Republican candidates for governor talk during a break in a debate at the Venetian in Hillsboro, Oregon, on Thursday, April 7, 2022. From left: Stan Pulliam, Bill Sizemore, Christine Drazan, Court Boice, Bridget Barton, Bud Pierce, Tim McCloud, Jessica Gomez and Brandon Merritt (Julia Shumway/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

HILLSBORO – Under a Republican governor, many state employees would lose their jobs and Oregon would favor farmers and ranchers over environmental interests, 11 GOP candidates indicated at a debate Thursday night. 

The candidates – a mix of local elected officials, business owners and political activists – are among the 19 Republicans vying for their party’s nomination in May. They gathered at Hillsboro’s remodeled Venetian Theatre, answering questions about forests and natural resources in a ballroom that used to be a movie auditorium. 

Candidates sat behind individual tables draped with red tablecloths and topped with sprigs of Oregon grape — the state flower. Debate co-moderator Denise Quinn, a personality on the Keizer radio station KYKN, said the flowers weren’t just there to look pretty: the governor’s mansion takes its name from the plant’s scientific name, Mahonia aquifolium, and she hoped one of the people on stage would be the next resident of Mahonia Hall. 

The 11 Republicans on stage – and the eight who didn’t attend – still face long odds to win in a general election. Oregon hasn’t elected a Republican for governor since 1982.

But Republicans are optimistic about their chances this year for several reasons. 

Gov. Kate Brown, who is limited from running for another term, is unpopular among voters, and Republicans won the governor’s race in Virginia last year and are polling well nationally. And Betsy Johnson, a former Democratic state senator, is running a well-funded campaign unaffiliated with either party and could siphon votes from either the Democratic or Republican candidate. 

“Both national and local polls suggest Republicans will do well this year,” said Tracy Honl, Oregon’s Republican national committeewoman, as she introduced the candidates. 

Oregon’s primary election is May 17, and the deadline to register to vote is April 26. Only registered Republicans or Democrats can vote in party primaries. 

Thursday’s debate, hosted by Timber Unity, provided a rare chance to hear from most candidates in the race. Portland TV station KATU, which planned to host primary debates for both parties, canceled after backlash over its decision to exclude any candidates who hadn’t raised at least $750,000 for their campaigns. 

Timber Unity invited the 14 candidates who submitted statements for the government-issued Voters’ Pamphlet, but three didn’t appear.

The crowded stage meant candidates each got a minute to introduce themselves and respond to questions, while a worker next to the stage waved a yellow warning flag as they approached the limit and then dinged a bell to cut them off. 

Questions focused entirely on forests, agriculture and the environment, though candidates found ways to squeeze in comments about their preferred talking points: crime, protests and school curricula. And there were plenty of jibes, both between candidates and at Democrats. 

Candidate Brandon Merritt, a marketing consultant from Bend, got members of the crowd to shout “Let’s go, Brandon” when he introduced himself – both a cry of support for Merritt and a political slogan conservatives adopted as code for a profane insult to President Joe Biden.

Cleaning house

Each Republican candidate promised that countless state employees will lose their jobs under their administration. 

“Oregon’s gonna run out of paper when I’m governor,” said Sandy Mayor Stan Pulliam. “We’re going to hand out so many pink slips in the state government.” 

The governor has hiring and firing power over directors of state agencies and appoints people to more than 250 boards and commissions.

Bob Tiernan, a former state legislator who once chaired the Oregon Republican Party, said he learned from his experience running the retail chain Grocery Outlet that hiring matters. Because Democrats have been in charge for decades, he said a Republican governor will have to start by replacing agency heads and then look at career employees. 

“I would clean house right across the board with the agency heads, and I would reach into the private sector and get good skilled experienced people to take their place,” he said. “And then they’ve got to do a top-down review of that agency to see what they have to do because you just can’t replace the top. You’ve got to go down.” 

Marc Thielman, former Alsea school superintendent, said he’d first target the Oregon Education Department, which he repeatedly clashed with over his decisions to keep schools open and making masks optional on campus when they were still required statewide. 

“They’re the ones teaching our kids that climate change is real,” he said. 

Future of timber

Oregon’s timber industry has been in decline since the early 1990s, with periods of stability during the early 2000s and after the Great Recession, according to the state Employment Department. There were nearly 16,000 jobs statewide in forestry and logging in 1990, compared to just more than 9,000 in 2020.

When debate moderators asked about agricultural jobs that could replace those lost in the timber industry, most candidates rejected the question’s premise. 

Bridget Barton, a political consultant from Lake Oswego, recalled asking a prominent investor on the street in Portland a decade ago when the timber industry was going to come back. When he told her “never,” she said, she walked away thinking he was fundamentally wrong. 

“I say, ‘Break out the chainsaws and bring on a governor who will stand up for the timber industry and bring it back,’” she said. “Because if you allow the trees to grow and you don’t cut them, we’re just headed for more and more wildfires and devastation.”

Christine Drazan, former House minority leader, said she proved she wasn’t ready to give up on the timber industry when she led Republican legislators to walk out in 2020 over a proposed cap on greenhouse gas emissions. Timber has to be a part of Oregon’s future, not just its past, she said. 

“It’s not a matter of looking into our rural communities and replacing one ag interest or one timber industry for another,” she said. “We have got to commit to taking these multi-generational businesses that love Oregon and telling them we want them to stay, by making it possible for them to stay and grow and have the next generation take over and continue to sustain and grow our rural economies.”

Pulliam, though, said the “unfortunate truth” is that there’s not much that can be done to bring back lost jobs in the traditional timber industry. Instead, he said, Oregon can and should expand production of cross-laminated timber, which uses dried boards glued together into slabs that can be used in place of concrete or steel.

Ensuring access to water

Oregon, and most of the West, has been in a state of drought for 20 years. Legislators will likely spend more money on drought relief over the summer, the governor has said. 

Drought creates conflict with different groups that rely on water. Farmers and ranchers need it to grow crops. Environmental groups and fisheries need enough water for fish and riparian habitats to stay alive. When there’s not enough water to go around, the state and federal government decide which groups get the limited water. 

Candidates differed in how they’d approach future water shortages. 

Tiernan earned jeers from a group of Thielman supporters when he proposed expanding canals and trying cloud seeding, or using aircraft or drones to add particles of silver iodide to clouds. The particles have a similar structure to ice, and water droplets cluster around them, increasing the likelihood of rain. 

Thielman, meanwhile, again denied the existence of climate change and said drought conditions are caused by the government. 

“If the government is so hell bent on convincing us that climate change is a disaster that’s impending then why aren’t they doing anything to help support we the people, ranchers and farmers, forestry folks, the whole genre of natural resource industry?” he asked. “What they do instead is they make the problem worse by not filling up the reservoirs earlier in the season when they could, and they do it because they’re worried that it might rain.”

Bill Sizemore, an anti-tax activist who was the Republican nominee for governor in 1998, said his philosophy remains the same as it was in 2000, when he crafted a ballot measure to require the government to reimburse landowners for any land lost to regulations. 

“When the government says we’re going to increase the riparian setback along streams, for example, to protect wildlife or keep the water shaded and cooler for fish, fine,” he said. “But if that results in taking the value of that property, or stealing the money of the people who own that property, and the right to harvest near better grazing, those landowners must be compensated by the general public that is benefiting from those restrictions.”

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Les Zaitz for questions: [email protected] Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.