The Oregonian: The free-flying Betsy Johnson: Steve Duin column
Betsy Johnson was one of the first women certified by the Forest Service to haul external loads while piloting a helicopter, including the water and retardants used to combat wildfires. She flew helicopters in competitions in the former Soviet Union, and once parked a jet ranger atop the U.S. Bancorp Tower. But she never joined her sister, Patti, stunt-flying with the U.S. Aerobatic team.
“I could never do that because I had a problem with my back,” Johnson said last week: “A big yellow streak running right up on the middle.”
At 71 – a profane, “slightly porkish 71,” she notes – the conservative Democrat from Scappoose has dealt with those troublesome back issues just in time for the 2022 gubernatorial campaign:
She’ll barnstorm through the state in late spring, seeking the 25,000 signatures she needs to land on the Oregon ballot as an unaffiliated candidate.
And it’s telling just how many veteran political observers, exhausted by the Democratic and Republican alternatives, are on board.
“I have put together an unlikely band of people who believe I have what it takes to turn this state around,” Johnson said last week at the Goose Hollow Inn.
What does she bring to the table?
· A blistering sense of candor and confidence. “I’m not troubled by Portland politeness,” Johnson says. “I’m too seasoned, too old, and too battle-scarred to be worried about making people happy.”
· A fearsome work ethic and attention to detail regarding her constituents and the state budget. As former state Sen. Mark Hass notes, she spent two decades at the Legislature “in the trenches of those Ways and Means decisions. She knows how state agencies work and don’t work. She has the technical chops. No one else in the pack comes close.”
· A legacy in central Oregon. Her mother, Becky, was a Navy recruiter during World War II and served for 13 years on the state Board of Higher Education. Sam Johnson, her father, was a Republican lumberman who toiled seven terms in the Oregon House. Together, they donated Metolius Springs to the Forest Service in 1965.
“She comes from a historic Oregon family,” says Peter Courtney, president of the Oregon Senate. “That they gave away the headwaters of the Metolius is just remarkable. She revered her mother and father, and she’s convinced the Oregon they were part of is gone. She wants to fight to bring it back.”
· A libertarian streak best summed up here: “I believe Oregonians need to make the decision about bearing children or bearing arms.” She left the Republican Party over the abortion issue – she was briefly on the board of Planned Parenthood Columbia Willamette – but rails against what’s happened to the city of Portland, and the disenfranchised in Oregon, on the Democrats’ watch.
Frustrated Portland progressives “ought to be excited,” Johnson says, “that someone is willing to say to Tina (Kotek) and Kate (Brown) and Ted (Wheeler), ‘This is your hometown and it’s in a death spiral.’”
Johnson grew up in Redmond, but went to boarding school at St. Helen’s Hall (now Oregon Episcopal School) because, she says, her parents wanted her to have an education that wasn’t available in her hometown. (“I took four years of Latin. I can sing the Magnificat.”)
Sam Johnson also wanted his daughter to stay busy while she attended law school at Lewis & Clark, so she worked nights and weekends as a recognizance and release officer for Multnomah County courts.
“Probably the most powerful job I would ever have,” Johnson says, “On my signature alone I let people out of jail on their personal promise to return for their court date.” She fondly remembers negotiating with the bikers wearing the colors of Brother Speed and the Gypsy Jokers. “Those guys would get arrested on charges of riot and mayhem. I let them out. I told them the first one of you who doesn’t show up, I’m going to rat all of you out. One hundred percent showed up.”
“She was a ball of fire,” recalls Harley Lieber, who worked alongside her on the eighth floor of the courthouse. “I came to appreciate her willingness to push the envelope while protecting the integrity of the program. And she had a great sense of humor. As we’ve followed her career, that’s never been lost. I think Betsy is the perfect candidate. She can bridge the divide.”
Not everyone wants to cross that bridge. They can’t forgive Johnson her formidable opposition to cap-and-trade or a raise in the minimum wage. They think public employees and the teachers’ union are better served by Tina Kotek. They’re not sure they want to give the have-nots in Harney and Klamath Counties a seat at the table.
Or they’re cowed by the thought of an animated, unapologetic personality in the governor’s office.
“She’s honest, she says what she thinks, and she’s willing to listen,” says Josh Marquis, the former district attorney in Clatsop County and a long-time friend. “At a time when Oregon is torn between Trumpistas on the right, and leftist loons screaming, ‘All cops are bastards,’ she is a rare opportunity to find our center, in a way I can only remember two people doing in recent history: Tom McCall and Wayne Morse.”
Hass disagrees only to a point: “She’s not like anyone Oregon has ever had. Maybe that’s what we need to break out of these doldrums.”
— Steve Duin