearing, noting he is losing valuable time as a gubernatorial candidate in limbo. The former New York Times columnist promised to continue campaigning around the state.

New Speaker Chosen January 23

House Democrats will vote January 23 to select a successor to Tina Kotek as Speaker before the February 1 start of the 2022 legislative session. Kotek is resigning her House seat and the Speakership to run full-time for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.

Rep. Janelle Bynum, D-Clackamas, has made no secret she will try to succeed Kotek, whom she threatened to challenge before the start of the 2021 legislative session. There may be other candidates seeking the post and a candidate or two in the wings if there is a stalemate in the first round of voting.

Caucus voting on leadership positions isn’t open to the public and lawmakers from both parties tend not to spill the beans on what’s said in the election process. Democrats hold a 37 to 23 advantage in the House, so who caucus members select will be the next Speaker.