PORTLAND, Ore. – Betsy Johnson is not running for Miss Congeniality. The longtime Democrat now running for governor of Oregon as an unaffiliated candidate is more likely to drop a swear word than a political platitude. When voters asked if she would repeal Oregon’s drug decriminalization law, she responded, “Hell yes.” On education, she declared, “Let’s not worry about pronouns. Let’s worry about mathematics.”
Johnson’s bid for governor has turned the race into a three-way competition against Democrat Tina Kotek, who previously served as speaker of the Oregon House of Representatives, and Republican Christine Drazan, the former Oregon House minority leader. Johnson sees herself as the moderate among two extremes.
“I am not beholden to any political agenda or ideology, and I’m certainly not running to do something other than fix a place I love,” Johnson told Fox News. “I may seem like an unlikely agent of big, bold change. That’s exactly what I am and who I am.”
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Betsy Johnson, who is running for governor of Oregon as an unaffiliated candidate, listens to outraged residents during a roundtable discussion Sept. 29, 2022, in Portland, Oregon.
(Hannah Ray Lambert/Fox News)
Born and raised in Oregon, Johnson owned a helicopter business and flew in international competitions before being elected to the state House in the 2000 election. She was appointed to replace the late Joan Dukes in the state Senate five years later, earning reelection four times. But last year she gave up her seat to run as an unaffiliated candidate in the gubernatorial race.
“As a native Oregonian, I am embarrassed,” she said. “I’m embarrassed about the breakdown of our processes. I’m embarrassed about policy. I’m embarrassed about how Portland looks.”
Oregon can’t succeed if Portland fails, and Portland is failing “by every metric,” Johnson said at a recent roundtable event with residents of Portland’s Lents neighborhood. The event was held in a small business in southeast Portland, with about a dozen people clustered around a conference table. Many of the attendees considered themselves lifelong Democrats who are now disillusioned by liberal policies.
“It’s terrifying for my kids to walk to school,” one man said during the discussion. He used to enjoy living in a city that “erred on the side of compassion” when it came to homelessness, but said he has now realized that enabling addicts is “absolutely not compassionate.”
A large homeless camp at Laurelhurst Park in Portland, Oregon. Laurelhurst Park is at the center of one of Portland’s most affluent neighborhoods.
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Other attendees complained about vandalism, theft and threats from drug users or mentally unstable individuals. None of it was new to Johnson.
“All I’ve done this morning is talk to pissed off people,” she told the group. “Everybody’s pissed.”
Drugs, crime and homelessness top issues
Homelessness, crime and “open air drug dealing” are among the main issues Johnson said she hears about from voters, even outside the state’s urban areas.
“What used to be Portland problems are now everywhere problems,” she told Fox News. “There are tent cities popping up in Central Oregon, along the coast, and so the problem is metastasizing. People are frightened and they’re mad.”
Homelessness in Multnomah County, where Portland is located, increased 30% from 2019 to 2022 according to the county’s latest numbers. Preliminary data from the Oregon Health Authority, meanwhile, shows opioid overdose deaths spiking in 2021 and 2022.
Johnson said she would work to end unregulated camping in public places, create more emergency shelters and be frank about the role of mental illness and drug addiction. While she acknowledges that repealing Oregon’s voter-approved drug decriminalization measure is not as simple as a “hell yes,” Johnson said she would ask the legislature to re-refer it to the voters who have now had almost two full years to observe its effects.
“If you want to go home in your basement and shoot up, fine. But we have turned this whole state into an open air drug market,” she said. “Don’t do it on the streets of Portland. Don’t threaten other people. Don’t become a menace or a hazard to yourself or others. Don’t wield a knife. Don’t deal drugs in front of our kids.”
A "safe parking" zone was established on a side street for the growing homeless population in Bend, Oregon.
(Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)
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Close to 100 current and former law enforcement officers, prosecutors and district attorneys have endorsed Johnson and her public safety platform. She has vowed to defend Oregon’s mandatory minimum sentencing law, boost funding for police and show respect for officers in a state that was wracked by historic anti-police protests in 2020.
During her tenure in the state legislature, Johnson consistently broke with Democrats to protect gun rights, voting with Republicans against Oregon’s red flag law, safe storage requirements and stricter background checks, all of which ended up being passed by the liberal majority.
“I’m concerned about the rights afforded Americans under the Second Amendment,” she said. “I don’t think law-abiding Oregonians should be punished for the activities of criminals and the mentally ill and unfortunately, sadly deranged kids.”
Kotek’s supporters have slammed Johnson’s pro-gun rights stance, dubbing her “Machine Gun Betsy” in one advertisement for her ownership of a Cold War-era submachine gun.
Democratic Oregon gubernatorial candidate Tina Kotek, then the Speaker of Oregon’s House of Representatives, gives address during the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
(David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
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“Get over it,” Johnson said. “It’s a collector’s piece, and it has been locked in a safe with all the taxes paid, the fingerprints rolled, all the rest of that for 25 years. And the hyperbolic political bulls**t around this makes it sound as though I’m walking open carry in downtown Portland.”
The bevy of attack ads against Johnson suggest hard line Democrats see a real risk that she may siphon votes from Kotek. Emerson College’s survey of likely voters showed support for Drazan at 36%, a two-point lead over Kotek.
Oregon GOP gubernatorial candidate Christine Drazan speaks with a supporter at a campaign stop.
(Christine Drazan Campaign)
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If Drazan wins, she would be the first Republican elected governor in the state since the early 1980s. Johnson acknowledges the conservative from Canby has run a “compelling campaign,” but doesn’t think Drazan can pull off a victory.
And in a state where the “rigidity of partisanship” has resulted in multiple legislative walkouts, Johnson sees herself in a “unique position to preach that gospel” of collaboration.
“I think that there would be ample legislators who would be thrilled to say, ‘Mean old Betsy is making us work together,’” she said. “I believe that you can find consensus between Rs and Ds.”