The populist movement rolls through Oregon, setting its sights on Gov. Kate Brown

Oregon State Fair visitors sign a petition to recall Gov. Kate Brown at the booth organized by Flush Down Kate Brown. (Claire Withycombe/Oregon Capital Bureau)

SALEM — Jolly old St. Nicholas doesn’t care much for the governor.

Dressed in a stocking cap, black boots, red velvet pants and vest, he signed the petition to recall Gov. Kate Brown in between proffering photos with Santa in the stifling August heat at the Oregon State Fair.

His holiday booth was next to one where people could sign petitions to recall the governor, who won re-election in November.

“The main thing is being able to have an opinion when you think something’s not right,” Santa said. He declined to fully identify himself, saying he fears being attacked. 

Santa had a very specific grievance: He said the governor’s office imposed a $400 annual fee on him for having a water well at his property east of Salem.

Santa, who declined to give his real name, signing a petition to recall Governor Kate Brown. (Courtesy Mark Buzzard)

At a time where right-wing populists from Boris Johnson and Jair Bolsonaro to Donald Trump have accrued mainstream appeal and have secured real political power, Brown’s opponents are finding an outlet for their dissatisfaction by trying to put her on the ballot through a recall petition. Two, to be precise.

The Oregon Capital Bureau interviewed about 30 people signing petitions at the fair in Salem over three days. Most were from the Willamette Valley, many from more rural areas like Molalla or Monmouth. 

Petition signers carried a variety of grievances to the two booths offering recall petitions. They named business taxes, environmental policies, and legislation allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses.

The state GOP’s petition outlines its issues on the back, saying Brown overturned the will of the voters by allowing undocumented immigrants to get drivers licenses and approving new taxes. She attempted to violate peoples’ medical freedom and impose environmental regulations, it says. She failed to fix an underfunded pension system or a troubled foster care system, and supported use of the emergency clause on bills to keep policy from being referred to the voters, it says.

Brown, they say, is the person responsible for turning Oregon into a tax-happy, gun-hating, business-killing liberal haven.

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At the state GOP’s booth, the traffic to sign the petitions ebbed and flowed. 

Salesmen hawking beef jerky and massage chairs competed for the attention of fairgoers streaming through the pop-up mall. 

To the south of the GOP booth, a woman demonstrated dirt-repelling welcome mats. To the north a team of men pitched people on the benefits of Dish satellite TV. The massage chair salesmen aggressively defended their territory.

But when people saw the large cardboard cutout of Trump or the “recall Kate Brown” banner, many seemed giddy. 

“They can’t sign it fast enough,” said Sam Sapp, who was working the booth on a recent morning.

They rushed over, eagerly asking where they could sign, often following up with “I hate her” or “She’s terrible.”

Disliking politicians is an American tradition, but the recall process is generally reserved as a response to corruption or scandal, not a rejection of policy. In fact, no recall of a state official has ever made it to the Oregon ballot. 

The Oregon Republican party claims it is on pace to get more than 300,000 signatures by the Oct. 14 deadline.

According to volunteers, the party has reported averaging a signature per minute, though the party has not released how many signatures it’s actually gotten.

To many seasoned political observers, the prospect of recalling Brown is as likely as Santa Claus and eight tiny reindeer flying around the world every Christmas Eve.

Thomas Wheatley, Brown’s campaign advisor, believes Republicans are juicing the stats.

“I’m extraordinarily dubious about this claim, though they do operate in the world of alternative facts,” he said.

The majority of those interviewed at the fair about signing the petitions struggled to specify why they wanted to recall Brown, and seemed to be doing so based on a gut feeling. 

Most commonly, people brought up cap and trade — a failed effort by the Legislature that Brown backed to curb greenhouse gas emissions. 

“My understanding is that a lot of people just don’t think Salem cares about them right now,” said Linn County GOP Chair Adam Keaton, pointing to that county’s agriculture, timber and trucking industries.

There was also a hefty degree of conspiracy mongering. Some affiliated with the effort say they fear retaliation. They shared rumors that people signing the petitions or volunteering with the campaigns have been targeted for arson, beat up or had their cars vandalized.

Opponents sometimes cite Brown’s unconventional path to the governorship: as secretary of state, Brown moved into the job as directed by the state constitution with John Kitzhaber’s resignation in February 2015.

The next year, 985,000 people voted for Brown, winning 139,418 more votes than Bud Pierce, the Republican nominee.

Last year, about 934,000 people voted for Brown, beating GOP opponent Knute Buehler by 119,510 votes, according to the state Elections Division.

While the petition signers often said Brown isn’t following the will of the voters, she won re-election campaigning heavily for the policies they oppose, such as greenhouse gas capping and an education funding package.

“We are proud of the accomplishments from this year’s legislative session,” Wheatley said. “Historic investments in our schools, stable health care funding, bold steps to make housing more affordable, tackling dirty diesel, campaign finance reform, and much more.”

Though some doubted Brown really did campaign on such policies.

“You know, I don’t believe that,” said Lincoln City resident Dee Right. “I don’t believe it was in full detail. I think she lied.”

Right stopped by the fair booth, but had already signed the petition.

“She’s only benefiting the metropolitan areas and not the rural cities that make up Oregon,” Right said. 

Right was especially bothered by the cap and trade proposal, which she said would kill the logging and trucking industries. 

Right said she’s been a registered Democrat her whole life, yet when she saw a recall booth in Lincoln City, she pulled an illegal U-turn to sign it. She’s never been political, she said, but spoke with passion when disparaging Brown. 

