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2012 elections preview: Oregonians prepare to choose state executive nominees at the polls tomorrow

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May 14, 2012

By Greg Janetka and Maresa Strano

SALEM, OR: There are four statewide offices on the ballot in the Beaver state this year - attorney general, secretary of state, treasurer and labor commissioner. Three incumbents are seeking re-election, with the fourth, attorney general John Kroger, retiring to become president of Reed College. The only two primary contests awaiting settlement tomorrow are the Democratic nominations for attorney general and secretary of state.

Besides the nonpartisan race for labor commissioner, which voters will not address at the polls until November due to a new election law,[1] the state executive primary races are all partisan and thus subject to this year's open Republican primaries. Oregon's Republican party, which has struggled over the last decade to elect a single candidate to state row, decided to extend a special invitation to the state's over 420,000 unaffiliated voters to participate in its primaries for attorney general, secretary of state, and treasurer.[2] The gesture meant to attract these voters, which compose 21% of the state's electorate, to GOP candidates early in the election season and to build goodwill for the floundering party.

Ultimately, the gesture was an empty one; Republican presence has dwindled so much in recent past that it took considerable effort by the party to recruit one candidate -Knute Buehler for secretary of state- between the three races, let alone produce enough candidates to stage a Republican primary contest.[3]

Owing to the forgone presidential primary contests, Secretary of State Kate Brown predicted that voter turnout in Tuesday's primary will be in the "low 40s," which would be the lowest voter participation for the state's presidential primary in modern history.[4]

Outgoing Attorney General John Kroger will be transitioning into a new position as president of Reed College in July, 2012

When current Democratic Oregon attorney general John Kroger blew everyone away last October with his announcement that he would be retiring in 2012 for undisclosed health reasons,[5] he also blew the 2012 Democratic primary race wide open. Three candidates immediately jumped at the chance to seek the party's nomination for attorney general, and now two remain: Ellen Rosenblum and Dwight Holton. Rosenblum is a retired Appeals Court Judge and Assistant U.S. Attorney for the District of Oregon. Holton served formerly as the head of the United States Attorney’s Oregon Office and acting U.S. Attorney.[6]

The two standing candidates have impressive and vastly different backgrounds for Oregon's Democratic voters to consider. "Rosenblum has the edge in her familiarity with the Oregon court system, Holton has more proven management experience."[7] Their shared moderate political sensibility but diverging sets of credentials make for a tight race. Indeed, in the last week, both candidates released internal poll results showing themselves to be in the lead.[8] As of today, the most credible source to look to may be a SurveyUSA poll, conducted between May 7 and 10, which revealed the unconfirmed choices of a sample of just under 200 early voters. That poll placed Rosenblum 34 points ahead of Holton, with 10% reporting as undecided.[9]

The most divisive issue of the race has been about the candidates' positions on Oregon's Medical Marijuana Act. Holton has referred to the 1998 ballot initiative to permit doctor-authorized medical marijuana use as a "train-wreck." Although he says he will enforce the voter-approved law if elected, he indirectly assisted in federal raids on state-sanctioned grow-sites while working for the U.S. Attorneys office and believes that the law has fostered black-market activity and a move toward "back-door legalization."[10] Rosenblum, on the other hand, has won over the pro-cannibus community by underlining her stance that "personal marijuana use is the lowest priority for law enforcement" and promising to defend the state against federal interference with OMMA rights.[10]

Reports released a month before the primary showed Holton, who is Kroger's first choice to succeed him in office, holding a financial advantage over Rosenblum. Holton's lead is bolstered by support from the state's largest union, Service Employees International Union, in addition to the Oregon Education Association and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 48, two other unions known as "powerhouses in state politics."[11] The advantage all but vanished, however, when in the eleventh hour Rosenblum received a gift of $70,000 - the biggest single contribution seen yet this season - from the drug law reform group Drug Policy Action, whose goal is to prevent Holton, the candidate less enthusiastic about Oregon's Medical Marijuana Law, from winning the election.[12]

