Kerry McQuisten speaks to a small crowd during a campaign event at the Plaza Inn in Ontario earlier this month. McQuisten is running for Oregon governor. (The Enterprise/PAT CALDWELL)
ONTARIO – Kerry McQuisten’s first encounter with politics was unique.
She was 8 when her mother and father journeyed to Portland to hear presidential candidate Ronald Reagan speak at a campaign rally.
McQuisten and her mom and dad ducked down a back hallway and ran into Reagan and two Secret Service agents.
“I had a letter from my grandma and she wanted me to hand the letter to him. I went up and handed him the letter. The agents, of course, pounced immediately and grabbed the letter from me,” she said.
The memories of an 8-year-old can be distorted by time but McQuisten recalls specific things about the incident even now.
“I can remember his eyes as clear as day even now,” said McQuisten.
The meeting was McQuisten’s first glimpse at politics and it serves as a start point on a linear line to her current campaign to become Oregon’s next governor.
She talked about her campaign and her goals in a stop in Ontario on Feb. 4.
Politics in family
McQuisten grew up in a political family. Her mother, Suzan Ellis Jones, has been chair of the Baker County Republican party for years, but McQuisten said she never had any plans to run for office until the Covid pandemic hit.
McQuisten ran for Baker City Council in 2020.
She was elected mayor by her fellow councilors in January 2021.
The pandemic galvanized McQuisten’s political aspirations and the trigger occurred in March 2021. That’s when McQuisten pushed through Resolution 3881, a non-binding city document that asserted Gov. Kate Brown’s Covid mandates created an economic, mental health and a “criminal activity crisis” in Baker City. McQuisten said she wanted to make a statement about the unfairness of the state Covid mandates.
“City Hall had been locked down. Businesses were closing. Restaurants were hurting,” said McQuisten.
Not much happened until about a month after the council passed the resolution. PJ Media, a right-wing website, ran a story on the resolution and McQuisten. Then in May, Fox News interviewed McQuisten.
From there the story spread and feedback, said McQuisten was immediate with “non-stop calls – my email was full.”
McQuisten said when she reviewed the candidates for Oregon’s governor last June there “was no one candidate I could fully support.”
So she decided she would run.
A grassroots effort
McQuisten, 49, readily admits she is an outlier in the governor’s race but believes that is a strength going into the May Republican primary.
“I grew up in a rural area. So, my decisions will be decisions from a different point of view,” she said.
Her campaign is a grassroots effort. No big donors with deep pockets have donated, she said.
“I’ve brought in more than $130,000. Just small donations,” she said.
Her campaign doesn’t include a lot of bells and whistles either.
She travels across the state to campaign functions in her SUV, sometimes with her 10-year-old daughter Viv – who co-navigates while drawing dinosaurs and other animals in her notebook – and often by herself.
A single mom, McQuisten said her success so far has been thanks to a solid support system of family and friends.
When she can’t take her daughter along on campaign trips, her family or her ex-husband step up to help. McQuisten also has a 21-year-old daughter.
McQuisten said she’s already encountered a few surprises in her campaign.
“I went in thinking there was an east-west divide, but it isn’t. It’s a rural-urban divide. People are also craving to be heard,” said McQuisten.
While a relative newcomer to the state political stage, McQuisten said campaign rallies and events don’t trigger anxiety.
“I don’t get worried. I just don’t,” she said.
Baker ranching roots
McQuisten is proud of her rural roots. She grew up near Burnt River in southern Baker County. The family ranch, she said, was secluded. Early on there was no telephone and her family used a water-wheel and generators to produce electricity.
“I remember turning on the generator so I could vacuum. We were way off the grid,” said McQuisten.
McQuisten, who operates Black Lyon Publishing in Baker City, said she approaches voters with honesty.
That means, she said, standing up for her beliefs but, at the same time, recognizing others have different views and finding a middle ground.
“If I am elected by the majority of people taking the stands I have and I go into office a flip-flop, I’ve completely undermined the election process. You have to hold strong beliefs and be real,” said McQuisten.
She believes in protecting Second Amendment rights, supporting police, easing state regulations, supporting agriculture and methodical forest management.
She believes in more local control at the county level regarding forest and range management.
“The farther away you get from local management the more detached the manager is. Someone managing in (Washington) D.C. isn’t going to care as much about your land as you are,” said McQuisten.
While McQuisten’s views may be music to the ears of eastern Oregon voters, she faces an uphill battle if she emerges from the Republican primary as a frontrunner.
For one, the state has not elected a Republican governor since Vic Atiyeh started his second term in 1982.
Oregon, as well, is a solidly Democratic stronghold. As of September, 2021, there are 1,026,313 registered Democrats in Oregon and 729,676 Republicans registered. There are more than 991,000 nonaffiliated voters in Oregon.
The numbers, at first glance, could seem daunting but McQuisten said she is optimistic.
She said a recent poll by Oregon Catalyst – a conservative website – showed she draws good numbers from Republicans.
“I end up polling second in the state,” said McQuisten.
She believes she can also get Democrats to vote for her.
“There are, on average, 25% of Democrats I can’t reach. But there is another 75% who are open to sitting down and talking,” said McQuisten.
McQuisten said she focuses on finding a common ground with all voters.
“There is something that happens when you are just working issues and being honest,” said McQuisten.
News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at email@example.com
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