“She’s making a mess, and she doesn’t listen to the people,” Right said. 

Two months ago, Right switched her affiliation. 

“Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do,” she said, adding she took several sheets to get friends and family to sign as well.

Volunteers at the state GOP booth at the Oregon State Fair. (Claire Withycombe/Oregon Capital Bureau)

At the state fair, it took three volunteers at a time to work the booth. They each had sets of two recall petitions and one to refer a highway tolling proposal for the Portland area to voters. They’re working the booths from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day of the fair. It’s a total of 132 four-hour shifts.

One woman, who declined to be named, asked for a voter registration card so she could change from a Democrat to a Republican. She happily obliged when asked to sign the toll petition in addition to the recall ones.

“What is wrong with her?” she said of Brown.

“‘Cause Kate Brown’s crazy,” said Jill, a Salem woman, when asked why she signed. “She’s destroying the state.”

Jill declined to give her full name.

Some also talked about Brown as a boogeyman. One woman organizing volunteers at the “Flush Down Kate Brown” fair booth declined to give her name because she was scared, though she couldn’t say what of. Brown might take her business away or jail her for her activism, she said.

“People say Kate Brown has her party — they will retaliate against you,” the Stayton woman said. “It’s just what people are saying.”

The woman said she’s getting her information from Brown’s critics, and hasn’t talked much to the other side. She said it’s possible some might be using rhetoric to stoke the sort of fear she feels. She was one of the few who said they believe there will be a recall vote.

“The passion of the people — I think this will be successful,” she said.

Volunteers at the state GOP booth at the Oregon State Fair. (Claire Withycombe/Oregon Capital Bureau)

Michael Anna, visiting the state fair from Beaverton, said he didn’t like Brown’s politics and didn’t think she was good for the state. 

He particularly dislikes cap and trade.

“It’s a big scam, and it’s not necessary,” said Anna. “And I read somewhere the only reason they want to do it is to say, ‘We’re the first state to do this.’ There is no man-made global warming.”

In fact, Oregon’s cap and trade proposal was modeled after one that passed in California years ago.

Sometimes, critics focused on what Brown hadn’t done.

“She hasn’t done anything that she promised,” said Kaleb Jones, of Monmouth, who at 19 was one of the younger signers of the petition that the Oregon Capital Bureau spoke to. “When she got elected the first time, she got elected because she promised to help the homelessness problem, and then obviously that didn’t change at all. She didn’t do anything, and she got reelected — I don’t know how — so I guarantee you that she’s just going to do nothing again.”

Keaton, the Linn County GOP chair, said Brown has a cavalier attitude, but admitted she as governor is only so responsible for policies the state’s 90 legislators pass. 

But, he said, “Brown does get the final say on a lot of this stuff.” 

“On the whole, I think it’s a lot easier to focus on Kate Brown…making a single focus point of the recall effort is a lot easier than focusing out into different 15 different representative, Senate races,” Keaton said. “So I think that helps simplify the effort while at the same time focusing on someone who has been rather egregious in the operation.”

Asked to elaborate, he said he couldn’t list anything specific. He suggested she could be more like Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem.

“He’s at least a little bit more relatable,” Keaton said. “He’s had a little more empathy, I guess you could say. He’s had a little better discussion, I would say, on the Senate side of things, whereas the only stuff you ever hear from Kate Brown is, ‘We’re pushing this agenda, we’re gonna stand up to Trump, we’re going to make everything about this Trump’s fault.’”

Keaton, as a party representative, is more acutely attuned to Oregon politics than many of the people signing the petition, who embraced a general reputation the political right has given Brown.

They’d heard she was wildly wielding her executive power, but couldn’t say on what. 

She was taking away rights and going against the will of voters, but when asked for a specific example, nearly all the petition signers interviewed responded in generalities, or with factual inaccuracies. 

Tom Wallace, of Molalla, said Brown took away his gun rights, but struggled to explain how. 

“She’s just taking away our rights without asking,” Wallace said.

The 74-year-old was there with his wife, Linda. He had on a custom-made hat that read “old white guy” — a demographic he said is under attack.

“Now the old white guys are sons of bitches, we’re all evil,” he said.

Wallace, like many others, said he would rather the public take on the role of legislators, sending issues to voters rather than the Legislature.

Bill Guest said he signed because Brown tramples on the will of the voters. He said something in 2016 really got to him, but he couldn’t remember what it was.

“To me it’s just kind of the sum of all the things being pushed through with an all Democratic legislature,” Guest said. 

“At the heart of each of these is an active effort by the governor to deny a vote of the people on these bills,” said Kevin Hoar, a spokesman for the Oregon GOP.

Hoar acknowledged that the Legislature is behind most of the policies that petition signers dislike, but says the governor is supposed to represent all Oregonians.

Oregon State Fair visitors sign a petition to recall Gov. Kate Brown at the booth organized by Flush Down Kate Brown. (Claire Withycombe/Oregon Capital Bureau)

Back at the booth, people waited their turn to sign the petition sheets or get a photo with the Trump cutout. Day after day, it was lively and congenial. Some volunteers reported being heckled by Democrats — and even flipped off a few times — but in general people were in good spirits. 

Terri Crawford, who was at fair with her husband Ron, signed the petition in July, but stopped by the Oregon GOP’s fair booth on Tuesday.

She said that after cap and trade, they “came to realize how opposite her views are than ours.”

“They’re extreme,” she said.

Reporter Aubrey Wieber: [email protected] or 503-575-1251. Reporter Claire Withycombe: [email protected] or 971-304-4148.