This past Tuesday, Republican state Senator Ben Westlund (Bend) took what some might call a rather drastic measure—he announced his run for the governorship, and shed his GOP affiliation in the process.
Publicly, Westlund has been considering a run for the state's highest office since last summer. But rumors of such a move had been floating around since early 2005, when he began pushing for what would come to be known as SB1000—the doomed civil unions/anti-discrimination bill. Though Westlund had endorsed Measure 36 (the same-sex marriage ban) in 2004, insiders whispered he was using the pro-civil unions stance to capture moderates statewide.
The question, though, was how Westlund—a Republican—would survive a primary election against the paleoconservatives who run the GOP. His detractors on the right regularly used the term RINO (Republican In Name Only) to describe him. Although his relatively moderate positions in years past helped him win the support of both Democrats and Republicans in his home district, his political positions increasingly pushed him far to the left of many constituents, and political threats were mounting on the right. During last year's lawmaking session, his leadership on queer friendly legislation and support of tax hikes sparked a recall effort that ultimately failed, but sent a strong message for his looming 2008 reelection campaign: Conservative Republicans—and power brokers in the Defense of Marriage Coalition—were out to defeat him.
"I've pissed them off so many times," he told the Mercury recently. "I pretty much always expect them to run someone against me."
So on Tuesday, February 14, after months of playing around with the idea, Westlund finally jumped into the governor's race head first—stripping off his party affiliation before taking the plunge.
A TALE OF TWO PARTIES
Of course, Westlund's decision wasn't entirely a surprise. He's been meeting with local chapters of the Oregon Education Association and other groups around the state seeking their endorsement. And he's been talking lately about his plan to "create a new political center—a radical middle."
"For the last 10 to 12 years, both parties' M.O. has been turning out their base," Westlund explained in a late-night marathon phone interview with the Mercury two weeks ago—which was supposed to be about his environmental plans, but stretched to encompass the future of the state. The parties' efforts, he says, have led to a polarization of Oregon politics, with only a tiny bit of room in the middle for leaders like himself.
"The question is, how wide is that middle?" he asked rhetorically. "Is it wide enough for an independent thinker who sees value in both party platforms, but not enough to be the standard bearer of either one?"
That a GOP state senator would buck his party and run for the highest elected position in the state—three years after narrowly defeating lung cancer—may come as a surprise to some, but Westlund has been working on his liberal resume since last January. In addition to the aforementioned SB1000, he's racked up an odd assortment of progressive projects, like the Apollo Initiative, a proposed ballot measure that would seek to attract renewable energy companies to Oregon and require that 25 percent of all liquid fuel sales be from biofuel sources within 20 years. And then there's the Hope For Oregon Families ballot measure, which would establish healthcare as a constitutional right for Oregonians.
He promoted both of those projects at the Oregon Bus Project's Rebooting Democracy conference, where he joked that he would "bet a million dollars that I'm the only registered Republican in the room."
HOMOPHOBE OR HOMOPHILE?
Two weeks ago, before making his independence and campaign official, Westlund said, "We would be ready to go with the push of a button. We're only behind in fund-raising." However, he projected he could raise $2-$3 million for the campaign and, since he isn't running for either party's primary, he won't have to focus on an election until November.
(If he loses, he'll be the only independent in the state Senate next year. "If that happens, I pledge that all of my caucus meetings will be open to the public. Just me and whoever wants to talk," he joked.)
In order to make it onto the November ballot, Westlund will have to gather 18,364 valid signatures by late August. Unfortunately, the timing couldn't be worse. In January, a new law went into effect that will make it more difficult for independent politicians to gather valid signatures. Now, if anyone votes in a party primary and signs a petition for an independent candidate, their signature will be invalidated and thrown out. Unsurprisingly, Westlund's campaign will be encouraging voters to drop their party affiliation to, in the words of one staffer Tuesday afternoon, "reclaim their independence." And coincidentally, to keep their signatures from being invalidated.
He also dropped hints about his statewide platform, which would focus on three issues: tax reform ("finding adequate and stable funding," i.e., a sales tax), healthcare, and ending "partisanship" (he's pushing for an open primary and has talked about making the legislature non-partisan).
What remains to be seen is how a Westlund candidacy will affect the governor's race. Will he peel more votes from Democrats or from Republicans? In 2002, current Gov. Ted Kulongoski squeaked by Republican Kevin Mannix, and that was with the inadvertent help of Libertarian Tom Cox, who siphoned off 57,760 votes mainly from Mannix. With Mannix running for his party's nomination once again, the situation could be repeated. But which Westlund will Oregon voters latch onto? The one who practically drafted the civil unions bill, or the one who, the previous year, endorsed a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage?
Westlund claims that party leaders are polarizing the state, and that most Oregonians don't identify directly with their political party. There may be some truth to that, as there are reports that a growing number of Oregonians are unaffiliated. Still, politics in Oregon has a long history of being party-dependent.
Besides Westlund, there are no independent legislators in either the House or the Senate. And the state has had exactly one independent governor. That was Julius Meier, who served from 1931 to 1935.
Yet, when Westlund talks about being an Independent politician, one gets the sense that he isn't using an uppercase "I". Like many modern Oregon politicians, Westlund clearly pictures himself in the mold of historic state leaders who are remembered less for their party loyalty than for their ability to complete large projects while building widespread popular support.
"Tom McCall," he said, referring to the Oregon's most beloved governor, "may be rising from the dead."