Oregon’s three candidates for governor had another chance to differentiate themselves in their first televised debate in Bend on Tuesday evening.
Democrat Tina Kotek, Republican Christine Drazan and nonaffiliated candidate Betsy Johnson answered questions from central Oregon residents before an auditorium of Oregon State University-Cascades students and staff.
The debate was largely muted, with candidates keeping to their allotted time limits and acknowledging when they agreed on issues. Some of their harshest words were reserved for Gov. Kate Brown, the current Democratic governor who is barred from running for a third term and has a high disapproval rating. In May, a poll showed she was the least popular governor in the U.S.
The sharpest barbs of the night came during a segment about abortion, which Kotek has tried to make one of the biggest issues of the campaign since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade this summer. Abortion remains legal at all stages of a pregnancy in Oregon.
Kotek championed a 2017 law that ensured access to abortions at no cost to patients and has been endorsed by Planned Parenthood Advocates of Oregon. Johnson is a former Planned Parenthood board member and said she wasn’t allowed to compete for the reproductive health care provider’s endorsement because it’s “a wholly owned subsidiary of the Democratic Party.”
Planned Parenthood disputed that allegation, sending a press release mid-debate saying that Johnson never responded to its invitation to participate in its endorsement process and that she didn’t reach out to inquire about how to be endorsed.
Drazan, meanwhile, repeated her mantra that she is a “pro-life woman” but will uphold Oregon law. She described Oregon’s abortion laws as “among the most extreme in the nation” and criticized the state’s grants to abortion providers to help cover increased demand from out-of-state patients seeking abortions as state funding for “abortion tourism.”
“This is a lightning rod issue for Oregonians, and they are using this as a way to distract from their failed records,” Drazan said. “But what’s important to know is that we need change in our state, and I will uphold the law.”
Kotek retorted that a governor has great leeway to limit abortion access even with a law on the books, by directing agencies or blocking funding.
In the rapidly growing city of Bend, median home prices have climbed to $800,000. They’re in the $500,000 range in nearby Redmond, on par with the much larger city of Portland.
In response to questions about housing, both Kotek and Johnson said Oregon has built far fewer homes than needed for decades.
Addressing that shortage means building 36,000 homes annually for the next decade, working with local governments to hasten the permitting process and getting more young people trained in construction, Kotek said. She also supports using mass timber from Oregon forests to build manufactured homes.
Johnson said it’s time to reevaluate Oregon’s nearly 50-year-old law that limits where and how cities can expand.
“The legislature needs to get out of the house-building business,” she said. “We need to stop telling developers and homebuilders how to do their job. We need to get rid of the endless regulatory crisis that we’ve got in even sticking a shovel in the ground, and we have got to be able to build additional houses across all varieties of houses.”
Drazan, likewise, said state regulations drive up the cost of housing.
The candidates found a rare point of agreement on higher education, with all three pledging support for community colleges and Oregon’s seven public universities.
“We have got to have the institutions stop cannibalizing each other,” Johnson said. “We have seven universities, and all of them have been in a competition for money to the point that they’re damaging each other. We need to identify spires of excellence and we need to fully fund them.”
Kotek said her main focus will be on ensuring community colleges have stable and sustainable funding, as well as increasing funding for the Oregon Opportunity Grant, which helps more than 30,000 low-income Oregon residents receive needs-based financial aid each year.
Drazan said universities need to commit to helping students graduate in four years and make sure that credits transfer from community colleges or college-level courses from high school to control costs for students.
They differed on how to approach K-12 education, following disappointing standardized test scores released last week that showed only 44% of students are proficient in reading and 30% are proficient in math. It was a 9-point decrease from 2019.
“The test scores are unacceptable, and, I would think we would all agree, not terribly surprising given how hard the last two years have been,” Kotek said.
She said students told her they need smaller classes, more career and technical education options and support for their mental wellness.
Both Johnson and Drazan called for returning to “core competencies,” focusing class time on math, reading and other core subjects.
All three criticized Brown’s handling of school closures during the Covid pandemic. Kotek and Johnson both said they disagreed with the governor’s decision to move teachers to the front of the line for vaccinations without also opening schools.
Drazan, the only candidate with school-aged children, said she saw firsthand the debilitating effects being out of school for nearly two years had on young children. She blamed Kotek and Johnson for not supporting efforts by legislative Republicans to reopen schools.
Johnson and Drazan both decried business regulations, saying small businesses, especially farmers, struggle because of punitive state agencies.
“The regulatory agencies have become punitive, retaliatory, quick to punish farmers and producers,” Johnson said. “Not so much when Portland pumps raw sewage into the Willamette, but if you’re a farmer, or a dairyman in Tillamook and you try to clean out a ditch, you’re going to have the state regulatory agencies all over you.”
Kotek questioned what regulations they opposed, noting that regulations opposed by the business community included paid sick leave and equal pay for equal work.
Gun violence has been top of mind for central Oregon residents since an August shooting at a Safeway in north Bend. A gunman killed an employee, a customer and himself, and five people died in five separate shootings in Portland and Salem that weekend.
Oregon voters will decide in November whether to enact Measure 114, which would ban large ammunition magazines and require a permit and training before a firearm purchase. Only Kotek said she supports the measure, though Johnson said she will support raising the age to buy guns from 18 to 21, a position she adopted after a shooting at an elementary school in Texas in May that left 19 children and two adults dead.
Johnson, who describes herself as a gun owner, said she believes Measure 114 would place an undue burden on small police departments. But she said she supports raising the minimum age and making background checks more stringent, including requiring schools to turn over information about students who need mental health services and shouldn’t have access to guns.
Drazan said the Bend shooting was caused by mental health challenges, and that stricter gun laws won’t help.
“Someone facing extreme mental health challenges was intent on hurting others and was effectively able to do so,” Drazan said. “It’s a tragedy anytime it happens, but more gun laws will not prevent every single tragedy from happening.”
Both Johnson and Drazan pledged to repeal Measure 110, the 2020 voter-approved law that decriminalizes possession of small amounts of hard drugs. Along with decriminalization, the law was intended to provide more funding for addiction services, but those funds only recently made it to local communities.
Johnson said the law, combined with problems with cartels illegally growing marijuana in southern Oregon, has made Oregon an attractive place for people who abuse drugs. If the Legislature doesn’t send the measure back to voters to have another say, she’ll lead a petition drive to repeal it herself, she said.
Kotek said the Oregon Health Authority has been “incompetent” and that Brown has been “absent” on making sure the money made it to people who need help.
“As your governor I will work harder and more effectively to make sure we are seeing the new source of revenue going to more treatment in our communities,” she said. “But we don’t walk away from this issue. People are dying. We have to take it seriously. And while Measure 110 may be imperfect, that doesn’t mean we throw the whole thing out. Let’s just focus on solving the problem and helping people get health care.”
Drazan said people are dying because of the law, which has enabled drug use and provided money for needle exchanges over addiction treatment.
“This is the definition of Tina Kotek’s approach to the governor’s office,” Drazan said. “Don’t change course. Don’t change direction. Keep doing more of the same. Oregonians need change.”
The candidates will debate again in Portland next week.
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