The Oregon Capital Chronicle talked to the candidates that may be unfamiliar names to most
By Julia Shumway, Alex Baumhardt and Lynne Terry, Oregon Capital Chronicle
When Oregon’s registered Democrats and Republicans receive their primary ballots this spring, they’ll likely see about a dozen candidates for governor.
Chances are, they’ll only recognize a few of the names.
With nearly four months to go before the primary election, candidates have already fallen into two groups. There are the frontrunners, those with high-profile backgrounds or access to money and political connections that allow them to garner headlines and blanket the state with ads.
Former state House Speaker Tina Kotek of Portland and state Treasurer Tobias Read from Beaverton lead the Democratic slate. Former New York Times columnist Nick Kristof, who was disqualified by the Secretary of State’s Office over his residency, remains in a legal battle to secure a place on the ballot.
Republicans have a longer list of frontrunners, including Christine Drazan, a former minority leader of the state House from Canby; Salem oncologist Bud Piece; GOP consultant Bridget Barton, from West Linn; and Sandy Mayor Stan Pulliam.
Betsy Johnson, who recently stepped down as a Democratic state senator from Scappoose, is running a campaign unaffiliated with any party.
Nearly 20 others also filed, though several dropped out of the race early. Yamhill County Commissioner Casey Kulla, a Democrat, switched last week to running for labor commissioner. Movie producer Jim Huggins, a Republican from Salem, withdrew from the race this weekend, saying he had the right message but just didn’t have the donor base or campaign infrastructure to break through a crowded field. Bend Democrat Dave Lavinsky, cofounder of an investment banking company, told the Capital Chronicle on Thursday that he decided not to run.
Some, including Democratic cabinetmaker Patrick Starnes and Republican superintendent Marc Thielman, remain optimistic that they’ll eke out victories in their primaries. And still others are using their campaigns to bring attention to signature issues.
Most candidates agreed to brief interviews with the Oregon Capital Chronicle. Three candidates – Democrat David Beem of Salem, Republican David Burch of Salem and Republican Kerry McQuisten of Baker City – couldn’t be reached or didn’t respond to requests for information.
Wilson Bright of Portland is running on a single issue: ending homelessness. Bright, 62, is the former owner of Rose City Textiles, a fabrics and textile company in North Portland, and is now retired.
As governor, Bright’s plan would be to “ban people from living on public lands,” he said, and to create three compounds collectively called “the farm” to house up to 17,000 people in the Willamette Valley and Deschutes County, according to his website.
People would receive a plate of beans and rice and water and be forced to work if they want anything else. Bright said he decided to run for governor because he is at odds with the current Democratic leaders and wanted to “create intellectual debate about the subject” of homelessness.
Bright said that even if he loses, it was worth running.
“By raising a different opinion, I’ve done my civic duty,” he said.
Michael Cross, 55, lost a 2020 bid for attorney general as a Republican and has switched parties to run for governor. The Oregon Secretary of State’s office is still determining whether he meets requirements to run for governor.
Cross, a software designer and commercial truck driver from Turner, told the Capital Chronicle he switched parties because he “needed to align with a party that has its act together.”
When it comes to tackling issues of homelessness, he would build a small town with shelters and tax incentives for corporations that could provide job training for the unemployed, he said. When it comes to education, Cross would like to see more local control, and would like to see school principal become an elected position.
Cross is interested in tackling the environmental issue of microplastics polluting the ocean and would like to grow Oregon’s hemp industry to compete with the plastics industry to reduce plastics production.
Peter Hall of Haines is a retired chef, chair of the Baker County Democrats and a city council member in the town of 265 in northeast Oregon. He’s running for governor to take on climate change, stagnating wages and the rising cost of living, he said.
Hall wants to help the state adapt to what will become more erratic weather patterns, to focus on preserving access to freshwater for drinking and for agriculture. He wants to evaluate how poverty levels are measured across the state, basing the measure on income and the local cost-of-living together, which would allow more Oregonians to qualify for aid, he said.
