Democrats have found Vic Backlund politically invincible since the Keizer Republican retired from McNary High School and won election to the Oregon House of Representatives six years ago.
But now, the popular former coach and teacher faces the stiffest challenge of his political career — from fellow Republicans.
Angered by Backlund’s support for tax increases and state school testing, Keizer businesswoman Kim Thatcher is challenging him in the Republican primary for House District 25, which covers Keizer and Newberg. Thatcher is getting valuable assistance from antitax activists, critics of Oregon school reforms and some Republican lawmakers.
“Unfortunately for Vic, he’s voted for every tax increase that the state’s had for a long time,” said Russ Walker, state director of Citizens for a Sound Economy, who spearheaded the campaign against the Measure 30 tax package earlier this year.
“I think the chances are very high he will not come back,” Walker said.
The Backlund-Thatcher race is being watched closely around the state. It’s one of a handful of attempts by conservative Republicans to oust one of their moderate colleagues for straying too far from their positions.
Bracing for a bruising battle in the May 18 primary, Backlund has hired prominent Republican political consultant Paul Phillips to advise him.
Thatcher’s backers are “anti-government folks that want to make an example of somebody,” Phillips said. “That will make it an interesting primary, but I believe he will prevail. Citizens for a Sound Economy is going to be isolated as an attack-dog group.”
Backlund had a long career as a social-studies teacher and coach, and he favors higher school spending levels. That has put him in the good graces of the Oregon Education Association, the large teachers union that is the state’s top donor to Democrats.
“I have been recognized as the Republican Party’s leading advocate for education,” Backlund said.
Backlund said he supported other Republican plans last year to balance the 2003-05 budget with lower taxes, but none had majority support to pass.
“By the time we got to August, there was no plan to balance the budget,” Backlund said. “So we needed a compromise plan.”
He supported a $1.2 billion tax package later overturned by voters in the form of Measure 30.
As chairman of the House Education Committee, Backlund was instrumental in reworking provisions of the state’s much-maligned Certificate of Initial Mastery. The CIM is the centerpiece of Oregon’s landmark 1991 school reform act.
Rob Kremer, former state schools superintendent candidate, and other school-reform critics lobbied to scrap the CIM and the state tests that students must pass to earn it. Many House Republicans sided with Kremer, urging the use of national standardized tests instead.
“It turned out their claims of money-saving were way out of line,” Backlund said. National tests wouldn’t be useful for measuring how well students meet Oregon curriculum goals, he said, and the No Child Left Behind law passed by Congress requires substantial testing anyway.
Backlund engineered a compromise that winnowed the number of tests to earn the CIM and delayed requirements for schools to issue the Certificate of Advanced Mastery, or CAM.
Thatcher’s criticism of Backlund’s tax and school-reform positions is central to her campaign. Her chief backers are Walker and Kremer, both proven campaign fund-raisers. Her campaign manager ran Kremer’s surprisingly strong bid for state school superintendent in 2002.
Thatcher, who decided to run on her own, has some solid credentials in the business world. She launched her own company in 1992, a year after settling in Keizer.
“I needed a fallback plan when my husband lost his job, so I started it in my basement,” said Thatcher, a mother of four. Now her husband works for one of her two companies, K.T. Contracting Co. Inc.
Her companies provide full traffic-diversion services at road construction sites, including signs, flaggers and concrete barriers.
“Torturing traffic is what it ends up being,” she joked.
Thatcher, 39, now employs 70 people.
She praised Backlund, her local representative, for helping her with two matters relating to state agencies and her business but decided to run against him after volunteering on the anti-Measure 30 campaign.
“I just don’t think he’s in touch with the voters of this district,” she said. “It seems he’s more liberal than conservative.”
Backlund countered that he has the support of traditional Republican business and natural-resources lobbies.
“Look at my entire record,” he said. “That’s all I ask.”
Candidate: For re-election to state House of Representatives, District 25
Family: Wife, Karen Backlund; two grown children
Education: B.A., history, magna cum laude, and M.A. in education, Willamette University; advanced studies at Lewis and Clark College and Division of Continuing Education, Oregon State System of Higher Education
Occupation: State representative since 1999; retired social studies teacher and coach
Job background: Counselor, MacLaren School for Boys; served in U.S. Army Reserve; professional baseball player, L.A. Dodgers organization
Public service: Led coaching clinics and coached for Keizer Little League, Keizer Youth Basketball and Boys & Girls Club
Candidate: For state House of Representatives, District 25, 2004
Family: Husband, Karl Thatcher; they have three daughters and one son, ages 2 to 18
Education: Graduated from Oregon City High School; took some classes at Portland State University and audited courses at Brigham Young University
Occupation: Owner and president, K.T. Contracting Co. Inc.; owner and manager, Highway Specialties LLC (the companies are involved with highway traffic control at construction sites)
Public service: President, Oregon Contractors Association; Sunday school teacher and pianist in church, volunteer with Citizens for a Sound Economy, Haven House for Battered Women
Public office: First-time candidate for office
Candidate: For State House of Representatives, District 25, 2004
Home: Rural acreage north of Keizer
Family: Wife, Donna Pike; they have one child at home plus one adult child
Education: Studied three years at Lewis & Clark College
Occupation: Payment plan account representative, State Farm Insurance
Previous work: Radio news reporter for 10 years with KWJJ, KEX, KNWS, KYKN, KBZY, including two years covering the Capitol for KBZY
Public office: Ran for the state Senate in 2000; has never held public office
Public service: Coached softball; member of Eldriedge School site council
Steve Law can be reached at (503) 399-6615.