Image for Johnson, Kristof Offer Voters Unconventional Choices for Governor

The open 2022 Oregon gubernatorial race took a turn toward unconventional as Democratic Senator Betsy Johnson announced her candidacy as an independent and Nicholas Kristof resigned as a New York Times columnist to run as a Democrat.

Johnson unconventionally announced her candidacy in an email: “Having to choose between another left-wing liberal promising more of the same or a right-wing Trump apologist is no choice at all. Oregonians deserve better than the excesses and nonsense of the extreme left and radical right. That’s why I have decided to run for governor as an independent leader unaffiliated with any party and loyal only to the people of Oregon.”

Kristof previously signaled his interest in running, but the Times now reports the award-winning columnist who grew up in Yamhill has resigned. Kristof has formed an exploratory committee, but stopped short of officially declared his candidacy. If he decides to run, he will join House Speaker Tina Kotek, Treasurer Tobias Read and Yamhill County Commissioner Casey Kulla in the Democratic primary.

Republicans running include Dr. Bud Pierce, Sandy Mayor Stan Pulliam, Ashland businesswoman Jessica Gomez, Baker City Mayor Kerry McQuisten and political consultant Bridget Barton. Pierce won the GOP primary in 2018 and lost to Governor Brown.

Adding the blunt-speaking Johnson and Kristof, a gifted writer, to the mix should make the campaign more quotable – and possibly more competitive. 

Oregon is a closed primary state, which makes it difficult for an independent to gain early traction with voters. The only independent to win an Oregon gubernatorial election was Julius Meier in 1930. The son of one of the founders of the Meier & Frank department store, Meier campaigned on an anti-corruption platform and in favor of public power. During his term, Meier established the post-Prohibition Oregon Liquor Control Commission and the Oregon State Police, but chose not to seek re-election.

Johnson grew up in Bend in a wealthy, political family. Her father served in the legislature as a Republican and her mother served on multiple state education boards. Johnson earned her law degree in 1977, became a licensed commercial pilot and launched a helicopter business in Scappoose. In 1993, Johnson was named manager of the Aeronautics Division of the Oregon Department of Transportation, requiring her to transfer ownership of her helicopter company to her husband, John Helm. Later, Johnson lobbied for the Oregon Pilots Association.

Johnson ran successfully for the legislature in 2000 as a Democrat, representing a House district on the South Coast. In 2002, she switched districts and won a House seat representing the North Coast. After her landslide re-election in 2004, Johnson was appointed to fill a vacant Senate seat, which she has held in elections since then. She was re-elected in 2018 with more than 84 percent of the vote.

Johnson defies partisan description. In her announcement email, she described herself as an “independent-minded, pro-choice, pro-jobs Democrat” and a “no-nonsense leader with the backbone and life experience to tame the partisan excesses and the humility to know that delivering results matters more than who gets credit”. That was her way of explaining that she doesn’t always vote with the Democratic majority in the Senate on issues such as gun rights and environmental legislation.

To get on the November general election ballot as an unaffiliated political candidate, Johnson must obtain approval for a nominating petition, then gather signatures equaling or exceeding 1 percent of the total vote for presidential candidates in the 2020 election, which comes out to 23,750 valid signatures. Johnson says she will start her campaign next year.

Kristof’s timeline is less certain. He formed a political action committee last week, but he hasn’t officially declared as a candidate. Kristof and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, moved back to his family’s sheep and cherry farm several years ago and are converting it into a vineyard and cider orchard.

The winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, Kristof has been a reporter and columnist for 37 years or, as he described it, contracting malaria, surviving a plane crash in Congo and persisting despite numerous arrests for “committing journalism”. He is well known and respected by most of the 8 million Times readers. Most of them, however, aren’t Oregon residents.

Johnson and Kristof will have access to big-money donors to build name familiarity and mount competitive campaigns. Neither are household words in Oregon and will need to attract attention by drawing contrasts – Kristof with fellow Democrats and Johnson with everybody else in the race. Both offer something very different in political style than traditional Oregon politicians of either major party.

The last celebrity gubernatorial candidate, Chris Dudley, who played for the Portland Trail Blazers, ran a well-financed, credible campaign in 2010 that came up short against John Kitzhaber by less than 2 percentage points. Dudley carried virtually the entire state except for the Portland metropolitan area, the southern Willamette Valley and parts of the Oregon Coast.

Johnson and Kristof will have access to big-money donors to build name familiarity and mount competitive campaigns. Both offer something very different in political style than traditional Oregon politicians of either major party.

So far in the 2022 race, the Democratic and Republican primary campaigns have been low-key and focused primarily on fundraising and hiring staff. Republicans have directed their attacks at Governor Brown, who is term-limited and not running. Kotek intends to remain Speaker through the 2021 short legislative session following an acrid special session to approve redistricting. Read has issued a few policy statements about COVID vaccination and confronting climate change. Kulla touts his credentials as a farmer who grows organic vegetables, seasonal fruits and OLCC-licensed cannabis.

The governor’s race will get some competition for attention as non-incumbents run for Oregon’s new 6th congressional seat. Rep. Andrea Salinas, D-Lake Oswego, who chaired the House committee that drew the map for the new district, has announced her intention to seek the seat. Former Multnomah County Commissioner Loretta Smith, also a Democrat, declared her interest in running for Congress before the congressional district map was approved. As drawn, the seat has an edge in Democratic registration.

Former GOP officials have filed a legal challenge to the new congressional redistricting, which alleges among other things that “Democrat-aligned special interest groups” drew the map with the intent to help Salinas win a seat in Congress. That challenge is pending before the Marion County Circuit Court.