A refreshing gift to political moderates came on Thursday when Oregon state Sen. Betsy Johnson (D-Scappoose) announced her long-considered candidacy for Oregon’s governor. Johnson, a blunt-spoken, middle-of-the-road Democrat with 20 years of service in the Oregon Legislature, is ditching her caucus for the moment and running unaffiliated. In this wide-open race, Johnson is a welcome addition.
Of course, with rigid political ideology all the rage these days, ideological purists on both sides of the aisle will ignore Johnson’s well-known record of bridge-building and downplay her importance in this race. That’s okay for now. But Johnson’s no-nonsense voice will be difficult to disregard the closer we get to the primary.
“Having to choose between another left-wing liberal promising more of the same or a right-wing Trump apologist — is no choice at all,” Johnson stated in an email to her supporters. “Oregonians deserve better than the excesses and nonsense of the extreme left and radical right… That’s why I have decided to run… as an independent leader unaffiliated with any party and loyal only to the people of Oregon.” In the Democrat caucus, such words would most often be glibly spilled in an effort to win an election. Republican, too, for that matter. But when Johnson says it like that, I have no trouble believing her. She’s frank, she knows what she’s doing and she means what she says.
Johnson caught my attention when she ran the Oregon Department of Transportation’s (ODOT) aeronautics division back in the 1990s. She was chosen for this role for a reason — it wasn’t a random assignment. Why? Because Johnson was the first woman certified by the U.S. Forest Service to fly external loads on forest fires. Yep, Johnson is a licensed helicopter and fixed-wing pilot and the Forest Service certified her to fly helicopters carrying an airborne dump tank used to fight forest conflagrations. This is no small achievement. She flew as a commercial pilot and then, in 1978, established the company which became Transwestern Aviation. The firm now serves as the fixed base operator (FBO) at the Scappoose airport.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Johnson earned her undergraduate degree in history from Carleton College before attending the Northwestern School of Law, Lewis and Clark College, where she was awarded her Doctor of Jurisprudence in 1977.
After working for ODOT, Johnson moved over to the Oregon Pilots Association (OPA). As vice president of legislative affairs for the lobbyist, she pushed legislation to create the Oregon Department of Aviation. Johnson has played key roles for the Oregon Health & Science University Foundation, Doernbecher Children’s Hospital, the Oregon Public Broadcasting Foundation and the High Desert Museum. Johnson currently serves on several boards including the Northwestern School of Law, Lewis and Clark College. In addition, she is the current president of the Samuel S. Johnson Foundation.
Johnson was first elected to the Oregon House of Representatives in 2000. Representing the southwest corner of Oregon’s District 1, Johnson quickly made a name for herself as a consensus-builder who got things done. Two years later, she moved north and handily took District 31, earning a landslide victory when she was reelected for her third term.
Johnson’s third term was interrupted when she was appointed to the empty seat of Oregon Senate District 16. She was reelected to four terms — once in a fairly close race and thrice by huge margins, in what’s almost become a Betsy Johnson trademark.
Johnson’s two decades as a Democrat in the legislature produced a voting record that’s about as centrist as it gets. Her tenure was marked by leadership roles in several key committees — her low-key style never seeking headlines but her achievements keeping her in Oregon news anyway. Notably, Johnson has served on the powerful Ways and Means Committee since she was first seated in the Senate.
It quickly became known that, if you testified before one of Johnson’s committees, you’d better have come prepared or you’d face her withering wrath. That honest ire, by far, is my favorite Johnson attribute — but, then, I’ve never been on the receiving end of it. Johnson is possessed of a refreshing blunt-spokenness, a penchant for telling it like it is in language that is exceptionally, um, direct.
Johnson comes from a timber family so she’s got long-time ties to the state’s lumber interests. Her moderate Republican father, who served six terms in the Oregon House, influenced Johnson but she abandoned the GOP when it tacked too far right. In recent months, Johnson has aligned herself with a broad swath of disaffected voters who are disgusted with the mess in Portland and troubled by the state’s current lack of strong leadership.
If you know me well, you’ve probably heard me say I’ve met every Oregon governor who served during my lifetime except Tom McCall. I’ve known and followed some better than others but one characteristic nearly all of them shared was their unyielding commitment to this state, above everything else. Oh, yes, there have been several opportunists among the lot — don’t get me started on the one occupying the governor’s seat right now — where the commitment to the state is well down the list. But most of them loved this state and its people. Clearly, this doesn’t mean I agreed with them on matters of policy or practice but I genuinely admired their sense of responsibility and duty to Oregon.
Johnson will unquestionably join the august ranks of those governors totally committed to our state. She has nothing to prove to anyone, least of all herself.
Naturally, Republicans will eye Johnson’s independent campaign as an opportunity. Will a Johnson campaign act as a spoiler to split the left-hand vote? Will Johnson’s campaign achieve the momentum to garner enough centrist support and be a serious contender? Could the Democrats eventually coalesce around a candidate like Johnson? Can enough moderate voters come together to overpower the ideologically unyielding true believers on both sides? Or will a red tide roar in, securing a successor to Vic Atiyeh and washing out a Johnson campaign?
I believe I know the answer to a couple of those questions. But I could be wrong and the others are anyone’s guess. Whatever the case, this race will likely be the most interesting Oregon gubernatorial contest of my lifetime. And Betsy Johnson jumping in just made it even better.
Photograph file photo, Portland Tribune via AP