Election Day is 11 months away, but Oregon politics heating up

The gubernatorial primaries could get bloody, a fight is brewing over control of the Oregon Legislature, the hunt for signatures to get several incendiary initiatives onto the ballot is already under way and the possibility of a special legislative session to patch a gaping hole in the Human Services budget is looming.

And there’s still 11 months to go until Election Day.

Things could get nasty in Oregon’s political landscape in 2006, after a year in which the legislative session petered out in a whimper and several hot topics, like gay marriage and property rights, shifted to the judiciary.

First up are the May political primaries, which could turn out to be even more dramatic than the general election, depending on the dramatis personae entering from both stage left and right.

Former Gov. John Kitzhaber is practicing the art of being coy right now, but the recent news that there’s a $172 million gap in the Human Services budget mainly courtesy of the unbridled growth of Medicaid might just give the physician and health care activist the shove he needs to get into the race against sitting Gov. Ted Kulongoski, a fellow Democrat.

If Kitzhaber’s out, then outspoken Eugene Sen. Vicki Walker, a Democrat, says she’s in, leaving behind a key state Senate seat that could veer to the Republicans, since popular former Eugene Mayor Jim Torrey has already announced he intends to seek that spot.

Still, political observers said their hunch is that the Democrats will dutifully fall in line behind Kulongoski, leaving Republicans Kevin Mannix, Ron Saxton and Sen. Jason Atkinson of Grants Pass to battle it out amongst themselves for the GOP nomination.

“There’s a potential for a Republican bloodbath in the primary,” said Dave Hunnicutt, the executive director of Oregonians in Action, the conservative-leaning property rights group that is pushing an eminent domain initiative for the 2006 ballot. “Saxton, Mannix and Atkinson are all in, no question, and you probably won’t have any Kumbayah meetings between the three of them.”

All three bring their own strengths to the table: Mannix, who came close to beating Kulongoski in 2000, has the best statewide name recognition — if also the baggage of his previous loss and the aftermath. Saxton, Mannix’s closest challenger in 2000, is well-liked by the party’s moderate wing, while Atkinson is a novelty in statewide politics but has the ear of talk show host Lars Larson.

The wildcard in all this is maverick state Sen. Ben Westlund, a moderate Republican from Tumalo who has been showing up at strategically chosen events far from his Deschutes County district, in preparation for a possible run as an Independent. Westlund, a cancer survivor, has nothing to lose since his Senate re-election campaign doesn’t come up until 2008.

Lost in the shuffle, meanwhile, could be the state’s Congressional races. Serious challengers have yet to emerge from any of the five districts, perhaps in a nod to the power of incumbency, even in a state where Republicans regard two of the seats held by Democrats — U.S. Reps. David Wu and Darlene Hooley — as rightfully theirs.

Democratic political consultant Lisa Grove blames Republican recruitment skills, or lack thereof, for the lukewarm congressional outlook. Oregon is more light blue than it is navy, she said, but so far, she said, it looks as though the GOP is “not even going for their bench — they are talking to their waterboys,” in looking for candidates to take on Wu and Hooley.

The tug-of-war over the state Legislature is likely to be more bruising. The battle to topple Republican House Speaker Karen Minnis, whose suburban Portland district has been listing Democrat in recent years, is front-and-center, but as many as 15 House seats could potentially change hands. The competition for the state Senate is more muted, but races by Democrats Alan Bates and Richard Devlin could attract some attention, since both were elected by narrow margins.

And just like the 2004 election season, when Oregonians voted down gay marriage and endorsed a property compensation law, some of the year’s true attention grabbers might be citizen-driven initiatives.

Though just shy of 150 initiatives petitions have been filed with the Secretary of State’s office, only a fraction of those will actually get enough signatures to make it to the November ballot.

Two that look to have legs would crack down on politicians — one, by resurrecting term limits, and another by toughening the state’s campaign finance laws.

Signature gathering has already begun on two other measures, one that would require state Supreme Court judges to be elected by district, rather than statewide, and another that would prohibit government from condemning private property, then turning it over to a developer.

The biggest question mark, though, is whether the Oregon chapter of FreedomWorks, which has emerged as the state’s most potent voice for lower taxes and less government, will forge ahead with an initiative to limit state spending. Backers were high on the idea until similar efforts were defeated in California and Colorado this November; the question now is whether donors can be persuaded that bankrolling a spending limit campaign in Oregon would be worth the money.

Then there are the perennials, the issues that never seem to fade from Oregon’s political horizon. Tim Nesbitt, a state board of higher education member and former president of the Oregon AFL-CIO, said he thinks local school funding will dominate the headlines, especially with the three-year income tax that’s been shoring up Portland, the state’s largest school district, set to expire.

Jason Williams, with the Republican-leaning Oregon Taxpayers’ Association, said he thinks the battered public pension system will be a hot issue on the campaign trail, especially with Oregon’s debt level rising, mainly because of problems in the deficit-plagued public employee pension fund.

“It’s one of those topics politicians least want to talk about,” he said. “But it is still a problem and they need to. It just won’t go away.”

Trumping them all in the short term, though, will likely be the question of how you solve a problem like the human services budget. Legislators have a number of unpalatable options: hold their noses and order deep cuts in services to the poor, raise taxes to bring in enough money to cover the hole or convene a special session and hash the whole thing out, bit by partisan bit.