Unaffiliated governor candidate Betsy Johnson would bring decades-long skepticism about government to the job
Betsy Johnson, a longtime Democratic lawmaker and proudly centrist outlier in her party, is making a nationally historic independent bid for governor that hinges on what she says are embarrassing leadership failures in the state where she was born and has lived nearly her entire life.
She has slammed Oregon’s largest city, Portland, as filthy, crime ridden and too tolerant of homelessness, and said she hears a “clarion call” by members of the Greater Idaho movement that Oregon is headed in the wrong direction. Republican Christine Drazan’s anti-abortion stance is too far right, she says, while Democrat Tina Kotek is too soft on homeless people camping on public property.
That brings Johnson, who is running unaffiliated, to her bottom line.
“Imagine the transformational effect of a governor who would say, ‘I’m not going to sign a bill into law, I’m not going to sign a budget into law, I’m not going to make appointments to boards and commissions without bipartisan support,’” said Johnson, 71.
Although she is not the Republican nominee, she’s said repeatedly that she fully intends to hand veto power to Republican lawmakers. To some, that’s a stunning concession given that Democrats substantially outnumber Republicans in Oregon and have won supermajorities in both chambers of the Legislature.
Specifically, Johnson told The Oregonian/OregonLive that she would “veto any major legislation that didn’t have bipartisan support.”
For Republicans and some non-affiliated voters long frustrated by Democrats’ majority control of Oregon’s top elected offices, it’s a welcome message.
It could mean that, as governor, Johnson might shut down as many, and potentially more, Democratic priorities as Drazan, the Republican who has emphasized that she would focus on serving as Oregon’s efficient, anti-regulatory chief executive, not a rewriter of Democrat-enacted laws.
High-profile policies that Democratic lawmakers passed without a single Republican vote in recent years include a 2015 mandate for employers to provide paid sick leave, a 2016 law raising the minimum wage, a 2017 law that guaranteed the right to abortion and expanded public payments for abortions, a new business tax to boost education spending in 2019 and a 2021 law that requires people to securely store their guns and allows governments, including schools, to pass firearms bans.
A multimillionaire born into a timberland owning family, Johnson so far appears to be the chosen candidate of billionaires Phil Knight and Tim Boyle, who have previously supported Republicans for governor. She has also lined up support from important timber businesses and families, although others are backing Drazan. Johnson was a close ally of forest products and industrial businesses during her time in the Legislature, asking state agencies and Gov. Kate Brown to back off polluters and blocking state regulators from investigating the health impacts of diesel around Portland rail and freight hubs.
As a Democrat, she stood up strongly for opponents of proposed laws to fight climate change and gun safety measures, thus rejecting stances of her then-party. She is playing up her anti-climate regulation position and ever so slightly softening her anti-gun regulation stance in her bid to capture the state’s political middle.
In the months before Republican lawmakers walked out of the state Capitol to kill a 2019 greenhouse gas cap-and-trade plan, Johnson quietly helped boost nascent grassroots opposition, according to Jeff Leavy, a log truck driver from Clatskanie who helped launch the group Timber Unity. His group repeatedly protested with log and semi trucks circling the state Capitol.
Leavy told The Astorian earlier this year that after a meeting with Johnson in 2019, the movement “went from 0 to 60.” Andrew Miller, timber family scion and CEO of Stimson Lumber Co., provided funding and Republican political consultants jumped in.
Johnson’s passion for gun rights was well-known among fellow Democrats, and she shared those views with students at a local school in 2013, weeks after the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre. Unlike most Oregon gun owners, who at most own a semi-automatic rifle or handgun according to federal data, Johnson collects firearms and owns a Cold War era submachine gun.
Johnson is focusing her campaign on her tough approach to Oregon’s homelessness crisis and people who live outdoors, often with untreated substance and mental health issues. Polling over the summer showed her ads paid off, with a notable share of likely voters identifying homelessness as the issue they believed was most important to Johnson.
Homelessness and housing were not Johnson’s signature issues during her 20 years in the Legislature. In fact, her legislation that drew the most attention was focused on Johnson’s passions for aeronautics and economic development in her district — especially near the Scappoose airport where her husband’s airplane fueling and charter flight businesses are located and Johnson has long sought to stimulate economic development for her community.
When asked about sweeping legislation she is proud of, Johnson pointed to her role crafting state budgets. Beyond that, Johnson said she remembers helping people on a case-by-case basis. At a time when Oregon is struggling with broad and deep challenges, from pandemic learning losses to drug-induced psychosis and gun violence, Johnson offered no examples from her 20 years as a lawmaker in which she successfully tackled a statewide problem.
