DEXTER– Oregon’s leading anti-abortion political advocacy organization and a small group of Lane County Republicans gathered on the banks of the Dexter Reservoir on Wednesday, vowing to do everything they could to make sure the area’s first-term Republican state representative loses his job in 2024.
Rep. Charlie Conrad, R-Dexter, has become a top target for Oregon Right to Life, the Oregon Firearms Federation and other right-wing groups over his vote for a bill intended to guarantee access to abortion and gender-affirming care. For some voters, Conrad’s decision to support House Bill 2002 after researching and learning more about transgender youth served as a welcome sign of a possible return to a less polarized politics, and some community members and elected leaders interviewed by the Capital Chronicle on Wednesday described the freshman representative as a good listener and a strong advocate for rural issues.
But others have seen his endorsement of the bill, which passed, as a betrayal: Within minutes of his vote on the House floor, Conrad said he began receiving emails calling him a traitor, shameful, a pedophile.
A Wednesday press conference for the newly formed political action committee opposing Conrad garnered 11 people, including at least two Oregon Right to Life employees and a Springfield woman who doesn’t live in the district. Lois Anderson, executive director of Oregon Right to Life, said the organization will use every tool it has to ensure Conrad’s defeat.
“That starts with an already ongoing paid door-to-door and phone campaign to notify every Republican primary voter of Representative Conrad’s deadly record,” she said. “Republican state senators gave up their jobs in an effort to retain the rights of parents and to protect minors from the abortion industry. We believe that the people of House District 12 will ensure that Charlie Conrad gives up his job for trying to endanger them.”
Republican senators stalled the Legislature for six weeks with a walkout over a few bills, including House Bill 2002. Anderson declined to say how much Oregon Right to Life plans to spend targeting Conrad. A political action committee formed last week to support the effort hasn’t yet reported any transactions.
In May, the Lane County Republican Party approved a resolution withdrawing all support for Conrad and asking him to resign. The Washington County Republican Party, far outside his district, called on the state Republican Party and the House Republican caucus to deny any financial or volunteer support for Conrad and bar him from attending caucus meetings.
At a coffee shop in nearby Lowell on Wednesday, Conrad said he doesn’t know whether to expect campaign help from fellow Republicans. He deeply respects House Minority Leader Vikki Breese-Iverson, R-Prineville, and other caucus members, he said, and he made sure to give Breese-Iverson plenty of warning about how he would vote.
“Part of the reason why I respect them is because they represent their districts, and I would never ask them to sacrifice their political career and their ability to really represent their districts as they should be represented to support me,” Conrad said. “So we’ll see the conversations that happen, but at this point in time, I don’t plan on jeopardizing anybody else. It was my vote, and I think I represented my district.”
Electorate closely split
House District 12, a sprawling district that stretches south and east from the outskirts of Eugene through several small rural communities, is closely split among non-affiliated voters, Republicans and Democrats. As of June, non-affiliated voters made up about 33% of the district’s voters, followed by Republicans with 31% and Democrats with 29%.
But only registered Republicans will be able to vote in the May 2023 primary. One of Conrad’s constituents, Dorena resident Walt Bernard, said he’d consider changing his registration to Republican if that’s what it took to re-elect Conrad.
Bernard is one of the leaders of an effort to establish a fire district in the Row River Valley, an area now served by fire and ambulance services in Cottage Grove nearly 30 minutes away. Bernard first met Conrad last fall when he was a representative-elect and said Conrad has helped him get in touch with other state elected officials and connect with law enforcement and fire officials who helped supporters of a Row River Valley Fire District get off the ground.
“If (Conrad’s) the one that’s kind of under threat, I might move my affiliation to Republican so that I could vote for him in the primary,” Bernard said. “And it would be the same way for a Democrat,” he added, citing Democratic Sen. Floyd Prozanski of Eugene, who represented the area before redistricting in 2022.
Nicole De Graff, an anti-vaccine advocate who Conrad beat by 99 votes in last year’s Republican primary, said she doesn’t plan to run again but has met with a potential challenger. She declined to name that person.
“It was clear from day one that he doesn’t care what his constituents think,” De Graff said. “It turns out, his constituents are (Democratic Gov.) Tina Kotek and (Democratic House Speaker) Dan Rayfield.”