Because no Republican candidates filed for the election, the general expectation is for the entire race to be decided in the primary on May 15. Fulfillment of this expectation hinges on the performance of the GOP's write-in candidate, James Buchal. Buchal is a property-rights lawyer and three-time candidate for state House. In 2008, the party was unable to recruit a standard candidate for the office. In the absence of any strong write-in Republicans, Kroger (D) ultimately won both the GOP and Democratic party nominations. The Republicans are determined to prevent a pattern from forming. About the 2008 incident of bipartisan convergence upon the primary Democratic candidate, Oregon's GOP chief of staff Greg Leo told the press on May 3 “It’s grated on us so much that we said next time we have a vacancy for statewide office, let’s do a write-in campaign and make sure a Republican fills that spot.”[13]

Incumbent Kate Brown will face one challenger in the Democratic primary this year

As is the case for most of the five states without lieutenant governors, the Secretary of State of Oregon is the ex officio lieutenant governor, meaning first in line to succeed the governor. The secretary is also the state's chief elections officer, the head of the Corporation Division, Audit Division, and one of three votes on the State Land Board.[14] The responsibilities of the office are vast, as Democratic incumbent Kate Brown, who is seeking renomination tomorrow, knows all too well. Since winning the office in 2008, Brown's performance has been generally smooth and fruitful, and highlighting that has defined her campaign strategy so far. Her accomplishments include expanding voter access to the ballot, making Oregon the fourth state to introduce the option of online voter registration - which has now been used by 100,000 newly registered voters - and markedly improving the office's state government auditing practices.[15] According to Brown, the additional attention paid to auditing educational service districts and state tax collection resulted in an audit cost to return ratio of $1 to $64.[16]

When voters are trying to determine whether a current officeholder is worth keeping around for another term, they will often look to the official's most recent performance to form their impressions. Unfortunately for Brown, the nature of her position is that perhaps the most trying and publicly scrutinized period of the job, when she is handling the elections, is also the time when she at risk of losing it. The most pronounced blemish on her record appeared less than two months ago, when a candidate running for Oregon Commissioner of Labor and Industries this year sued her for neglecting to notify either of the race's candidates that the election date had been moved from May to November. Though Marion County Circuit Court Judge Steven Price ruled swiftly on the matter, in apparent agreement with Brown, ordering for the election to proceed in November, she still admitted to her blunder. The story attracted a significant amount of press, and, for the first time in her tenure, negative speculation about her ability to serve as secretary.[17]

Despite this misfortune, Brown is still the heavy favorite for the Democratic nomination. Her only challenger, Paul Damian Wells, is a computer architect and self identified "Independent voting rights advocate."[18] He claims he is not a Democrat but an Independent and the purpose of his candidacy is to make a statement about the injustice of Oregon's partisan elections. "We can’t have democracy without free elections and we don’t have free elections in Oregon," he writes on his candidate profile page, a space he purchased on the official secretary of state website as another statement about what he calls the corrupt, subsidized nature of Oregon's major party elections.[19] The perennial candidate switches party registration every two years in service of his crusade and his candidacy has gone almost unrecognized except for an incident where he responded to a newspaper questionnaire inquiring about skeletons in his closet by saying, "I have made plenty of mistakes in my life, but you will have to find out about them yourself. I'm not helping you."[20] Party operatives estimate that Wells will not be taken seriously enough by Oregon's loyal Democratic electorate to overcome Brown at the polls tomorrow.[20]

Dancing on his own on the Republican stage is Knute Buehler, a Bend-based orthopedic surgeon and Oregon Stat University’s first Rhodes Scholar. He holds a master’s degree in Politics and Economics from Oxford University and received his medical degree from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.[21] Buehler's campaign centerpiece is a three-pronged plan to foster small business growth in Oregon. His plan essentially calls for a friendlier business culture, achieved through a more active/resourceful Corporations Division, and through simplification and reduction of regulations.[22] Buehler accused the secretary of state's office of being "a little sleepy the last 12 years," and no longer a leader in electoral reform.[23] His well funded campaign and professional clout make him a formidable competitor.

Barring an upset by Wells, the general election will feature a showdown between Brown and Buehler.

Incumbent Wheeler is seeking re-election unopposed.

Democratic incumbent Ted Wheeler is seeking his first full, four-year term as Oregon Treasurer. He was first appointed to the position on March 11, 2010 to fill the unexpired term of former treasurer Ben Westlund, and was elected to a two-year partial term on November 2, 2010.[24]

Wheeler is currently unopposed in both the primary and general election. However, the state Republican Party is supporting a write-in campaign to nominate management consultant Tom Cox. Since no Republican filed for the office, Democrats could secure the nomination if they receive enough write-in votes in the primary.[25]

Incumbent Avakian is seeking re-election.