Hall, 70, said he’s running for governor because there’s “not much time left to do it.” He wanted to serve in local government to establish himself before running for governor.
Despite two unsuccessful runs for a seat in the House in 2006 and 2014, he feels his time on city council and as chair of his local Democratic party have given him the credibility to be taken seriously in his run for governor.
“You can’t affect the game if you’re not in it,” he said.
Keisha Merchant, who goes by Coach Kay, is a 47-year-old life coach in Portland, with a master’s degree in business communication from Jones International University in Colorado and a bachelor’s in women’s studies from Oregon State University. She declined an interview, but provided statements by email.
“We need to provide reparations to the 40,000 Afro-Diaspora populations in the state,” she wrote. “We need to provide homes for all Oregonians as a tax-write for the state to make sure no one is homeless, jobless and foodless. We need to make sure we provide excellent health care as a universal system.”
Merchant said she’d like to create an urban Peace Corps to create mentorship programs for inmates and “vulnerable populations.” She said she’d use inmates in Oregon to create more than 200 communities on tax-exempt land for homeless people, former inmates and others who’ve been cast aside by society.
“Australia was born from inmates, so with excellent empowerment, mentorship, and skill building trainers, and life coaches, a team of professionals … (can) create safe, healthy, and (secure) communities,” she wrote. When asked why she decided to run, she simply said “injustice.”
Patrick Starnes, 59, changed parties after his 2018 run as the Independent Party of Oregon’s nominee for governor, but his reason for running remains the same. Oregon needs campaign finance limits, he said.
To that end, Starnes is already running his campaign as he would under the rules he hopes to see. He won’t accept any money from corporations or political action committees, and he refuses to accept more than $1,000 from any person.
“A lot of people are discouraged because of the big money, but the big money can be sort of a wash,” Starnes said. “They’re going to spend it on all those ugly ads that everybody hates, attacking each other, Tobias (Read) and Tina (Kotek), and then we’re going to be on the ground working across the state.”
Starnes remains confident that he can win the largest share of the Democratic primary vote if frontrunners Read and Kotek – and former New York Times columnist Nick Kristof, if he’s ruled eligible for the ballot – cannibalize each other.
He noted that he won the Independent Party’s nomination in 2018 despite both current Gov. Kate Brown and Republican nominee Knute Bueheler campaigning for it, and he hopes to be the Independent Party’s nominee this year. Oregon has a “sore loser” law that prevents anyone who loses a major party’s nomination from running as an independent or third-party candidate.
At 82, Portland resident John Sweeney is no stranger to running for office. He won twice in his bid to serve on the Multnomah Education Service District board in the 1980s but lost races, starting in 1968 for Portland mayor, Portland auditor, state House, U.S. Senate and U.S. House. Still, he figures he could have a shot this time at governor.
“My chances are better in a crowd,” he said.
But even if he doesn’t win, he hopes to spread his ideas.
Two of his big concerns are the high school graduation rate and climate change. He said Oregon should convert its fleet of vehicles into flex fuel cars and trucks that consume so-called “flex fuel” with up to 83% ethanol.
“You could start cleaning up the air in the next tank of gas,” Sweeney said.
And on education, he proposes adding nine-week classes on money management, law, civics and making a life plan starting in seventh grade to encourage students to graduate.
Michael Trimble, a 35-year-old customer service representative for CareOregon in Portland, has a simple pitch for Oregon voters.
“In one sentence, we need somebody who will not be sitting on his hands,” he said. “Literally.”
That’s a promise Trimble has no fear of breaking because he was born without arms as a result of fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. He’s an active bicyclist, using a specially built bike that allows him to shift gears with his chin and brake with knee.
Trimble said he has raised thousands more dollars than he reported and he considers himself a viable candidate for governor, as he believes Oregonians want an outsider. Kulla’s exit and Kristof’s disqualification help him, he said.