“I don’t have bill numbers, I have phone numbers,” Johnson said. “I have Oregonians whose houses I saved in 2008. I have a story of helping a couple get out of living in their car on Christmas Eve and getting them a permanent apartment within the next week.”
“I have stories of finding people’s insulin,” Johnson said. “When Vernonia was hit with two 500-year floods in a decade, I led the charge to rebuild the Vernonia schools … I have helped with the nascent brewers on the coast trying to find ways for them to discharge their effluent into antique sewer systems because they needed capacity to keep going and making wonderful beer.”
Indeed, Johnson can rattle off a seemingly endless list of individual constituents and other Oregonians she has helped over the years, although she professes not to have such a list or the ability to recall all the names. They happen to include some of the state’s powerful businesses and individuals, such as constituent and Portland businessman Peter Stott, who tangled with state environmental regulators after he filled in wetlands on his Sauvie Island hobby farm. Johnson came to Stott’s aid, helping him to keep some of the wetland area filled in and pay just a $3,000 fine despite repeatedly violating an agreement he had signed with the state, Willamette Week reported. Stott, who described Johnson as a friend, donated $100,000 to her campaign.
In Milwaukie, Johnson’s supporters include the family that owns the restaurant Canby Asparagus Farm Casa de Tamales which hosted a fundraiser for Johnson over the summer. Charles Maes, father of owner Brandon Maes, said they “are a family of Democrats” but he plans to vote for Johnson and a number of Republican candidates for other offices this year due to his disappointment with crime in Portland, schools graduating students with poor mastery of reading and math and increased regulations on businesses.
“I support the Democrat Party usually 99.9%,” Maes said. “But this year, I felt that we needed a change … due to the fact (Democratic candidate Tina Kotek) was the one that made the minimum wage in Oregon go up to $15 an hour.”
That pinched his small business, he said.
Johnson “said she is for both parties, Democrat and Republicans,” Maes said. “Maybe that might be the person that we Oregonians need … Let’s this year go for an independent, see if she can help us bring back the Portland that we once knew.”
Johnson has long been a fixture at community events in her district, riding in parades and tapping her father’s foundation and her campaign funds to give a boost to people including kids and others involved in agriculture. For example, one campaign expense in the last year was labelled “hogs for senior center.”
Earlier this year, Shawn Teevin, president and CEO of Teevin Bros. Land and Timber Co., told The Oregonian/OregonLive that he was supporting Johnson despite being a lifelong Republican because “she’s a ‘get ‘er done’ person” with a long running passion for her community. Teevin was among the constituents who Johnson helped, in his case by pushing the Oregon Department of Transportation to award Teevin Bros. five separate Connect Oregon projects worth a total of more than $9 million, Willamette Week reported.
Timber baron’s daughter
Johnson’s connection to the timber industry is natural: her father, Sam Johnson, was born into a family that owned timberland in California and southern and central Oregon. Sam Johnson later “owned mills, a plywood plant in Madras and dimension lumber in Redmond,” plus unspecified other business partnerships, Betsy Johnson said. The family lived in Redmond and also had a home on 160 acres at the headwaters of the Metolius River, an early destination for Oregon’s elite. In the 1970s, they donated an easement to the U.S. Forest Service so that the public can view the river’s headwaters.
Johnson remembers it as an innocent outdoor childhood paradise. “We spent a lot of time outside,” she said. “We skied, we fished.”
Redmond was such a small outpost at the time that it lacked dental specialists. “If you needed fancy orthodonture done,” she said, “you came to Portland.” The family also looked to Portland when it came time for Betsy to attend high school. They sent her to the private all-girls day and boarding school St. Helens Hall, now Oregon Episcopal School. There, Johnson met Ben Westlund, who was attending the boys school — and who also went on to become a state lawmaker and then state treasurer. Johnson and Westlund were part of a rowdy crowd that frequently snuck off campus and broke curfew, Johnson recalled in 2010 after Westlund’s death.
Johnson studied history at Carleton College in Minnesota, then returned to Oregon and got her law degree at Lewis & Clark. But she was not destined for lawyering and instead made an early career out of a skill her dad imparted.
Referring to her father by his first name, she said, “Sam taught both my sister and me how to fly.” Johnson noted that her sister Patti worked as an aerobatic instructor and flew a jet for a bank.