She and other opponents said Conrad, who won in the general election with 57% of the vote, sided with Democratic leaders 85% of the time, a statistic that belies the bipartisan nature of most votes in Salem. Most of the hundreds of bills passed by legislators each year pass with broad bipartisan support.
Focus on issues
Both Lane County Commissioner Pat Farr and his wife, Debi, represented Lane County as Republicans in the state House in the 2000s. Pat Farr, now a non-affiliated voter, said he thinks most voters care more about economic issues than a candidate’s stance on reproductive rights or gender, though voters have opinions on the latter.
Farr said Conrad helped deliver on needs for the district, including advocating for a $300,000 allocation included in the state’s final “Christmas tree” bill of budget additions to upgrade the water treatment plant in Lowell. He understands rural needs and can articulate them well, Farr said.
“When you talk to Rep. Conrad, it’s not like you’re talking to a politician,” he said. “It’s like you’re talking to your neighbor. He’s really easy to speak to and really easy to get the feeling that he is understanding what you’re talking about.”
An early primary challenge may turn out to be beneficial to Conrad, Farr said, because it will give him more time to tell voters why he believes what he does. Conrad agrees.
“The fact that they’re doing it this early, it just means that we get to have the conversation in public that much longer,” Conrad said. “We get to have this conversation about reproductive health. We get to have that conversation in the district and people get to weigh in. I’m still the representative for another 18 months or so, at least, and there are a lot of things that I still get to do for the district.”
One of those things, Oakridge Mayor Bryan Cutchen hopes, is helping his small city about 40 miles east of Eugene rebuild the Willamette Activity Center, a social services hub that fell into disrepair. A new center will cost about $5 million, and Oakridge is seeking federal and state funding. The community, like others on the western slopes of the Cascades, also needs more state support with fire preparedness and response.
Cutchen, a retired Navy rear admiral, ran for state Senate in Maine as a Republican in 2016. He registered as a non-affiliated voter when he moved to Oakridge in 2019 to serve as city administrator, and he said party politics aren’t a big issue in his town.
“Parties never come into it in Oakridge,” Cutchen said. “There are positions that people have that you could attribute to a party. There are fiscal conservatives, there are fiscal liberals, there are social liberals, but the idea of pointing and saying ‘You’re a Democrat or Republican,’ none of that ever comes up.”
‘Willing to investigate’
Leslie Rubinstein, a former school board member who has been involved in progressive politics in Cottage Grove for more than 30 years, supported Democratic nominee Michelle Emmons in the 2022 general election. She’ll almost certainly vote for a Democratic candidate in 2024, she said.
But Rubinstein said she was pleasantly surprised when she first met Conrad on a Zoom call after he took office. She and a few other people set up a call to urge him to support a bill that would have required the state to divest any investments in fossil fuels – something he didn’t support and that ultimately didn’t pass. Conrad spent twice as long on the call as they scheduled, asked questions and was open about who else had lobbied him, Rubinstein said.
She was also impressed reading in the Capital Chronicle about how Conrad changed his mind and ended up voting for a major bill on abortion and gender-affirming care after he learned more about care for transgender young people.
“I still am wary of Republican politics in general,” Rubinstein said. “But I realized this is somebody who was willing to investigate something and then change his vote based on the information that he got. And if he had done that investigation, and hadn’t changed his vote, I still would have been impressed to read that he had asked these questions and publicly spoken about it.”
Conrad tries to make it to every meeting he’s invited to, said Melanie Stanley, a Blue River business owner who lost her home and the store her family ran for nearly 30 years during the 2020 Holiday Farm Fire, one of the largest in Oregon history. Stanley said she has always tried to stay in touch with her state representatives, but the fire and continuing recovery made her become more involved.
Stanley is a registered Democrat so she can have a voice in primaries, she said, but she considers herself more of a centrist. She’s impressed by any candidate who will think for themselves instead of following a party line.
“I think if a party is going to base representation on a single bill, then we have a problem and that goes for both sides,” Stanley said. “Because, and I told Representative Conrad this, I respect his ability to stand up even if he’s standing alone because it means that he is holding true to what she thinks and how he believes, not just what the party thinks.”