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Capital Chatter: Gubernatorial race gets tighter and tighter

As polls show a closer contest between Brown and Buehler, the attack ads get nastier.

The race between Gov. Kate Brown and her prime challenger, Rep. Knute Buehler, keeps getting tighter.

As Aubrey Wieber and Paris Achen of the Oregon Capital Bureau reported this week, the national Cook Political Report now rates the race as a tossup. Oregon is the only state with a Democratic governor whose re-election is in that category.

The tight race is evident in the campaign activity.

Brown has been unveiling plans for Oregon's future that seem both belated and top-heavy with praise for her accomplishments. Her campaign is sending out one surrogate after another to publicly salute her and savage Buehler.

Buehler is appearing throughout the state, including a Portland press conference on Thursday to a) urge Brown to support turning the never-used Wapato jail facility into a shelter for the homeless; and b) continue his campaign theme of, "For too long, Kate Brown has deflected blame and refused to take action."


Meanwhile, his campaign sends out multiple fundraising requests each day — ones supposedly from him, from family members and from campaign staff.

As for both campaigns' attack ads, they're beyond nasty. They aim at tearing down the opponent; they might also erode Oregon's national reputation.

For example, in detailing Brown and the Democrats' problem in getting her re-elected, the Cook Political Report makes the mistake of treating political rhetoric as fact.

The article states, "She hasn't addressed more pervasive issues like the state's failing schools or the pension crisis … ." True for PERS, true for the inadequacy of Oregon's educational system but not true that our public schools are failing.

If that were accurate, Oregon would resemble the many states where the elite and the middle class send their kids to private schools, leaving public schools to those who have no other option.

That is not Oregon. There are private schools, many of which are good to excellent. In addition, many children are homeschooled. But the vast majority of kids — including the offspring of governors, lawmakers and other public officials — attend public schools. I recall that a few years back, Portland Public Schools was being lauded as possibly the nation's last functioning urban school system.

Whoever is elected governor will be challenged to recruit top employees, new businesses and strategic investments if our state now is known for "failing schools."

This is not to underplay Oregon's lousy graduation rate; its unconscionably short school year; or its paucity of school counselors, mental health care, in-patient behavioral treatment for youth and in-school drug and alcohol treatment. All deserve the attention of the next governor.

Speaking of ads: The Cook report says the Achilles' heel for Brown might be the tax increases during her tenure. True. However, the example cited is, "One ad from the Buehler campaign focuses on a statewide payroll tax increase to fund mass transit in Portland."

The Buehler ad takes aim at the wrong metro region. The tax was included in the Legislature's 2017 transportation package to particularly help the Salem Area Mass Transit District, or Cherriots.

Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, wanted to help Cherriots reinstate Saturday bus service after local voters repeatedly said no. Lawmakers across the political spectrum worked on the proposal. Cherriots will receive $85.7 million over five years. It plans to resume weekend service next year.

By the way, this is a new statewide payroll tax, not an existing tax. As the state's largest transit district, Portland's Tri-Met will be the largest beneficiary – projected at nearly $656 million over five years – but transit districts and counties throughout the state will benefit.

For example, Wallowa County, in the northeast corner of Oregon, will receive a tad over $1 million. Across the state in the northwest corner, Clatsop County's Sunset Empire Transportation District will get $8 million. Eastern Oregon's Umatilla County will receive $14.8 million and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation will get $900,000. And so forth.

Side note: On the one hand, Buehler castigates Brown for being Portland-centric. On the other hand, he calls on her to support a potential Portland project, the Wapato jail conversion.

Another questionable claim: Buehler's campaign claims Brown cut money for career-technical education. Not exactly true. No one "cut" funding. It was up to the Legislature to fund the implementation of Measure 98, passed by voters two years to expand career-technical education and related programs.

Her budget did propose less money than the Legislature ultimately approved, which still was far less than the measure called for.

In this case, the truth is wonky. Brown and the Legislature increased state spending on career-technical education. Yet Brown and the Legislature did not fulfill the voters' mandate in passing Measure 98.

Big whopper: A new ad from Brown tries to link Buehler with fellow Republican Donald Trump. In this topsy-turvy election season, many Republicans across the country are bucking convention by running away from President Trump while Democrats are making him an election issue. (In the congressional mid-term elections, Republicans are tying Democrats to Hillary Clinton.)

Trump is fair game, although Buehler has not been his fan. For starters, the ad says Buehler, like Trump, wants to restrict access to abortion. Buehler said he does not and would not. Abortion-rights advocates in Oregon dispute his commitment, although their evidence is debatable.

The ad then makes two obviously inaccurate statements – unless viewers were to follow through on the fine print.

The first is that Buehler, like Trump, wants to shortchange public schools. In contrast, Buehler has called for consecutive 15 percent increases in state school spending during 2019-21 and 2021-23. Neither has Buehler called for cutting teacher pay, as other ads claim.

Second, the ad says Buehler cheered Trump's pardon of imprisoned Oregon ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond. True. But it then says the Hammonds "sparked" the Malheur refuge standoff. Wrong.

The Hammonds' prison sentences were why others – unasked and unwisely – took up their cause and wrongly took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. The Hammonds themselves did not initiate, organize or otherwise spark the takeover.

Newspaper editorial boards around the state disagreed about whether the pardons were appropriate. This was not a clear-cut issue. Neither is the gubernatorial race.

There is a saying that in war, truth is the first casualty. That applies to political war as well.

Both campaigns should be ashamed, embarrassed and saddened by their attack ads. A governorship won by traveling the low road is a governorship dishonored.

Missing secretary of state: Late on Monday, Secretary of State Dennis Richardson emailed his colleagues on the State Land Board – Brown and State Treasurer Tobias Read – to say he was cutting back his public appearances during his cancer treatment and would not be at Tuesday's meeting.

Richardson said Deputy Secretary of State Leslie Cummings would vote in his place until he concluded treatment for brain cancer.

The Land Board meeting was delayed a half-hour while various state officials and aides took turns going behind closed doors to discuss whether Cummings constitutionally could serve as Richardson's proxy.

That was unresolved. Instead, the Land Board delayed all of Tuesday's action items until its Dec. 18 meeting.

With an already crowded agenda, Brown said, the December meeting will last so long that people might want to bring a snack or sandwich.

Dick Hughes, who writes the weekly Capital Chatter column, has been covering the Oregon political scene since 1976. Contact him at TheHughesisms@Gmail.com, Facebook.com/Hughesisms, YouTube.com/DickHughes or Twitter.com/DickHughes.