Referencing the state of Oregon’s motto, gubernatorial candidate Betsy Johnson has said along the campaign trail that, without party allegiance, she would fly with her own wings. If the unaffiliated Johnson were elected, it would be a historic win for someone to become governor without the backing of a major political party. But how well would she fly?
With less than a month to go until the Nov. 8 election, two state senators from Eugene-Springfield, who worked alongside Johnson for years, say she was known for her bold personality in the Senate, but what that means for Oregonians in the general election varies. It could either mean bringing the state together in a time of political polarization, or it could result in bullying legislators to push an agenda that she hasn’t been forthright with voters on.
And there’s a third possible ending to the Johnson bid for governor: a scenario where the former Democrat ushers in the first Republican governor in decades.
Eugene Weekly reached out to the Johnson campaign for an interview. The campaign communication’s team responded that Johnson was “very busy doing editorial board interviews with objective news sources.”
In 2004, Johnson was elected to the Oregon Senate, representing Scappoose, a seat she held until 2021 when she resigned to focus on her independent bid for governor. One of the few lawmakers who’s served alongside Johnson for her whole Senate career is Sen. Floyd Prozanski of Eugene, appointed to the Senate in 2003 to replace former Sen. Tony Corcoran, who left the seat for a spot on the Employment Appeals Board.
Prozanski says he saw Johnson use intimidation to get her way as vice chair of the Ways and Means Joint Committee, the legislative body whose duties include setting the state budget. He recalls Johnson standing in the way of supporting bills on gun safety, criminal justice reform and the environment.
State Sen. Lee Beyer of Springfield remembers being frustrated with Johnson over HB 2020, a cap and trade bill for which he and other Democrats traveled throughout the state to hold town halls that ended up going nowhere when Republicans, led by then-Republican House Minority Leader Christine Drazan, fled the state to rob the Legislature of a quorum.
But Beyer, who retires from the Senate in December, says he respects her nonetheless. He and Johnson haven’t always agreed on policy, but that he’s always appreciated her work ethic and how much she cares about the state. Beyer says that he saw Johnson work well with opposing views when she was co-chair of the Ways and Means Joint Committee, and she even helped Beyer fund mental health programs.
“You know exactly where Betsy stands at any time. She says exactly what she’s thinking about,” Beyer says.
Prozanski disagrees, saying that through her polished 30-second TV ads, Johnson’s campaign has painted a candidate who doesn’t match her voting record.
He points to a recent ad where she says she would support an age requirement on purchasing semi automatic weapons. But he says throughout her Senate career, she opposed many gun safety bills, some of which include expanding background checks and the red flag law where law enforcement removes weapons if the owner has shown they could be a danger to themselves or to others.
And Prozanski says she holds outdated views on criminal justice reform. “She’s willing to stick with positions that are not supported by science,” he says.
Prozanski, whose day job is working as a prosecutor and whose sister was murdered by a boyfriend with a firearm, says Johnson has supported building prisons rather than pursuing evidence-based criminal reform policies that the Legislature has passed in recent years.
“These are things that she has demonstrated over and over again that she’s into retribution in the criminal justice system and not into reformative forms of justice,” he says.
Beyer is the only Democrat in the Legislature to back Johnson for governor and was an early supporter. His political committee, Friends of Lee Beyer, contributed $1,000 to Johnson in November 2021.
Of the three candidates, Beyer says Johnson is more likely to challenge Portland’s role in holding power in the capitol and bring the two parties together. “She’s the only one who can bridge this great divide,” he says. “She will take the best ideas of both and cause them both to work together. Whether she can be successful with that? I don’t know.”
Johnson’s campaign made headlines early in the gubernatorial campaign trail for her large sums of contributions from individual donors. She’s raised nearly $17 million since 2021, with her average contribution $5,623 — more than Tina Kotek’s $2,365 and Christine Drazan’s $3,953. Average contributions are used as a way to gauge how much grassroots support a candidate has.
Johnson’s largest contributors include $663,000 from Tim Boyle of Columbia Sportswear, $750,000 from The Papé Group construction company, and $500,683 from Sierra Pacific Industries lumber company. But her biggest contributor is Phil Knight of Nike, who has given her $3.75 million.
Johnson’s large sums of money that she’s received from Oregon’s wealthy indicates how close she is to them from her time as vice chair of the Ways and Means Joint Committee. “She’s been able to help deliver and take positions that have been favorable to Nike,” Prozanski says. As the gubernatorial campaign continues, he says he expects more people to contribute because she can keep Kotek out of the governor’s office.
Eugene-based Rachel Bitecofer co-founded the pro-Democratic Party Strike PAC but left the organization in April 2022 to work as a political strategist for Democrats. Johnson has more endorsements from Republican politicians than Democrats, but Bitecofer says that doesn’t mean that she’ll be popular with Republican voters. “Republicans won’t vote for a fucking Democrat,” she says.
Republican voters are more tribal, meaning they’ll remain in-step with their political party, she says. Whatever support Johnson gets on Election Day will more than likely come from Democratic Party voters who think Johnson is a centric candidate, rather than Republican voters or even unaffiliated voters.
And published poll data suggests Johnson is siphoning Democrat voters. An Oct. 4 poll by Emerson College shows Drazan with 36 percent of the vote, Kotek 34 percent and Johnson with 19 percent. A breakdown of the poll shows that of those who say they would vote for Johnson if the election were today, 17 percent were Democrats, 8 percent Republicans and 28.6 percent registered in another party.
“If Democrats do not vote at 90 percent for Kotek like Republicans will ultimately do for Drazan, that is going to make that floor attainable for Drazan,” Bitecofer says.
Beyer says he thinks unaffiliated voters, the largest bloc of voters in Oregon but the one with the lowest turnout, will support Johnson. And there will be support from Republicans who are aligned with the old school Tom McCall- and Mark Hatfield-era party. Johnson, he adds, is similar to former Washington state Gov. Dixy Lee Ray, known for adversarial relationships with her fellow Democrats.
Prozanski, though, is unsure about comparing Johnson to Ray, instead remarking that she’s no Gov. Ann Richards, the most recent Democratic Texas governor from 1991 to 1995 known for her work in reforming many of the state’s programs. If Johnson is elected, he says that he imagines that she would frequently exercise executive orders or stand in the way of legislation that she doesn’t approve of.
“It’s her way or hit the highway,” Prozanski says. “She makes no qualms. She’s not a facilitator of bringing people together to have open, broad discussions. She has a plan and she’s going to implement it, and she’s going to step on the air hose whenever she’s not in control or doesn’t like something.”