Willamette Week: Betsy Johnson Says She’s an Alternative to Partisanship Run Amok

She’s raised $3 million in a bid to be governor, and says Portland is “an accelerating death spiral disaster.”

Former state Sen. Betsy Johnson (D-Scappoose) left the Legislature on Dec. 15 to try to do something no woman in America has ever done: win election as governor while running as a nonaffiliated candidate.

Johnson, 70, graduated from Lewis & Clark Law School but then took to running a helicopter company. For 20 years, she carved out a niche in Salem: plainspoken, wry, often profane, and right in the middle of an increasingly divided Capitol. Befitting the purple Columbia County district she served, she’s pro-choice and pro-gun, for gay rights but voted no on higher minimum wages.

She grew up in a wealthy Central Oregon timber family (her father and Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler’s dad were pals), but her tastes run more to cedar-plank salmon than caviar. Her self-effacing humor belies a keen analytical mind and a golden Rolodex that has allowed her to raise nearly $3 million since entering the governor’s race—far more than any other candidate.

At least part of her message will be that Portland is a cautionary tale for Oregonians: a one-party city where good intentions ran amok. She presents herself as an alternative to factional ideological disagreements, and is betting that message will resonate with disaffected Portlanders as much as anyone.

“I’m not asking anybody to change their party,” she says. “I’m appealing to what I think is an Oregon populism that says we want to get back to being proud of our state.”

Betsy Johnson: 

We really lost our way with the advent of COVID. It seems to be a kind of collision of catastrophes. We’ve got 13 counties, a third of our land mass, wanting to flee to Idaho. We’ve got people not safe on this streets, whether you’re in Elgin or Laurelhurst. Portland is an accelerating death spiral disaster. The schools are a mess. Crime is rampant. I don’t think that there was that one moment that somebody could say, “This is when the wheels came off the rails,” but the concentration of power with one party has been a very significant accelerant.

Was it a mistake to close the schools?

We’re cheating our children out of the educational experience, and the economic impact fell particularly hard on women. What perplexed me about the governor was this push to get educators to the front of the queue to get vaccinated ahead of frail old ladies. Then the schools didn’t reopen.

How would Oregon be different if you were governor?

I would work like hell to bring the parties together, to try to tame the extremes right now because we’re governing from the extremes on both sides. Second: a clarion call for accountability. We have been spending money in ways that, if the federal government ever turned their eyes to little old Oregon, we’re not going to do very well.

What are some examples of questionable spending?

I asked some pretty tough questions about Project Turnkey [the state spent $65 million to buy 865 hotel rooms] and was told I needed to dial it back a little. But I don’t actually know how many people got housed. I don’t know how long it’s going be until some of those social service agencies that took over the motels are going to be back at the general fund asking for continuing support.

Another was a program headed up to save performance venues. It was about $50 million. I went back and asked [the Department of Administrative Services], did you do any kind of analysis? Is this money really going to their mortgages? And I was quite surprised at how vague it was. The answer was, well, the Legislature sent over the list, we just funded it.

The governor’s the CEO of an enterprise that has 45,000 direct employees and a $12 billion annual general fund budget. What qualifies you for the job?

It’s a matter of scale. I’ve run a company for 20 years. Certainly, I don’t compare a small commercial helicopter company with 50 employees to 45,000 employees. But my experience in business gave me some of the right questions to ask. And unlike many people in my caucus, I have signed both the front and the back of a paycheck.

What did your company do?

We flew helicopters all over the Western United States logging, fighting fires. We built a power line in Arizona in a highly environmentally sensitive area. We took bad bears out of the national parks. We changed the latrines on top of Mount Rainier. We did a lot of movies. For 10 years, we were the prime contractor to the U.S. Geological Survey on Mount St. Helens. That was some of the most extreme, dangerous, complicated flying that I think you could imagine.

You’ve cast a lot of votes in the past 20 years. What’s one you’d reverse if you could?

The [Student Success Act, a billion-dollar-a-year corporate tax in 2019]. I voted for it, absent a lot of future, unknowable-at-the-time information. In hindsight, the worst piece was just continuing to provide money without demanding actual reform.

Oregon’s schools rank low in national ratings. How would you reform them?

One thing: not be cowed by the Oregon Education Association. Another: get advice in the governor’s office from real educators versus representatives of OEA or representatives of special interest groups.

So what specifically would you try to bring about in the way of reform?

