State Senator Ben Westlund wasn't a good Republican.
He carried the torch for civil unions and anti-discrimination for gays and lesbians, advocated for a sales tax, and crafted the Oregon Cultural Trust, much to the chagrin of the mouth-breathing, knuckle-dragging paleoconservatives who run the party. Republican leadership threatened to put him through a primary election—ostensibly against someone further to the right.
Westlund responded in February by dropping his party affiliation and running for governor as an independent. Obviously, that didn't work out, and Westlund left the race when it became clear that he was going to be a "spoiler," and that he was only taking votes away from Democrat Ted Kulongoski.
Since then, Democrats have swept the general elections, both nationally and here in the state, and approval rates for Republicans have plummeted. Even though he championed the independent cause throughout the spring and summer, on Tuesday, December 12, Westlund made it official—he registered as a Democrat. He spent the rest of the day running personal errands in his heavily Republican district, talking to his constituents, and, of course, taking media calls like ours.
MERCURY: Switching from Republican to independent seemed like common sense—knowing what I know of your opinions and priorities. But why switch from independent to Democrat?
BEN WESTLUND: It's actually just a continuation of that process. There are a lot of reasons here, but the straw that broke the camel's back as to why I left the Republican Party was because of their intolerance for our fellow human beings. You know what? I was independent just long enough. What I mean by that is that I still feel very independent. But being independent doesn't mean you stand alone. It means you stand with people whose values you share. And for about half of the last election cycle—from the time I withdrew from my gubernatorial bid, August 10—what do I immediately start doing? I start standing with Democrats, mostly with my opposition to Measures 41 and 48. And then a little bit later in the campaign, I'm standing with Democratic candidates who are running for legislative office. And then a little bit later in the campaign, I'm standing with the individual I think is most qualified to run Oregon for the next four years, who is a Democrat. Obviously, Ted Kulongoski. So what are you doing, Ben? You're standing with Democrats. I don't think I need to give up my independence to stand with Democrats.
Were there other issues on which you weren't in step with the GOP?
Yes. One is revenue. Oregon, even with the robust revenues we currently have, has a $1.5 billion structural deficit built into the budget. So I was always a champion and an architect of the revenue proposals. That certainly didn't play well with some of my Republican colleagues. The other big one was what I consider one of my biggest legislative accomplishments—I was the architect of the Oregon Cultural Trust. All of a sudden I got this incredible backlash. "That's not a core government function! Why are you talking about that foo-foo thing? That's an Endowment for the Arts deal. That's bad!" All those guys couldn't even articulate their opposition to it. So it wasn't just gay rights, and it wasn't just revenue, and it wasn't just more enlightened policies. The big thing enveloping all of that is my core political belief that government has a responsibility to play a positive and proactive role in improving the quality of people's lives. That's the big thing.
That doesn't put you in good graces with the small-government conservatives.
Yeah, the "I don't want to kill government, I just want to shrink it so I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the tub" mentality. The Grover Norquist crowd. That's the kind of foundation, the overarching reason I'm no longer a Republican. It's like I've finally got a political home. That doesn't mean I'm going to agree with every Democrat God ever created, but there's a larger consistency and greater overlap in most Democrats' views. By and large, it's respecting the rights of all human beings, it's providing affordable and effective healthcare to all residents of Oregon, and not just adequate, but stable funding for all of our educational components, pre-kindergarten through college.
Does signing up with the Democrats make it easier for you to push on or influence those core issues?
I always felt that the Democrats valued my opinion, and I had influence—even as a Republican—in the Democratic caucus. Now that I am a Democrat, I feel my voice will be heard just that much louder.
How have people in your district responded to your switch? Or have they yet?
It's one of the great things you get doing the nuts and bolts of living—going to the pharmacy, dry cleaners, auto shop—you're getting face to face with constituents. By and large, overwhelmingly, support has been positive. No question about that.
Have you heard from people who are unhappy?
Not specifically. I know that Stacey [Dycus, Westlund's staffer] has been following the emails, and they've been running about 9-1 positive to negative. [Dycus says it's more like 20-1.]
If you were to compare it to when you were championing SB1000, are you getting the same sort of response?
No. SB1000 was a much more divisive, controversial issue. I think you hit a nail on the head there. This is almost more normal to a lot of people than championing gay rights. They might not like it. Some of my Republican constituents may not like it, but that's at least more understandable. That fits within the two-party system. "Are you stripes or are you spots?" They understand that stuff. What they don't understand is honoring the dignity of all human beings.
You're running for reelection in 2008. Is it going to be more difficult to run as a Democrat than as an independent?
I'll answer your question, but first let me say this isn't about election for this office or that. The most important thing now is—look, the campaigns are over. Now, we get to really do the joyful work of this whole process, and that's going into session to craft good public policy—building the best public policy we can to solve real problems for real Oregonians. That's what's paramount now. Ask me the day after session ends, I'll be happy to answer that question. But I suppose you don't want to wait until then.
I have to imagine the election is something you've thought about.
Here's the thing. In my last couple of elections, I've won contested elections by overwhelming majorities. That doesn't mean I'm a lock or any election is guaranteed. But my point is I won with much stronger majorities than just with Republicans. A lot of individuals and Democrats had to vote for me to get the percentages I got. What that tells me is that people in this district are willing to vote for an individual that works hard and represents the district well. In regard to your first question, what that tells me is that, yes, I can win this seat as a Democrat. How's that for an around-the-barn answer?
Do you feel there's more room for independent thought in the state Democratic Party than in the state GOP?
Absolutely. Like Will Rogers said, "I'm not a member of an organized political party. I'm a Democrat." It's out of that chaos, that cacophony of noise, that I think freedom is produced. And like their political philosophy, I think individually Democrats are more tolerant of views they disagree with.
Five years ago, could you have imagined switching party status?
Five years ago, it was a consideration. Maybe a twinkling in my eye kind of thing. I was always a RINO [Republican in Name Only] Republican, even from my first day in the legislature. I've got to admit, when I first entered the legislative process as a Republican, I didn't know what that really meant. I became a Republican like most people become either a Republican or a Democrat—when we turn registration age, we follow the lead of our parents.
The Republican Party then was drastically different than it is now.
Exactly right. You had Tom McCall, Mark O. Hatfield—hell, even Vic Atiyeh couldn't get elected today! Don't forget, Atiyeh, who everyone loves to hold up as the last Republican governor, committed heresy according to today's Republicans, because he supported a temporary income tax surcharge during the last great recession in this state. Oh my God! Yet no one ever trots that out when they're introducing Vic Atiyeh, great Republican. The hypocrisy is astounding.