“The thing that’s really telling is that you would think someone like Tina Kotek or Tobias Read or Betty [sic] Johnson would be leading in double digits in the polls, but they’re not,” he said.
Peter Winter, a 41-year-old nonprofit project manager from Milwaukie, has been working toward a run for governor since 2000. That included a move to China and an unsuccessful run for the Clackamas County Commission in 2018, during which he said he gave speeches in Mandarin about the prospect of an economic recession.
Winter said he’s tired of the Democratic political machine, and he wants to make the state more prominent at the national level. Oregon, and Oregon voters, don’t have much say in national politics, he said.
“It’s not just a red or blue or just a black and white world,” he said. “There’s a lot of grays, a lot of purples, greens. How are we going to be required to make a choice between two?”
Reed Christensen, a former Intel employee and Army veteran from Hillsboro, is running for governor while awaiting trial on a number of charges related to his involvement with the Jan. 6, 2021, siege on the U.S. Capitol.
He pleaded not guilty earlier this month to federal charges including assaulting or resisting three police officers. According to court documents, he struck several law enforcement officers and led a group of rioters who forcibly removed bike rack barriers that blocked the group from getting closer to the Capitol.
Christensen, 63, declined an interview with the Capital Chronicle.
“I will have to decline as I will be conducting my campaign entirely through the alternative media and through grassroots word of mouth,” he wrote in an email.
According to his campaign website, he wants to end mask and vaccine requirements, eliminate mail voting, and end access to legal abortions and gender-related medical services for trans youth, among other issues.
He served on the executive committee of the Washington County Republican Party from 2018 to 2021, according to his website.
John Fosdick III, of Roseburg, is running to address homelessness among veterans, end mask and vaccine mandates and end mandatory minimum sentences.
But he said he doesn’t expect to win.
“The idea wasn’t actually to succeed 100 percent,” he said. “I wanted to experience what it would mean to run for governor.”
Fosdick, 34, works at a Game Stop video game store and said he previously served in the Oregon National Guard, including two tours in Iraq. His father, Joel Fosdick, is a former Linn County commissioner.
Fosdick said when he returned from Iraq, he felt disconnected with his home state and decided he wanted to run for president.
“I got in touch with the Republican Party, and said I wanted to run for president. He pretty much laughed at me,” Fosdick said. “So I said, ‘Where can I start then?’”
He became a local precinct committee person for the Republican party in Albany, helping to register voters and share information about party candidates.
Jessica Gomez is the founder and CEO of Rogue Valley Microdevices, a microchip manufacturing company in Medford. She serves on the Oregon Business Council, International Women’s Forum and Oregon State Health Care Committee, among nine other state and local committees.
Gomez grew up in Long Island, New York, and moved to Oregon with her family when she was 12. Her father started a cabinetry business that hit financial hardship and left Gomez homeless for part of a year.
She returned to the East Coast to live with her grandma, attend community college and eventually return to Oregon to start her business. Gomez said she wants to build up regional economies in the state, increase broadband connectivity and transportation infrastructure so businesses can grow. She wants to tackle rising rates of homelessness in the state.
“I’ve been homeless as a teenager and know what that’s like,” she said. “I know what it takes to dig yourself out of that.”
She wants the state to increase support to the homeless who are dealing with substance abuse, providing more long-term rehabilitations.
She wants to expand apprenticeships for Oregon high schoolers and to reinstate essential skills testing as a requirement to graduate high school.
Nick Hess built his first business working on computers for Portland Public Schools at 14. Now 35, he’s CEO of two Tigard-based tech companies, SureTec and SureTel, with 38 employees that manage electronic networks and phone services for middle-sized and small companies.
He said he’s always had a passion for politics but didn’t think about running until last year, when Gov. Kate Brown didn’t respond to a letter he wrote asking for more nuanced COVID-19 restrictions.
