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“On the Trail in Oregon: Is the Party Over?”

Politics splits along interesting lines here on the upper left side of the country. In the Oregon race for governor, four candidates are looking to knock off the incumbent, a middle-of–the-road technocrat (need I say Democrat?) named Ted Kulongoski. The main challenger is a pro-choice, Republican corporate lawyer who’s likely to split the centrist vote with Kulongoski in November. That’s given the three remaining, otherwise fringe candidates some unexpected leverage.

From the left, Kulongoski has heard the faint, but insistent buzzing of the Pacific Green Party, whose nominee, a Vietnam vet and former investment banker named Joe Keating, has attacked the governor for his early support of the Iraq War and his failure to push for higher corporate taxes. Nothing unusual about that debate, especially in the Portland metro area (dubbed “little Beirut” by Bush I when he was hounded by protesters during a visit in the ’80s), where most of the state’s residents live and where the dialogue typically cleaves liberal vs. left. Keating has little chance of running higher than the single digits, but the charismatically-challenged Kulongoski has to answer the criticisms in order to keep his base together and generate liberal turnout.

The real action, though, is on the right. The diminutive Constitution Party nominated anti-abortion activist Mary Starrett to outflank the Republican candidate, Ron Saxton, on social issues. In the course of her campaign, however, Starrett has also stolen some thunder from the state’s Libertarian Party by staking out a surprising position on the war in Iraq and—of particular interest to Brooklynites—by making much of her opposition to the state’s use of eminent domain to restrict or seize private property.

Appearing on radio with right-wing talker Lars Larson, whose nationally syndicated show is broadcast out of Portland, Starrett stunned her host by announcing that she did not support the use of Oregon National Guard troops in Iraq, arguing that the Guard was never meant to be deployed outside the borders of the U.S. She even questioned the war itself, saying the invasion was based on a “specious” rationale, and called for an immediate withdrawal of all American troops.

Polls over the summer have shown Starrett getting the support of almost 15 percent of state voters, with the Republican Saxton polling only a few points higher. Even though Starrett’s numbers will probably be cut in half by Election Day, she can easily pull enough votes on the right to sink Saxton. Thus, radio jock Larson, a loyal Republican and Saxton booster, has spent a lot of airtime since her appearance on his show attacking her, casting her as a nut who doesn’t understand the mission in Iraq and, more important, doesn’t appreciate the heroism of the good men and women of the Oregon National Guard. Many of Larson’s long-time listeners, however, aren’t taking the cue. In fact, more than a few retired Guardsmen—gruff-sounding men with names like Walter and Otto—have called in to second Starrett’s position on the Guard and to express genuine ambivalence about the misadventure in Iraq.

On eminent domain, Starrett and her Constitution Party support a referendum passed by Oregon voters two years ago to compensate property owners for restrictive land use rules—an initiative that, until recently, was tied up in state courts. Not surprisingly, the Libertarian Party supports the initiative as well. Officially, the state Republican Party takes the same position, but it’s never been a centerpiece of Saxton’s campaign. Kulongoski, the Democrat, says he’d like to roll back the measure, claiming it hampers the state’s ability to plan land use, but he hasn’t risked any political capital to make that happen. The Pacific Greens—who are worried, with some justification, that the initiative will hurt efforts to protect wetlands and other environmentally sensitive areas—also want the State Legislature to roll it back; but they seem as reluctant as the Democrats to run against something that won the support of two out of three state voters.

The politics of eminent domain in Oregon reflects a wider pattern around the country: movement conservatives are the ones tapping into popular discontent. Mainstream Republicans are usually less than enthusiastic about the issue, fearing any restriction on eminent domain could impede large-scale economic development. Democrats sound positively tone-deaf on the topic, unable somehow to comprehend voters’ instinctive hostility to the idea of government bureaucrats commandeering someone’s home for environmental or—as is more and more the case—commercial purposes. In last year’s Supreme Court decision on the issue, it was Clinton nominees Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg who joined three of the Court’s Republican moderates in a 5-4 vote that gave governments virtual free reign to invoke eminent domain. The case upheld the right of New London, CT’s city government to force homeowners in a once-rundown area to sell out in order to make way for a commercially owned, 90-acre development of office buildings and upscale condos. It was left to the Court’s right wing of Scalia, Thomas and Rehnquist, joined by swing Justice O’Connor, to pen a dissent using language straight out of the Progressive Era, writing that the majority had favored the, “disproportionate influence and power …[of] large corporations and development firms.”

Despite its liberal reputation nationally—and notwithstanding its landmark progressive initiatives on issues including physician-assisted suicide, medical marijuana, and gay marriage—Oregon is not as solidly a blue state as either of its West Coast neighbors. In most cities and suburbs beyond Portland, and in further-flung rural areas, registered Republicans outnumber Democrats. The real growth statewide in the last 20 years or so, though, is in the number of registered independents. That reflects not only a distrust of the major parties, but a prevailing political attitude—equal parts populist, grass-roots conservative and libertarian—that’s also typical of states like Maine, Georgia, Oklahoma, Indiana… in other words, much of the rest of the country.

Opposition to a costly, increasingly disastrous, “preemptive” war, and, at the same time, a gut-level aversion to government seizure of private homes to make way for luxury condominiums, resonate strongly for people who share that particularly American, populist-libertarian bent. And from the looks of the governor’s race here, neither Republicans nor Democrats seem to know what to do with those people.


Doug Cordell

DOUG CORDELL is a writer now based in the Bay Area.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2006

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