Since it is officially a nonpartisan position, at the beginning of the campaign season the candidates for Oregon Commissioner of Labor and Industries assumed the election would take place on May 15, 2012, during the state's primary election. Election officials, however, said a 2009 law passed by the state legislature requires the election to take place in November. Current Commissioner Brad Avakian stated, "We thought the election was in May. My opponent thought the election was in May. Everybody thought the election was in May. It seems clear now that's not the case."[26]

In mid-March, Avakian's opponent, Sen. Bruce Starr, sought a temporary restraining order that would have forced the Secretary of State to put the labor commission race on the May 15 ballot. Circuit Court Judge Steven Price rejected the move, saying Starr couldn't show he would be likely to win on the legal merits of the case.[27] Adding to the confusion, the election is for a two year term, but only for this election. Andrea Cantu-Schomus, spokeswoman for the secretary of state's office, explained this move was intended to set up a standard where each election includes some statewide offices.[26]

Avakian was first appointed to the office by Governor Ted Kulongoski on April 8, 2008, following the resignation of Dan Gardner. He was elected to a full term in office on November 4, 2008. While the office is officially nonpartisan, Avakian is a Democrat. He faces a challenge from Republican state Senator Bruce Starr.

See also


  1. Oregon Live, "Kate Brown caught off guard by fuss over election date; will it affect her re-election race?," March 25, 2012
  2. Oregon Live, "Oregon Republican Party opens three statewide primaries to non-affiliated voters," February 6, 2012
  3. The Statesman Journal, "Oregon GOP backs write-in effort," May 3, 2012
  4. Oregon Live, "Oregon's presidential primary could produce lowest turnout in modern state history," May 11, 2012
  5., "Oregon Attorney General John Kroger shocks employees with announcement that he won't seek re-election," October 18, 2011
  6. The Oregonian, "Former U.S. Attorney announces run for Oregon AG," January 11, 2012
  7. Oregon Live, "Oregon Attorney General race comes down to 2 Democrats: Dwight Holton and Ellen Rosenblum," March 8, 2012
  8. Oregon Live, "Dueling polls by Ellen Rosenblum and Dwight Holton in Oregon Attorney General race show both ahead," May 8, 2012
  9. SurveyUSA, " Results of SurveyUSA Election Poll-19214," May 10, 2012
  10. 10.0 10.1 Statesman Journal, "Marijuana and the campaign for attorney general," April 30, 2012 (dead link)
  11. Oregon Live, "Dwight Holton reels in $20,000 in union donations," April 6, 2012
  12. Oregon Live, "Drug reform group funnels $70,000 to AG candidate Rosenblum," May 9, 2012
  13. The Statesman Journal, "Oregon GOP backs write-in effort," May 3, 2012
  14. Democratic Herald, "Buehler to speak Thursday in Corvallis," May 9, 2012
  15. Kate Brown for Secretary of State, "My plans for 2012," accessed March 5, 2012
  16. Kate Brown for Secretary of State, "My plans for 2012," accessed March 5, 2012
  17. Oregon Live, "Why the Oregon labor commissioner election controversy won't die," April 5, 2012
  18. Oregon Secretary of State, "Candidate information," accessed March 5, 2012
  19. Oregon Secretary of State Kim Brown, "Oregon Votes- Paul Damian Wells," accessed March 6, 2012
  20. 20.0 20.1 Oregon Live, "Election Endorsement:Renominate Kate Brown for Oregon secretary of state," April 28, 2012
  21. Corvallis Gazette Times, "Candidate for Secretary of State to be at town hall Thursday," May 8, 2012
  22. Knute Buehler Secretary of State 2012, "A partner for success," accessed March 5, 2012
  23. Oregon Live, "Bend surgeon kicks off Republican campaign for secretary of state," November 16, 2011
  24., "Oregon State Treasury: Ted Wheeler, State Treasurer," accessed May 10, 2012
  25. Statesman Journal, "Oregon GOP backs write-in effort," May 3, 2012
  26. 26.0 26.1 Oregon Live, "Oregon labor commissioner election in November, not May -- as candidates thought," March 19, 2012
  27. Oregon Live, "Oregon judge denies attempt by Bruce Starr to hold labor commissioner's election in May," March 21, 2012
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