“I’m not just frustrated with Brown,” Hess said. “I’m frustrated with all of our politicians and how we divide people.”
He said he would bring people together, in part by creating a state government office in eastern Oregon and visiting every county.
“I’d be on the road all the time,” Hess said.
He’d like to tackle homelessness, broadband deficiencies and ensure police funding. He’s participated in GOP events and held dozens of meet and greets but as an urban Republican, acknowledged that “the primary will be an uphill battle for me.”
Brandon Merritt, a 32-year-old marketing consultant and Deschutes County precinct committeeman, believes he’s the only Republican candidate who’s actively traveling to every county in Oregon. He found that many people don’t take him seriously because of his youth and lack of political experience, but hearing something is impossible only makes him work harder.
“I don’t think there’s a single candidate on the Republican side that can win the general election,” he said. “Their message doesn’t doesn’t reach even the non-affiliated voters.”
Merritt said he strives to be clear about his message. While no one would mistake his priorities — ending COVID mandates, expanding school choice and defending the 2nd Amendment — he said he’s careful never to mention Democrats because he doesn’t want to alienate any voter.
He said he wants to provide voters with specific plans. For instance, he’s proposing a $7,500 tax credit for parents who pull their children from neighborhood schools to homeschool them or attend a private or charter school.
“That’s one really strong example and difference between my colleagues in regards to being solution-driven,” he said. “You’re going to hear more comments like ‘All the money should follow the kids’ or ‘Half the money should follow the kids,’ and you know that bothers me because I don’t want another separate bank account that just adds another variable of how we may not be able to track where that funding is actually going.”
Amber Richardson, a 36-year-old Republican who’s lived almost all her life in Jackson County, has mulled running for governor for four years. She said Brown has forsaken southern Oregon and the rest of the state while using regulatory boards to impose red tape on professionals like herself, a massage therapist.
“These boards are supposed to regulate businesses,” Richardson said. “Half of them don’t even come out to check on people.”
The wildfires in recent years, especially the Almeda Fire that destroyed 2,600 homes in the Rogue Valley, clinched her decision to run, she said, blaming the fires on what she considered to be years of forestry mismanagement by the state.
Though a political newbie, she opted to run for governor because her motto is: “Go big or go home.” She bought a tent camper and plans a tour to meet young people.
“I would like to give youth a beacon of hope,” Richardson said.
Eugene artist Stefan Strek, who also goes by “Stregoi,” declined an interview with the Capital Chronicle, writing “No solicitations, please.”
The campaign website he provided on his candidate filing is still dedicated to his unsuccessful 2018 run for Oregon’s 4th Congressional District.
At the time, Strek described his top priority as defending the Second Amendment with undefined “federal penalties” for legislators who pass anti-gun legislation and judges who enforced it.
After two years of fighting with state government officials over how he ran the Alsea School District through the COVID pandemic, Marc Thielman wants to appoint their replacements.
Thielman, 51, has been the rural Benton County school district’s superintendent for a decade, and he began receiving statewide attention for refusing to close schools in the 2020-21 school year. This week, the state Education Department declined to give the district any federal COVID relief funding because the district made masks optional on campus.
Thielman said his campaign is doing well, and he expects his next quarterly report will look much more promising. All that really matters is how much available cash he’ll have within the six weeks ahead of the election, he said.
As of Jan. 26, the most recent day the campaign reported transactions, he had raised about $55,000 but was about $25,000 in the hole thanks to expenses and a $20,000 outstanding loan he made to the campaign.
“I could have had more money by the last quarter, but I asked my funders to hold off because we have a different philosophy and a different application for how we’re going to win this thing,” he said.
Along with running for governor, Thielman is championing a school choice measure on the 2024 ballot. He faced a setback last week when Oregon Secretary of State Shemia Fagan rejected his petition for not complying with the state’s rule that requires initiatives to address a single topic.
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