In Oregon's Gubernatorial Race, Winning Isn't The Point For Independent Candidate
Patrick Starnes isn’t going to be Oregon’s next governor.
He doesn’t have the money, the name recognition or any real experience navigating the intricacies of state politics or state government.
If you listen to him long enough, you get the sense that even he knows he cannot win:
“Of course, my minimum goal is to get double digits because I wanted to get a third voice to have more impact,” he said on OPB’s "Think Out Loud" earlier this month.
Where the soft-spoken Willamette Valley cabinetmaker really wants to make an impact is in campaign finance reform – something of an irony in this year in which Democrat Kate Brown and Republican Knute Buehler are breaking the record for spending in a gubernatorial race.
He wants to change state laws to make it harder for big donors to dominate the conversation, and he says that he won’t sign anything in his first 100 days until campaign finance reform hits his desk.
“Almost any issue that you talk about — health care reform, education reform, PERS reform, even the environment — with all those large donors controlling the debate and financing these campaigns, we can't have an open, honest discussion,” he said.
Starnes and party leaders say they can make an impact on that kind of issue even if he isn’t the one sitting behind the governor’s desk in January. Independent Party secretary and co-founder Sal Peralta initially didn’t even support Starnes in the party primary this year.
"I endorsed Knute Buehler,” he said.
Buehler and Brown both competed heavily for the Independent slot on the ballot as write-in candidates. Starnes entered the race very late and beat Buehler by just 237 votes.
Peralta switched his support to Starnes once he was a candidate. But he warned Starnes the party wouldn’t be doing much to support his general election campaign.
“I’ve never felt that the party should be gauged based on statewide office,” he said. “If you think rationally about the amount of money that is behind Kate Brown and Knute Buehler, and just the sheer amount of voters, it’s really an impossible task. What we wanted to do with Patrick was support a guy who does put a good face on the party and was willing to do the work.”
The Independent Party was founded more than a decade ago in response to attempts to make it harder for unaffiliated and third-party candidates run for office. Its founders wanted to do things differently: They crafted their early legislative agendas, for example, via a mailed survey of members.
Registration boomed — to 5 percent of the state electorate. Which meant the Independents counted as a major party — right up there with Democrats and Republicans.
But in some ways, that’s actually made things harder. For example, it’s made recruiting candidates more time-consuming, increased the amount of time and money Republicans and Democrats spend trying to win the Independent primary and changed the sense of expectation of where candidates such as Starnes should finish — but not necessarily how the media covers them.
“It's like the chicken and the egg,” Starnes said. “You can't get the recognition because you don't have the recognition.”
Independent Party leaders say they have changed politics in Oregon but in more nuanced ways than statewide campaigns.
Peralta is a McMinnville city council member, one of 100 or so elected officials in Oregon who he says belong to the Independent Party. He says legislators pay more attention today to issues the party been pushing for years like homelessness and PERS reform. Their 120,000 or so voters are engaged, Peralta says, at least more than the typical Republican or Democrat.
“We don’t claim to speak for all the unaffiliated voters in Oregon, but we do have about 5 percent of people in this state who jumped through hoops in most cases to join the Independent Party,” he said. “We probably do represent between 7 and 10 percent of the people in the state. They are important. They’re swing voters.”
Starnes’ primary government experience is on two school boards. He says that’s enough.
“There are over 300 school districts, and these are the folks on the ground level that have to deal with the most important issue in Oregon education, which is 40 percent of the state budget,” he said. “So I would argue that the school board experience should actually be required before you hold an office in Salem.”
He’s proposed taxing vacant homes — your beach house, for example — to raise money to fight homelessness. He’d like to attract an electric pickup manufacturer to Oregon and wants new highways built with technology to charge your electric car as you drive on them.
It’s the kind of shoot-for-the-moon idea a major candidate — or at least one from the Democratic or Republican Party — probably wouldn’t dare talk about because the details are so foggy right now.
“Israel is developing wireless electric freeways,” he said. “We could have that, especially if we partnered with California or Washington. We could have it from Bellingham to San Diego.”
A recent poll conducted for OPB shows him at just under 5 percent support headed into the final weeks of the campaign. For the Independent Party, that would be an improvement.
Two years ago, nominee Cliff Thomason didn’t even muster much enthusiasm within his own party. The final tally among major-party candidates:
Kate Brown, 50.7 percent of the vote.
Bud Pierce, 43.5
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