I wouldn’t allow us to keep changing the metrics by which we measure our progress. We’re not making our math scores? We’ll change the metric. We’ve had this Oregon exceptionalism of writing our own tests. If we were normed against other jurisdictions, our failures would be highlighted to a degree that they haven’t been. That would be something that the governor’s office could easily do.

Should Nicholas Kristof be allowed to run for governor?

I don’t know. A lot of money will be spent litigating that question. I don’t disrespect the fact that he’s a fine writer and a Pulitzer Prize winner. But I’ve been immersed in Oregon’s budget for the last 20 years. Mr. Kristof has not, and it is one thing to sit in Manhattan pontificating about problems. It’s another thing to be back here in Oregon trying to fix them.

What’s your legacy after 20 years in the Legislature?

The thing that I’m the absolute proudest of is constituent services. There was no agency that was immune from getting badgered about fixing stuff. We’ve never asked, is this a Republican or a Democrat? During the time when unemployment checks weren’t getting out, we did hundreds of unemployment claims. I helped people find insulin when they couldn’t get their unemployment checks.

You’re pro-choice but you’ve taken some votes many Democrats dislike: on the minimum wage, family medical leave, guns, and the environment. Seems like a narrow path to victory.

Well, I agree it’s a narrow path. I’ve been sort of an equal opportunity pisser-offer. It’s because I have voted with my core beliefs. I’m a little on the R side: fiscally responsible, accountable, big on public safety, and big on business. The economy is not the enemy of the Legislature, nor are companies that take capital risk and create jobs. A little on the D side: pro-choice, pro-gay, pro-civil rights. And I believe that there’s a role for government as part of a social safety net.

Is there a model for the kind of independent governor you would like to be? Jesse Ventura?

No, I look bad in a boa. More like Tom McCall.

He didn’t run as an independent.

No, he didn’t. He ran as a Republican, but with that same independent spirit Oregonians are proud of. We used to be proud of this place, but I don’t feel that that’s the case anymore.

No woman has ever won a governor’s race running unaffiliated. Why could it happen next year?

What’s different is how many disaffected people there are. There are pissed-off Portland Democrats, and there are pissed-off Helix Republicans. And I am of the opinion that there are enough of them that there’s a path.

Everybody knows the state’s in tough shape. What’s your big idea to make things better?

Deal with homelessness, get people off the streets. I’m part of the group of people that opened up the old Wapato Jail and is now the Bybee Lakes Hope Center. I don’t know what the current numbers are, but three weekends ago, 110 people, including 17 children, spent the night in that building.

Isn’t Bybee Lakes really expensive?

We’re restricted to the number of people that we can have in there by COVID, and have had to make some extraordinary expenditures based on COVID. When the county abandoned that building, they strip-mined it. Once we come up to a full complement of people, the model works.

Please give President Biden a letter grade based on his performance so far.

I would have to say a D or an F. He said, “I’m going to slay COVID.” Not so much. More people have died in the last year than in the preceding year. Our departure from Afghanistan was shameful. I think Mr. Biden campaigned on being a moderate uniter. I have not seen much evidence of that.

What would be your grade for Trump?

I wouldn’t give him a very high grade either. Talk about divisive. I’ve agreed with some of the things that Mr. Trump did, but him as a person, not at all. It has nothing to do with the person, necessarily. I thought Mr. Trump took a harder line on the border than Mr. Biden has. Seeing those people sleeping under a bridge, packed in there like sardines, it’s horrifying.

Why are Gov. Brown’s approval ratings are so low?

She’s a very empathetic, affable person. I think she could have used those attributes to draw people together more, but she has abrogated that responsibility. She has presided over an administration that has done it to Oregonians, not with Oregonians.

You’ve been critical of her handling of the Oregon Employment Department. What would you have done differently?

If I’d been this governor, I would have dropped back in time to when I was secretary of state and had gotten an audit that said this system is vulnerable. Now, nobody knew that 300,000 people were going to call on it all at once. But there was an audit when Kate Brown was secretary of state that said this is a vulnerable system. Then we got $90 million from the feds. Did anybody do anything about it? No. There was another audit after she was governor. Did anybody do anything about it? No.

Can you say anything positive about Tina Kotek?

She has taken the unchecked exercise of power to an art form.

What’s one thing people don’t know about you that you’d like them to know?

I don’t know exactly what you’re looking for. Do I sing off-key to Rolling Stones songs in the shower? I don’t. I come from a family where public service was valued and practiced, and I have tried to carry on in that tradition. Have I made mistakes as a legislator and cast some dumb votes? You bet I have. Can I own those? You bet.

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