By Dirk VanderHart

Oregon Public Broadcasting

It’s been almost three years since a Democrat sat in the Oregon Secretary of State’s Office. Now, several prominent Democrats are preparing to battle each other to take it back.

On Wednesday, as expected, state Rep. Jennifer Williamson, D-Portland, began her bid for Oregon’s second-highest executive office. She joins state Sen. Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, and former congressional candidate Jamie McLeod-Skinner of Terrebonne in the contest.

The addition of Williamson, who spent four years as the House majority leader, adds to the promise that the secretary of state primary will be hypercompetitive, and potentially bruising. As it stands now, the race somewhat resembles the 2016 primary for the job. In that race, then-Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian beat two prominent lawmakers, Richard Devlin and Val Hoyle.

Avakian went on to lose in the general election to Republican Dennis Richardson, who died of brain cancer earlier this year. His appointed replacement, Bev Clarno, has said she will not seek reelection.

Williamson, a four-term state representative, appears set on running to the left of other candidates. On a website that labels her “the proven progressive,” a campaign video touts legislative progress on abortion protections, gun control and a forthcoming paid family and medical leave program. Those policies are somewhat removed from the secretary of state’s key responsibilities: regulating campaign finance laws and elections, auditing state programs and registering businesses.

Williamson goes on to describe a platform that includes ensuring election security and accountability for public agencies.

“We need a secretary of state who will tenaciously protect our election process from foreign tampering,” Williamson said. “I will make the cybersecurity of our election data and voter information my top priority.”

Because of Oregon’s use of paper ballots, rather than computerized voting machines, the state’s elections are seen as more secure than those in many other states.

Williamson said she’ll enforce rules that keep corporate money out of politics, though none exist in Oregon, and suggests she’ll help draw equitable legislative district boundaries after the 2020 census. The latter job primarily falls to the Legislature, though the secretary of state acts as a backstop if lawmakers can’t agree.

As a former majority leader, Williamson has experience raising large sums of money. She hasn’t faced a competitive challenger since 2012. Her competition will be more stiff next year.

Hass formally announced in September that he will forgo another run at his Washington County Senate district to pursue statewide office. A well-established figure in the Capitol — first as a television news reporter, now as a six-term lawmaker who has served in both chambers — Hass logged a big win in the 2019 session by helping to craft a new tax on businesses.

Hass’ platform includes elements common to all candidates: modernizing and protecting elections, pushing fair political boundaries, and accountability through audits. But in recent weeks, Hass has released policy proposals. Those include an idea for reducing government influence on a state commission dealing with public records, and a pledge to establish an ombudsman position to look into the state’s troubled foster care system.

The two established lawmakers will face a relative newcomer in Jamie McLeod-Skinner, a Terrebonne Democrat known for her credible challenge of Republican U.S. Rep. Greg Walden in 2018. Walden, of Hood River, won comfortably, but still by a lower margin than any race since he was first elected to the seat in 1998.

When she announced her candidacy in August, McLeod-Skinner said she would emphasize the need for a rural Democrat in statewide office, with a focus on elections and audits.

McLeod-Skinner has said she would self-impose limits on campaign finance contributions, though she had not yet decided what those limits would be in August. Depending on what she decides, that could tamp down a potential advantage over Williamson and Hass: They both voted yes on Senate Bill 1049.

That controversial bill, a series of changes to the state’s pension system for public workers, angered public-sector unions. Some are now vowing not to support lawmakers who voted for the bill in next year’s election, despite organized labor’s long and deep ties to the Democratic Party in Oregon. On Wednesday, the Oregon Education Association became the latest to announce such a decision.

It’s unclear whether any other prominent candidates will join the secretary of state race in coming days. Rep. Dan Rayfield, a Corvallis Democrat, had strongly considered a run, but has since told OPB he’s decided against it.

No Republican has officially announced for the seat, though Deputy Secretary of State Rich Vial has said he’s thinking about a run.