Johnson honed flying skills enough to compete in the “Olympics of helicoptering” in the Soviet Union in 1978. And later, she founded a helicopter business and took on jobs as varied as helping with search and rescue work after Mount St. Helens erupted and flying for the U.S. Geological Survey, according to a 1982 Christian Science Monitor article on the tiny number of women making a living flying helicopters. Johnson’s company, TransWestern Aviation, benefitted from a big financial boost from her father, The Oregonian/OregonLive reported earlier this year; the company later shifted to airplane fueling and is now held by her husband, John Helm.
Both Sam and Elizabeth Johnson were Republicans and “when I registered (to vote), it was not how did you register, it was did you register?” Johnson said. She stuck with the GOP for decades but left the party in the late 1990s — she does not recall the exact year — because of Republicans’ positions on cultural issues. She ran successfully as a Democrat for the state House in 2000. “The R’s went farther and farther to the right on things that I cared about, like (abortion) choice and gay rights, and I couldn’t stay any longer,” Johnson said.
Wings and deals
Aviation and helicopters remained a passion for Johnson, who went on to manage the Aeronautics Division of the Oregon Department of Transportation and successfully lobbied for the division to be split off into a separate Oregon Department of Aviation in 1999 when she was representing the Oregon Pilots Association, according to her biography on Lewis & Clark Law School’s website. At the same time, she sat on the St. Helens Port Commission, where she used strongarm tactics to fight plans to expand gravel mining near the Scappoose airport.
That included quashing a Vernonia businessman’s plan for a business park near the airport after he refused to help Johnson block the mining initiative. Tim Bero needed a permit from the Port Commission to make his business park viable. “The day before the vote, Betsy called me and told me I had to line up behind her to fight this gravel pit or she would fight my plan,” Bero told The Oregonian in 2007.
He didn’t line up, though, and the Port Commission denied his permit. Johnson said in 2007 it would be a “stretch” for anyone to conclude she insisted on a quid pro quo.
Johnson remained laser-focused on driving specific development – and developers – to the Scappoose airport, and she did so from her post on the Legislature’s powerful Ways and Means Committee, which decides how to allocate state funds. After Johnson decided the new state police academy should be built near the Scappoose airport and Tigard developer Ed Freeman should build it, she pressured academy director Dianne Middle to revisit sites that the state had already selected as finalists.
“She told me we had to reconsider,” Middle told The Oregonian/OregonLive in 2007. “We had no choice.”
Johnson’s efforts came to naught, and the academy was built in Salem, for which Johnson attacked state staff and argued they manipulated the process, according to the report.
But she did not give up on economic development at the Scappoose airport and in 2004 she bought 36 acres of farmland near it, then turned around and sold the land for $119,000 more, to a company owned by Freeman that planned to build an industrial park geared toward aviation businesses, The Oregonian/OregonLive reported. Around the same time, Johnson was also pushing legislation aimed at making rural airports more attractive to developers.
The land deal briefly landed Johnson in hot water, because the news organization pointed out she failed to report her ownership or sale of the land on financial disclosure required of Oregon elected officials, and she ultimately settled an ethics case for $600. At the time, Johnson was rumored to be considering running for governor.
Finally in 2016, Johnson’s long bid to generate development in her district and specifically near the Scappoose airport paid off when the Legislature started to approve rounds of funding to open an Oregon Manufacturing and Innovation Center and chose Scappoose as its location. Taxpayers’ outlay currently stands around $57.8 million, according to state records.
Johnson has also taken a decades-long interest in an airport roughly 40 miles south, in Aurora, where people associated with the airport or land adjacent to it supported Johnson’s 2007 bill to offer property tax money to rural airports and neighboring property owners for expansion and improvement projects, The Oregonian/OregonLive reported. Johnson supported attempts by landowners around the airport to expand the runway for private jets and other development in some of the Willamette Valley’s most fertile farmland. After the Oregon Court of Appeals last year shot down Aurora’s latest expansion plan, Johnson lambasted the ruling as a “horrible precedent” and told the Oregon State Aviation Board in a public meeting that it had a “fiduciary duty to Oregonians” to appeal the decision.
In Johnson’s eyes, her motivation is pure and the results benefit Oregonians. She makes no apologies for her tactics, including when she repeatedly pressed a city of Portland lobbyist in 2006 and 2007 to push city leaders to pick up the tab for insurance and other costs of a helipad that her husband was operating on top of a city parking garage. She says the rooftop was used as a landing pad for local TV stations and law enforcement agencies as well as a backup for Legacy Health Systems, not for her family’s or other people’s profit.
