Westlund launches bid to be governor

James Sinks / The Bulletin /

Published Feb 15, 2006 at 04:00AM

In his career, Ben Westlund has been known by many labels.

Rancher. Legislator. Innovator. Addict.

Tax reform advocate. Consensus builder.

Republican in Name Only.

Tuesday, the state senator from Tumalo added to that list - and with a title that could shake up Oregon politics: independent candidate for governor.

In two press conferences Tuesday, one in Bend and one at the Capitol, Westlund stood with his family and announced his intent to take Oregon in a new direction.

”Paralyzing partisanship is keeping us from the challenges of our day,” he said. ”I cannot stand for that, and I hope you can't either.”

After the Bend speech, he walked upstairs to the Deschutes County Clerk's Office and switched his party affiliation from Republican to independent.

Then, in Salem, he filed the paperwork to officially launch an exploratory campaign, which will allow him to start raising the millions that will be needed to finance a credible bid for the state's top job. His goal is $3 million.

”Over 600,000 of our citizens don't have health insurance, and over 10,000 Oregon children go hungry each night. We have one of the shortest school years in the nation, and home prices are outpacing wages,” he said.

”As an independent governor, I will bring together the good men and women from all parties and all affiliations to work on the critical issues facing all Oregonians.”

Westlund, 56, met privately with the governor before his Salem press conference, and said afterward that Kulongoski told him to do what he thought was right.

In his remarks, Westlund refused to criticize Kulongoski, even after prompting by reporters to critique the governor's record.

Instead, Westlund praised the governor's humanity and said he hopes the 2005 race will be about a competition of ideas, not negative attacks.

He also hopes his campaign helps give a political voice to voters in the middle who do not feel that the major parties reflect their ideals.

While he is a declared candidate, Westlund cannot officially file for the ballot until he submits roughly 18,000 signatures, and the deadline to do so is Aug. 29.

Political analysts say Westlund will be a long-shot candidate because of he is a virtual unknown outside the Capitol and Central Oregon.

Jeff Dense, political scientist at Eastern Oregon University in La Grande, said most rural Republicans are not so disgruntled that they would bolt to a third-party contender - even if it would help unseat a Democrat.

”In Oregon history, third party candidates have played more of a spoiler roll,” he said.

But Westlund said he is not a candidate from a political flank like conservative Al Mobley, who is credited with pulling enough support from David Frohnmayer in the 1990 governor's race to hand the election to Democrat Barbara Roberts.

”We're in this to win,” Westlund said.

Others say Westlund has the potential to sway the race.

Oregon State University professor Bill Lunch said the senator appears to have the same appeal as presidential candidate Ross Perot had in 1992, and could attract 25 percent of the vote or more.

Roughly 25 percent of Oregon voters don't belong to the major political parties.

Tim Hibbitts, a veteran Portland pollster, said five independents have been elected governor in other states since 1990, and that several factors including a disgruntled public could bolster Westlund's chances this fall.

”It would be a long shot, but it would be a mistake to dismiss him out-of-hand,” Hibbitts said.

Former House Majority Leader Tim Knopp, a Republican who served in the Legislature with Westlund, said his former colleague ”is as qualified as any of the candidates including the current governor.”

He does not think Westlund's candidacy will tip the scales for either party. Whether Westlund ultimately has a shot hinges on his ability to raise enough money to mount a high-profile campaign, Knopp said.

”It has always been the problem of independent candidacy that candidates are not able to raise the amount of money they need,” he said.

Former State Sen. Neil Bryant, a Bend attorney, said Westlund will enjoy the campaign - but is shrewd enough to drop out if he doesn't get sufficient donations to be viable.

”An exploratory campaign will let him know if the people he has talked to will actually supply the money,” he said. ”Ben is smart enough to know that until you get checks and put them in the bank, promises of money are just that.”

Westlund has served in the Legislature since 1997 and earned a reputation for his moderate politics.

As House co-chairman of the budget drafting committee in 2002, he led the effort to cut more than $1 billion from the state budget. But he also has advocated for tax hikes for schools and state services, and angered social conservatives in 2005 by sponsoring legislation that would extend marriage-like rights to same-sex couples via civil unions.

He received a 100 percent rating from agricultural lobbyists after the 2005 session, but also was named the ”best consensus builder” by the Oregon League of Conservation Voters, an environmental group.

Cameron Johnson, spokesman for Kulongoski's re-election campaign, was dismissive of the notion of Westlund as an independent.

”He can call himself whatever he wants, but he has a strong Republican voting record and from my perspective, there will be two Republican candidates in the election.”

Westlund was a campaign chairman in 2002 for the gubernatorial run of Republican Kevin Mannix, who was narrowly defeated by Kulongoski. Mannix is running again this year.

As Westlund arrived for the Bend announcement, his staff handed out a pair of buttons, one emblazoned with ”Westlund for Governor” and the other a replica of Julius Meier campaign buttons from the 1930s.

Meier was the last independent to win election as Oregon governor.

Westlund's wife, Libby, joined him for the Bend speech but was ill so did not accompany him to Salem.

Mike Shirtcliff, a Redmond dentist and Republican Party activist, said he hopes Westlund's campaign gains traction.

”I'm a lifelong Republican but I'm tired of politics on the fringe,” he said. ”Most of America is in the middle.”