For some Oregonians, the race for governor isn’t about who can raise the most money.
And these voters aren’t interested in who can parrot party platforms without flaw.
Instead, they seek a new governor who is somewhat blind to party affiliation.
Such a governor, they think, can unite the state. That governor would energize more Oregonians.
Beneath those feelings is a sense that Oregon can do better.
In recent weeks, I gathered by Zoom with voters from around the state. Our partners were Rural Development Initiatives and the Agora Journalism Center.
I was eager for voters – they were from all parts of the state – to share two points. One was to share what they wanted to learn about those running for governor. The other was to learn how the Oregon press can more effectively serve up information about the candidates.
This wasn’t a scientific poll. I’m not going to suggest the views of three dozen people perfectly mirror Oregon attitudes.
But the messages they delivered are well worth considering. That’s especially true for the 30 or so people running to succeed Gov. Kate Brown. She is in her final year and by law can’t run again.
Let’s take what they want in the next governor. An earlier column described the hope for a governor who blurs the urban-rural line in Oregon.
But equally important to the people I talked with was the idea that party politics must be tamed.
These citizens are worn out by the focus on party over performance. The recognize the impact – in Oregon and across the U.S. – of Republicans and Democrats treating each other like the enemy. For these voters, those party affiliations seem to be more about who has power, not who is doing best for Oregon.
There’s no getting away from party dominance, at least in the primary election. Candidates with a D or an R as part of their credentials campaign through the spring to their political tribes.
But the two main political parties are watching a deep erosion in voter ranks. That’s influenced in part by automatic voter registration and the “non-affiliated voter” who doesn’t pick a party.
But the declining party representation may reflect what these voters had to say. They are hungry for a governor who can lead all of Oregon. They don’t want someone who comes into office waving their party banner.
“Bipartisanship is hugely important, especially considering how much rural communities, low-income communities and communities of color have in common,” Angela Uberlau said in an email after one session. “A governor who brings Democrats and Republicans together to solve our literacy and math crisis in Oregon would transform the state for years to come.”
“It’s important for the next governor to act in apolitical, inclusive and constructive manner,” wrote Daniel Bachhuber. “These days, it seems like there is very little working across the aisle. Instead, it’s mostly attacks across the aisle.”
Ginger Savage wrote, “The last two years have shown us that no one party has the right answers to everything. Through the process of discussion and compromise, Oregonians’ lives will be better. The governor must rebuild so much trust, communication, compromise.”
“My hope for a bipartisan leader is that they will emphasize entertaining solutions and ideas representing all sides and viewpoints,” said Claire Conklin, noting that “our state and our country continue to move farther apart.”
Charlie Mitchell has a similar view.
“We are at a pivotal time in our state, when we can either continue to see further division or begin to realize some unity,” Mitchell wrote. “This is a deep and wide divide and will not be resolved quickly or easily … I have little faith in the major parties as they are currently structured. I don’t believe the two major parties are serving us well at the state or national level.”
And these voters generally recognized that the governor is not just a political animal. They want a governor who has some record of managing large enterprises. They don’t want a greenhorn attempting to manage multibillion -dollar budgets and a work force in the thousands. Too much is at stake in Oregon, they believe, to turn the keys over to a management rookie.
Along that line, a couple of the voters said it’d be helpful to know what kind of team the next governor will take to Salem. Governors set the tone for state government in large measure by the people named to direct state agencies, from the massive Department of Human Services to the Corrections Department to the Oregon Health Authority. That’s an interesting idea, for most governors wait until they are elected to start naming names.
And one voter had another idea to make the next governor more effective – remote office hours. This rural resident thought the next governor could learn a great deal by setting up shop and working for two weeks at a stretch from someplace other than Salem. Imagine a governor working from Pendleton or Klamath Falls or Astoria. That could provide a useful and real world perspective that a factory tour just can’t provide.
No matter the details, the voters I listened to are hoping the next governor will moderate the political tensions in the state. They hope the next governor will be – and be perceived as – a generalist interested in helping the entire state.
No doubt, Kate Brown or John Kitzhaber or Ted Kulongoski would push back on some aspects. They did travel the state. They didn’t remain creatures of Portland. Yet they also know better than most that how the governor is perceived is as essential as how they work.
These voters are giving candidates valuable clues about how to weld a coalition of Oregonians. They should heed the message – and demonstrate they are listening.