City staffers wondered why the nonprofit helipad association Helm ran did not collect enough fees from helicopter operators to cover the operating costs, according to emails reported by Willamette Week. The city of Portland eventually agreed to pay Helm’s association $75,000 over three years.
Johnson said any suggestion that she and her husband benefitted personally from the city payments is “bullshit” and they sank their personal funds into making Portland helicopter-friendly. “Los Angeles threw the helicopter out of the urban core, Seattle got rid of their heliport and we did whatever it took to maintain that facility, including spending our own money to keep it open,” Johnson said. “To suggest that there was some kind of contract that we were making money off of is just crap.”
“We paid the city of Portland’s liability insurance to the tune of about $15,000 a year for damn near 15 years,” Johnson said. “And did we ever get a mumbling thank you? No.”
Slow walking bureaucracy
Johnson is well-known for her aggressive questioning of state bureaucrats, who for decades faced Johnson during budget hearings.
Her style was on display in April 2013 when then-Employment Department director Laurie Warner pitched Johnson’s budget subcommittee on the importance of replacing the agency’s aged computer system, noting Oregon was one of only two states in the nation still running “legacy systems” with no plan for modernization. The state had been sitting on more than $80 million in federal funds to replace the system since 2009, when the computers were strained by the Great Recession.
Johnson interrupted Warner and demanded to know how the agency was progressing recovering $41 million in overpayments of jobless benefits, 1% of benefits paid out during the period examined in a state audit. “It’s money that was paid out and folks weren’t entitled to the money,” Johnson said.
Replacing the computer systems didn’t seem to register as urgently with Johnson. “I’m not quite sure what you’ve told us,” Johnson said, after Warner described how other states across the nation had replaced their unemployment computer systems. Warner told lawmakers the Employment Department needed to come up with a plan to replace Oregon’s unemployment computer system. None of the lawmakers on the committee expressed interest, urgency or indeed any thoughts at all on Warner’s pitch.
Nearly a decade later, Oregon’s Reagan-era unemployment technology remained in place when the COVID-19 pandemic hit because state lawmakers and successive governors waited years to launch the replacement, The Oregonian/OregonLive reported. The old system gummed up the state’s efforts to quickly get jobless benefits out to thousands of workers and held up expanded pandemic benefits for months. Oregonians flooded Johnson and other lawmakers with emails and calls begging for help.
Johnson said in a recent interview that the blame for delays replacing the unemployment benefits system lies with governors and agency directors, such as Warner. She said they failed to make a convincing case that they could handle such a complex technology project and that governors viewed employment department directors as inept, so lawmakers also distrusted them.
“I would have expected some advocacy from the head of the executive branch to say this is a mess,” Johnson said. “Some of those directors were so bad that (Gov. Kate Brown) ended up firing them. Simply having an agency come in and say, ‘You’ve gotta give us all the money in the world’ – What’s the plan? What’s the accountables? What are the deliverables? What is the timeline? How are you going to spend this money?’”
“You can’t force change from below,” Johnson said. “I’ve gotten very frustrated with the governor’s office not acting as an advocate for repairs to that (unemployment insurance) system. And then the most remarkable thing is — and I think this validates why I had every right to question them — it appears that … unemployment was going to retain the same contractor to do their upgrade that sent $600 million worth of Washingtonian money to some scammers in Nigeria.” (Washington in fact sent $350,000 in pandemic unemployment aid to a scammer in Nigeria, who has since been convicted and agreed to pay full restitution.)
Johnson said employees at the Employment Department also communicated skepticism about an overhaul to lawmakers. “We were hearing from a bunch of frontline employees saying this plan is deeply flawed,” Johnson said. In fact, the agency consulting firm Deloitte found widespread employee resistance to change in 2020.
Lawmakers were also particularly on alert and risk-averse on major technology projects, after the high-profile failure of the Cover Oregon health insurance marketplace.
“I think that the Legislature was completely appropriate to push the agency hard on what’s your plan,” Johnson said, although no lawmakers made such a request at the employment department’s 2013 public hearing. “The problem was their planning, not legislative funding. And oh by the way, little or no advocacy from the governors’ office who as far back as when she was secretary of state knew there was a problem.”
Watch for profiles of other candidates for Oregon governor still to come.
Oct. 2: Democrat Tina Kotek
Oct 9: Republican Christine Drazan
— Hillary Borrud