The Impact of the Independent Party of Oregon

Former Oregon legislator Chris Telfer wants to find out as she has filed as an Independent to run for state treasurer.  The most prominent "independent" in Oregon these days may be Senator Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose. 

Former Oregon legislator Chris Telfer wants to find out as she has filed as an Independent to run for state treasurer. The most prominent "independent" in Oregon these days may be Senator Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose. 

Oregon is officially a three-party state and questions abound whether the Independent Party of Oregon will alter the state's increasingly blue-state electoral performance. The first test could be a candidate running for state treasurer.

The Independent Party of Oregon achieved recognized party status August 17 after nailing down almost 110,000 registered voters. Recognition means the Independent Party will have its own primary election, paid for by the state, just like the Democratic and Republican parties.

The newly recognized party has benefitted by a name that many people associate with non-affiliation with the two major parties. People who registered as Independents may think less of it as a party than as a way to vote in the primary without being either a Democrat or Republican.

The absence of what the party itself stands for makes it hard to predict the party's impact on the 2016 elections, which will see almost every statewide office up for grabs, as well as a bucket load of ballot measures. Independent-minded voters have become a critical part of the Oregon electorate, often capable of swinging an election. But can the Independent Party nominate candidates that can win elections?

Former Oregon legislator Chris Telfer wants to find out as she has filed as an Independent to run for state treasurer, while, a position that will be open because Ted Wheeler is term-limited from seeking re-election. Telfer, who was elected to the Oregon Senate from Bend as a Republican, but defeated in a primary in 2012. A CPA, she ran unsuccessfully for state treasurer as a Republican in 2010.

The most prominent "independent" in Oregon these days may be Senator Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose.  A Pamplin Media Group editorial last week speculated Johnson may be exploring a run for governor under the Independent Party banner. The editorial noted Johnson, who has toyed with a gubernatorial run before, is on tour through Oregon. It could be a political scouting mission or just a summer road trip.

A potential Johnson candidacy underscores the challenge facing the new party. While Johnson herself is well known as a long-time legislator, her platform as an Independent Party candidate for governor would have to be carved out of new stone. Okay, she's independent, but what does that mean for health care reform, funding for K-12 schools, transportation investment and income inequality? Democratic and Republican candidates would have a leg up on those issues because their political parties and their core constituencies line up behind fairly well defined positions.

Former Secretary of State Phil Keisling noted that initially the Independent Party impact may be greatest at the legislative level, where a few hundred votes in a swing district could make a difference. It also is a more fertile opportunity for an Independent Party candidate with local name familiarity to win a House or Senate seat.

Non-affiliated candidates have won before. In 1974 Charles Hanlon, who ran as an independent, defeated incumbent Senator Bill Holmstrom, even though he was Senate majority leader and co-chairman of the Joint Ways and Means Committee. Holmstrom was mired in a scandal and Hanlon emerged as a credible alternative in a coastal Senate district that no Republican at that time would have had a chance to win.

Another trend that could come into play is a relatively new option that allows a candidate to bear the nomination of more than one political party. Under fusion voting, a candidate can be the Democratic nominee, as well as the Green Party nominee, with both affiliations appearing on the ballot. This has given smaller parties a chance to have an influence on candidates with a chance to win, other than just being an election spoiler to split the votes. Until the Independent Party develops its own brand, this could be its more powerful weapon to gain at least a share of credit for a candidate victory.

As the Pamplin Media Group editorial says, "Being called independent is inherently attractive, but even Independents will have to stand for something."

Political ID-ology

While the political bases on the far right and far left seem to be hardening, there is a growing group of voters who find themselves alienated from both major political parties — and even the political process itself.

Signs of polarization are everywhere. A recent Pew Research survey showed there is a growing gap between dyed-in-the-wool Democrats and Republicans on a wide array of issues. There is evidence people are voting with their feet, preferring to live in either a blue or red state, depending on their own political viewpoint.

One contributing factor to partisanship — a byproduct of polarization — is how congressional and legislative districts are drawn. Increasingly, district boundaries have been contoured to make congressional and legislative seats politically "safe" for Democrats or Republicans.

An excellent example of the impact of partisan redistricting is the U.S. House, where many GOP members represent safe districts, often with relatively few Hispanic voters. They don't worry about Republicans winning the White House; they fear being challenged by a more conservative opponent in the next primary, as happened to several Oregon legislators in the May primary.

Which brings us

Budget Stalemates in Olympia and Salem

Lawmakers in Washington and Oregon haven't found the answer to balancing their states’ budgets with more funding for K-12 schools. Now time is running out.The economy is improving and tax revenues are up, which should make it relatively easy to balance the budget. But Oregon and Washington lawmakers are finding it anything but easy.

The Oregon legislature, which planned to adjourn by the end of June, is bracing to grind on until July. The Washington legislature just completed its first special session, which The Columbian summarized in a tweet as "30 days, 0 bills, $77,000 in per diems."

Lawmakers in both states are hung up on how to get more money for K-12 schools. 

In Olympia, lawmakers face a court mandate to increase K-12 school funding, but can't agree how to do it.

In Salem, Democrats and Republicans have failed to reach agreement on deep enough cuts to the Public Employees Retirement System and new revenue. The Oregon Senate, which Democrats control by a slim 16-14 margin, is stymied because Senator Chris Edwards, D-Springfield, has balked at passing a large enough K-12 school budget to avoid more teacher layoffs and school day reductions.

A Grand Bargain on PERS, Public Safety

Oregon lawmakers settle in for real Monday and will quickly see, if they haven't already, that the 2013 session pivots on the outcome of two tough political decisions — modifying PERS and public safety reforms.

The legislature's only absolute duty is to approve a balanced budget and Governor Kitzhaber has teed up that task on the backs of saving a lot of money on PERS and new approaches to managing public safety. He also wants to slow the rate of growth of Medicaid and save $400 million in projected health care costs in the next biennium.

Squeezing money out of Medicaid rests on the ability of hospitals, doctors and health systems to, in Kitzhaber's words, "bend the cost curve" of the health care delivery system. But squeezing money out of PERS and Oregon’s public safety system falls squarely on the shoulders of legislators.

If there ever was a need for a grand bargain, this is it.

That's undoubtedly why legislative leaders have created a bipartisan, bicameral committee with equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans to address the public safety reforms — or, in legislative parlance, to provide both parties with political cover on what surely will be tough votes.

Leaders know there will be hell-no votes on both issues in both Democratic and Republican caucuses. Bipartisan majorities will be required if PERS and public safety changes are going to pass this session.

Democrats Run the Table in Oregon…Again

While observers thought things would be closer, Democrats surged to a working majority in the House, but retained a nearly tied Senate. With a Democratic Governor in the middle of his third term, the results from last night will put to the test the skills Democrats and Republicans gained while working with a 30-30 House now that one party has the opportunity to control the organization of both chambers.

  • In the legislature, Democrats decisvely take charge of the House by 34 votes, not a supermajority, but clearly a working majority. Rep. Tina Kotek, D-Portland, the current majority leader, will be named Speaker within the next few days.