Oregon's House District 49 represents a relatively small and insignificant part of the state's voting population. It's a pocket of 27,000 or so registered voters in East Multnomah County, containing Wood Village, Fairview, and parts of Gresham and Portland.
Normally, a fight for the House seat would gain little attention from anyone outside the slightly Democratic-leaning district—but when that seat is controlled by ultra-conservative Republican House Speaker Karen Minnis, the entire state perks up its ears.
Not only was Minnis almost single-handedly responsible for killing Senate Bill 1000 (the combined civil unions/anti- discrimination based on sexual orientation bill), she also killed off a number of other pieces of legislation—like a statewide prescription drug plan for the elderly and a renewable fuels package—simply by using her leadership position to deny those bills a hearing.
Her impact, then, has seeped far beyond the borders of her Wood Village base, drawing the ire of progressive groups from across Oregon and elevating her to hero status among anti-gay, anti-choice, anti-environment conservatives.
But for the first time since she was elected in 1998, Minnis is facing a serious—and seriously funded—Democratic foe in the form of Rob Brading, the executive director of MetroEast Community Media and a member of the Multnomah County Library Board.
It's the second time Brading has faced off against Minnis—in 2004, he came within seven percentage points of beating her despite being outspent nearly 8 to 1. This time, money is pouring into his campaign. (Brading says he personally has already raised $100,000—that's twice what he ran on two years ago.) Plus, the Democratic National Committee has paid close attention to the race, though they've yet to commit any money.
"[Minnis] has stood in the way of progress for people not just in District 49, but in other districts across the state," Brading told the Mercury in a recent interview. "I'm not surprised that people are interested."
Still, he says, his focus is on the voters of his district, which equals moderation on a number of issues—notably gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender (GLBT) rights.
When asked how Minnis' steadfast opposition to GLBT equality has affected the race, and whether it's become a campaign issue for him, Brading diplomatically replied, "It's not the highest priority for people in the district... they may not support [same-sex] marriage, but they're supportive of civil unions, unlike the people behind Measure 36 (the same-sex marriage ban), who flip-flopped on civil unions."
This has also meant that groups like Basic Rights Oregon have refrained from making big, public shows of support for his campaign, although Human Rights Campaign board member Terry Bean gave at least $1,000 to his primary run.
The bigger issue for Brading—and for District 49—is how Minnis has represented her constituents. Brading is quick to point out that much of her campaign money has come from out-of-state corporations, especially from the pharmaceutical industry, and that her votes align with them, not east county residents. (In her uncontested primary campaign, Minnis received bundles of money from groups like Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturing of America—$2,500—and Novartis Pharmaceutical Corporation—$3,250.)
"The people in this district are ready for a change," Brading says. "They understand that [Minnis] isn't working for them, but for corporate interests... She doesn't want to defend her record—if I had her record, I wouldn't either."
Still, the Minnis name carries a lot of weight in the district—Karen's husband John was a state representative for 12 years, and the Minnis name is synonymous with District 49 among some in the area. That sort of name recognition could be hard for the relatively unknown Brading to beat—especially when combined with Minnis' growing war chest. (The Contributions and Expenditures reports haven't been filed yet for this cycle, but there's talk that Minnis' campaign could hit $1 million—that would be, by far, the most anyone has spent on a single House seat.)
And in recent weeks, Minnis' campaign has trotted out a tactic she used in 2004—fliers saying that Brading is the "man responsible for children viewing internet porn in our county library." The reasoning: Brading is on the library board, and the library board has decided to not censor the libraries' computers.
The fliers were produced by a group called Friends for Safer Libraries, to which Minnis claims she has no connection. But, as pointed out by the Loaded Orygun blog (loadedorygun.blogspot.com), Minnis' advisor Chuck Adams was the one who registered the group's website, and Oregon Family Council head Tim Nashif (a longtime Minnis ally) formed the political action committee.
Perhaps it's no surprise that the mailers have Brading seeing red.
"I'm appalled at the attacks—not just personally, but she's attacked the entire library board. And it's an attack on public service. This is deplorable and bad for our community," Brading says.
Brading went on to say that the child-porn mailers have also created a distraction—focusing attention away from issues that could actually help make children safer. Like, for instance, his idea to tax the porn industry and use the revenue to fund services that protect children—hiring more police officers to surf the internet looking for predators, for example. But Minnis has yet to respond to the idea, instead championing an anti-meth platform.
Ballots will be mailed out in about a month—Brading is planning to use that time going door to door with volunteers to talk with the residents of District 49. He'll be hammering away at a platform that will likely appeal to east county voters—like restoring positions for Oregon State Troopers ("We have half the patrol officers we had in 1979; rural Oregon is lucky to get a single officer," Brading says), creating a prescription drug pool for seniors, and pushing a biofuels package that will support rural farmers and lessen urbanites' dependence on petroleum.
Minnis' campaign failed to respond to Mercury phone calls by press time.