Rich Walsh, an attorney from Keizer, is the new Democratic nominee for the 11th Senate District. (Photo by Julia Shumway/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

KEIZER — Sitting in a folding chair under a basketball hoop in a sticky middle school gym on Thursday night, Rich Walsh heard the election results he had hoped to receive more than a month earlier. 

Walsh, a former Keizer city councilor, lost the Democratic primary for a state Senate seat in May, coming in second to Woodburn Mayor Eric Swenson. But after Swenson’s surprise step down, he had a rare second chance.

On Thursday night, 40 of the most diehard Democrats in the 11th Senate District, which covers Woodburn, Keizer and north Salem, gathered in the gym at Keizer’s Whiteaker Middle School and voted for their new nominee. Walsh received 29 votes and state Rep. Teresa Alonso Leon, D-Woodburn, received 11. A third candidate, Anthony Rosilez, executive director of the Oregon Teacher Standards and Practices Commission, received no votes. 

Walsh told the Capital Chronicle he took the vote as a sign that the local party members wanted to respect the will of the vast majority of Democratic voters in the district who weren’t in the room. 

“They want to send a message that voters count, that votes matter, and that (choosing) the runner-up is the right way to validate those votes and those voters,” he said. 

It was an anti-climactic ending to a dramatic two weeks in the district. Swenson surprised voters, his former campaign rivals and fellow Democrats, including Senate President Peter Courtney, when he announced a little more than a month after the election that he wouldn’t run.

Swenson said he decided he preferred being the mayor of the small city of Woodburn. Police and city officials have confirmed that he is included in a police investigation of a local massage parlor, but they’re still processing those documents in response to records requests from the Capital Chronicle and other media outlets. 

When he stepped down, Swenson urged his supporters to back Alonso Leon. The Woodburn-area House seat she has held since 2017 is included in the redrawn Senate district. Rather than running for the Senate seat or seeking a new term in the House, Alonso Leon opted to run for Congress. She came in seventh in a Democratic primary for the new 6th Congressional District.

Swenson’s late entry into the race, surprise exit and his financial support from PCUN or Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, a farmworker advocacy organization with close ties to Alonso Leon, prompted speculation that he ran as a placeholder candidate for Alonso Leon in case her congressional run didn’t pan out.

Walsh, an auto accident attorney, now faces a tough race against Sen. Kim Thatcher, R-Keizer. The 11th Senate District is one of only a few truly competitive districts after last year’s redistricting. 

Oregon Capital Chronicle

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Lynne Terry for questions: Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.

Julia Shumway has reported on government and politics in Iowa and Nebraska, spent time at the Bend Bulletin and most recently was a legislative reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times in Phoenix. An award-winning journalist, Julia most recently reported on the tangled efforts to audit the presidential results in Arizona.