Casey Kulla, 42, walks around his Yamhill farm while speaking with Eugene Weekly on his cell phone about why he’s running for governor. In the past, the 100-acre farm has yielded veggies for CSA subscribers and cannabis, but it’s on hiatus now as he runs for governor.
Named Oakhill Organics, the farm is owned and operated by Kulla and his wife, Katie. And it’s not too far from fellow Yamhill resident and gubernatorial candidate Nicholas Kristof’s farm.
Kulla is a hopeful for the Democratic nomination. He’s running in a primary featuring two high-level state politicians, as well as the former New York Times columnist who’s raised millions of dollars. But Kulla says his experience as a progressive county commissioner in a conservative area has provided him with the ability to lead and govern a state with an urban-rural divide and many issues, from the pandemic to climate change.
In 2018, Kulla was elected to the Yamhill County Board of Commissioners, receiving 55 percent of the vote and defeating a conservative incumbent. The Yamhill board has three nonpartisan county commissioner seats, though two of them are filled by conservatives. Those commissioners have received funding from right-leaning groups such as Timber Unity Political Action Committee and the Oregon Right to Life PAC.
Boards of county commissioners in Oregon also operate as the governing bodies of public health agencies, so Kulla says he’s been on the frontline public health agency for Yamhill County residents during the pandemic. He says during his time on the board, he’s had to defend masks and vaccines, especially as the other commissioners have been skeptical about social distancing measures.
“Every day is a day where I have to provide timely information to a community who may not want to hear it,” Kulla says. “We live and breathe this science regardless of urban-rural Oregon. Some of the most amazing moments in response to COVID have been from listening to rural judges and commissioners, who say, ‘I may not agree with this, but I’m a team player and we have to be on the same team right now.’”
When speaking with Yamhill residents about COVID-19 policies, Kulla says he tells them that the government never should have gotten to the point where a vaccine mandate is required. But it got there because of the increasing COVID rate. He points to fall 2021, when COVID-19 infections increased to the level where Yamhill County sent its morgue trailer to southern Oregon, he says.
“A vaccine mandate, like other mandates, is an emergency measure, and it should be used just for emergencies” he says. “We saw that coming into the fall that case counts were out of control — that was an emergency time.”
Kulla says he agrees with Gov. Kate Brown’s COVID-19 measures, though he says she fell short in a few ways. One was that she didn’t incorporate feedback from residents into her policies, despite meeting with rural residents, and the second was a lack of communication, which he says is the second-most important aspect of public health.
If elected governor, he says he’d share more of the science behind his decision making. “When we’re talking about the best available science, really lay it out,” he says. “You’re welcome to challenge that science, but this is the science we’re using for these decisions.”
As a Yamhill County commissioner, Kulla says he advocated for House Bill 2020, the cap and trade bill that suffered a defeat in the Legislature after Republicans had walkouts in 2019. “I was one of the few county commissioners who advocated for the bill knowing that it was an imperfect bill, but also knowing that it was one of our last best chances to address climate change meaningfully and effectively at the state level,” he says.
Brown did enact an executive order that aims to curb greenhouse gas emissions in the state, but Kulla says effective action is where the Legislature works with the governor’s office to do something that brings everyone together. “If we can connect a carbon bill with wildfire reduction/mitigation safety issues, if we can connect a climate bill to water systems upgrades for communities,” he says, “these big things that allow people to say, ‘Hey my life is better,’ rather than ‘I’m making a sacrifice.’”
He adds that lawmakers can’t just work to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. They also have to adopt climate resiliency and protect the community.
Before he and his wife started a farm 15 years ago, he earned a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and a master’s in forest ecology. His grassroots campaign for the governor’s office comes at a time when his Democratic gubernatorial opponents are raising millions of dollars, according to the Oregon secretary of state’s OreStar reports: House Speaker Tina Kotek, $813,757; Treasurer Tobias Read, $720,298; and Kristof, $2.45 million.
According to OreStar, Kulla has raised about $80,619, which includes cash and in-kind donations (T-shirts and business cards). He used some of his campaign money to support recall elections against Newberg School District Board Chair Dave Brown and Vice Chair Brian Shannon, both of whom worked to pass a controversial ban on political symbols in schools and abruptly fired the district superintendent. Newberg is located in Yamhill County.
But Kulla says he’s still running for governor, despite the presence of the high profile candidates in the primary race, because he’s concerned about the possibility of a Republican governor being elected in 2022. He adds that he’s worried about the state of democracy after the Dec. 21, 2020, Oregon Capitol attack, the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, and with residents living in about two-thirds of the state’s geography wanting to join Idaho.
Kulla says the state faces huge issues ahead and creating effective policy doesn’t mean signing executive orders or legislation pushed through with one-party support in the Legislature. It’ll take policies everyone can get behind, and he says his experience as a county commissioner in a “purple” county could help him bring Oregonians together.
“Being in the position where I work on issues with people all the time who I don’t always agree with about values or politics, I felt like it’s time to bring that to the state level,” Kulla says. “I’m a progressive in a rural area who has to work with other people, and that’s the model we need going forward in the state.”