Okay, so we had a little fun with the cover.
For a few brief days in late April and early May 2002, Ron Saxton led
the polls in the gubernatorial Republican primary. Under the counsel of
longtime Oregon political operative Elaine Franklin, Saxton’s campaign
imploded in the final days as he moved aggressively left on social issues,
abortion and assisted suicide. Now, four years later, Saxton has a new
face to his campaign, new political consultants…and a new political
bedfellow, Lars Larson. Has he done wrong?
Last month, a Sunday Oregonian editorial began the paper’s campaign
for an open primary. The idea, an initiative of political outsiders Phil
Keisling and Norma Paulus, is aimed at the November ballot. The Oregonian
has consistently argued that partisanship is the root of all evils in
Oregon politics. The newspaper made the argument that if someone as moderate
and intelligent as Ron Saxton is forced to cuddle up to Lars Larson and
the right wingers in order to win his party’s nomination, it proves
how broken our state’s partisan political system is.
Richard Nixon is the American politician credited with the adage that
you run to your party’s extreme base in the primary, and then you
run back hard to the middle in the general election. This was Saxton’s
strategy, as he took a position on illegal immigration to the right of
and in conflict with President Bush during a three-way candidate debate
with Kevin Mannix and Jason Atkinson.
This hot button issue happens to be the passion of conservative talk
show host Lars Larson. Larson, whose radio show is a big factor in the
GOP primary, dumped his former favorite candidate, southern Oregon State
Sen. Atkinson, and endorsed Saxton. Larson did this because Atkinson,
claiming to know something about the need for illegal workers in Oregon’s
agriculture industry, refused to part from the president’s position,
which would allow guest worker passes for illegal immigrants already in
the country. Larson labels this amnesty and Saxton, at the time, agreed.
Larson previously dumped Mannix as his GOP favorite two years ago when
Mannix, as GOP chairman, declined to defend comments Larson made about
Hispanics. Mannix, who grew up in Guatemala, claimed he seldom listened
to Larson’s show, even though Larson had been instrumental in helping
Mannix win the ’02 GOP gubernatorial primary.
Illegal immigration isn’t the only issue in this year’s primary
that Ron Saxton has moved right on—PERS is another. In the May 2005
issue of BrainstormNW, Saxton wrote about PERS reform: “Thus, the
radical idea is to ‘reconstitute’ the system by terminating
public employees, and later rehiring them under new contracts with different
terms.” Saxton’s comment made a splash not only in Oregon,
but it also caught the attention of the Louisiana State Employee’s
Retirement System (LASERS) whose members were directed to the article.
Later Saxton would refine his position on PERS reform, as he would illegal
immigration, but not before he got the attention he needed as the “new”
Ron Saxton, and also got Larson’s endorsement.
Illegal immigration and PERS reform won’t be the only issues that
Saxton will be moving right on in this year’s primary—land
use and transportation are two others. In 2000, Saxton voted against the
land use Measure 7, but in 2004 voted for Measure 37.
None of these position switches/enhancements play well with the Oregonian’s
editorial board, who portray Saxton’s move right as evidence of
a broken political system. The paper also believes that Oregon’s
extreme partisanship is forcing smart and well-intentioned moderates such
as Mark Hass, Max Williams, Wayne Shetterly, and Len Hannon to quit the
Typical Oregonian headline: “Another respected lawmaker leaves
the Legislature, fed up with partisanship.” Solution: Rid the state
of political parties.
But hold on there. To judge whether political parties help or hurt our
system of government, perhaps the perspective should be a little broader.
Since 1856, the U.S. has been exceptionally well served by two dominant
political parties. No other democracy in existence can claim such long-running
success as ours, with its Republican and Democratic parties framing the
issues. Our system, despite its flaws, made the 20th century “the
American century.” So it has worked well nationally.
As Tom Daschle said at the 2006 Tom McCall Forum, “Democracy is
by nature an adversarial system.” In his defense of our system,
the well-known partisan politician pointed to a constructive, rather than
destructive, tone as the crucial element in maintaining a workable, civil
As for the political divisions in the country, concerns that the two
parties are too divided, too bitter, too polarized for civil discourse…well,
it was only a decade ago that citizens constantly complained that the
two parties didn’t have enough differences, that they resembled
each other too much. So stick around—things change. Besides, peeling
a label off someone’s lapel does nothing to change their hearts
On a state level, much of the extreme partisanship that the state’s
daily papers abhor is blamed on the Republican-controlled House, and particularly
Speaker Karen Minnis. During the ’05 session, Minnis refused to
give in to the governor, the Democrats or the editorial boards on two
key GOP issues: her defense of Measure 37 and her unwillingness to support
new taxes in bad economic times.
So what happened? The Oregon Supreme Court ruled that 61 percent of Oregon
voters were right in approving regulatory relief to Oregon property owners,
and twice Oregon voters backed up the Speaker in defeating statewide income
tax increases. Yes, Minnis was partisan in defense of two of her party’s
key issues. But last month in his State of the State address, Governor
Kulongoski argued that Oregon was back, emerged from the state’s
worst economic crisis in 30 years. Maybe Minnis’ partisan, hard
line on tax increases should get a little credit for what the governor
sees as a miraculous comeback.
It is only within the third, fourth and fifth levels of government—city,
county and Metro politics—that political parties don’t exist.
The result according to one Portland City Council observer is 0 Republicans,
0 Democrats, and 5 Socialists. In the ’90s, Neil Goldschmidt once
referred to the sitting Portland council members as the smartest group
he had ever seen, but he also warned that they were the least differentiated
in ideology. In 1990, as reported by the Portland Business Alliance (PBA),
the city of Portland had 110,000 jobs in its downtown financial core.
A dozen years later, PBA reported there were only 80,000 jobs in downtown
core. Perhaps political parties in local politics might have improved
But back to the cover. Forgive the cliché, but politics does make
strange bedfellows: Ron Saxton and Lars Larson. Does anyone really believe
that by moving to the right in this year’s gubernatorial primary
and taking the time to actually get to know members of his own party (and
by doing so, giving himself a shot at winning this year’s primary),
Ron Saxton is a less effective candidate, or governor? Is it really so
wrong to be right? Maybe. But as for us, hold the open primary, and turn
up the Brokeback radio.
BrainstormNW - March 2006