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Christine Drazan is bent on restoring GOP influence in Oregon. She now has her chance

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Kristyna Wentz-Graff
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OPB
Republican gubernatorial candidate Christine Drazan speaks at a campaign event at The Barn at Countryside in Aurora, Ore., Oct. 18, 2022.

The former lawmaker and lobbyist looks like Republicans' best hope to retake Mahonia Hall in more than a decade. Her rise to prominence has been swift and strategic.

Editor’s note: This is part of our series profiling the three major candidates for governor, Republican Christine Drazan, Democrat Tina Kotek and unaffiliated candidate Betsy Johnson.

Christine Drazan had been in the Oregon House of Representatives for less than eight months when she staged her first coup.

It was the late summer of 2019. Republicans in the state Legislature, badly outnumbered, had just been helpless to stop Democrats from passing a new business tax, a statewide rent control policy, and a litany of other big priorities they despised.

Drazan was a rookie lawmaker, but not unseasoned. She’d previously spent nearly a decade in the Capitol as a Republican staffer at a time when her party reigned. Now in elected office, she refused to accept a power dynamic so drastically tilted in the other direction.

So she decided to take over.

With backing from the influential business lobby, Drazan convinced the bulk of her 21 Republican colleagues that she had a plan to claw back House seats and lead the GOP out of irrelevance. By the time she forced a closed-door vote on Sept. 16, 2019, the ambitious freshman from Oregon City had enough support to topple the House Republican leader, veteran lawmaker Carl Wilson.

Today, Drazan might be on the verge of a takeover of a different sort. Just four years after winning her very first election, the former lobbyist stands a real chance of becoming Oregon’s first Republican governor in nearly 40 years.

Recent polling suggests Drazan, 50, is virtually deadlocked with – and perhaps leading – Democrat Tina Kotek, her fierce political enemy when both served in the House. Unaffiliated candidate Betsy Johnson, a former conservative Democrat, is polling a distant third but could siphon enough votes to propel Drazan to victory.

If she can pull it off, Drazan will have halfway fulfilled the vision she sold to her House colleagues in 2019. The party might remain stuck in the legislative minority in 2023, but with the threat of Drazan’s veto pen hanging over bill negotiations, its irrelevance would be at an end.

Drazan would stand out for another reason, too: She’d bring less time in elected office to the governor’s mansion than anyone since revered Gov. Tom McCall in 1967 – and even McCall had done a stint as Oregon secretary of state.

That lack of a record has been an advantage to Drazan as she takes on two politicians with long legislative histories. Without any time in power, and with comparably few votes to her name, she’s spent the campaign tearing into Kotek and Johnson’s records and fashioned herself the “change” candidate.

“Voters get to tell us what kind of future they want,” she said recently. “All of the time I say, ‘More of the same or change?’ Because from my perspective that’s what this race boils down to. It’s a little bit of a binary choice.”

There’s another question hanging over the race. Drazan has won respect from allies and enemies alike for being impressively bright and unfailingly strategic as a politician in the minority party. If she suddenly finds herself with actual power, can she pivot from years of opposing another party’s priorities into capably fulfilling her own?

Walking out to Reno

Not long after taking the reins in the House, Drazan got an opportunity to show how far she’d go to reclaim GOP influence.

In February 2020, Democrats had teed up a key piece of unfinished business: a bill to cap greenhouse gas emissions in the state, and lower that cap over time in a bid to fight human-caused climate change.

The “cap-and-trade” proposal had already died a dramatic death once. In 2019, House Republicans under Drazan’s predecessor could do little more than grumble as the bill passed their chamber. Then their counterparts in the Senate went nuclear.

GOP senators fled the state, denying Senate leaders the two-thirds quorum needed to advance the bill. By the time they returned, key Democrats had come to agree with business interests that the proposal would result in an irresponsible hike in energy costs. The bill died.

When Democrats resurrected the plan the following year, Drazan was in charge of House Republicans – and she was not content to sit on the sidelines. GOP representatives walked out of the Capitol in step with their Senate counterparts.

Drazan and several of her top lieutenants drove down to Reno, where they set up a “war room” in a hotel to plan their next move.

“People are saying we were on vacation,” said state Rep. Daniel Bonham, R-The Dalles, who recalled joining Drazan and six other Republicans in Nevada’s second-most famous gambling mecca. “I don’t remember having much free time. Most people were on conference calls.”

Bonham says he always expected Republicans would return after forcing Democrats to refer the cap-and-trade bill to voters, who they believed would soundly reject the plan. Instead Kotek and other Democrats insisted they would pass the bill outright, Drazan and her members remained out of state, and the 2020 legislative session disintegrated without a single meaningful bill reaching the governor’s desk.

“[Democrats] have had near complete control of the Capitol for the better part of a decade,” Drazan said in a statement at the time, offering a preview of a central thesis of her gubernatorial bid. “It’s time for them to look in the mirror and recognize that their approach to leadership is what led us to this day.”

The walkout fueled a growing antipathy between Drazan and Kotek, and became infamous in Democratic circles. Left-leaning labor unions are pushing a ballot measure this year that could make future walkouts too politically painful to be worth the effort.

But for Drazan, the move came with a big upside.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Christine Drazan speaks at a campaign event in Aurora, Ore., Oct. 18, 2022.
Kristyna Wentz-Graff /
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Republican gubernatorial candidate Christine Drazan speaks at a campaign event in Aurora, Ore., Oct. 18, 2022.

First it solidified her reputation with members of the business lobby, who had backed her rise to Republican leader hoping to see just this kind of solidarity with their clientele.

“You can’t get an inch from Tina [Kotek] unless you prove you can stop her,” said Shaun Jillions, an influential lobbyist for manufacturers and Realtors. “To me, being accommodating doesn’t result in much.”

Jillions was among the cap-and-trade bill’s most active foes. He is now perhaps Drazan’s strongest ally in the business sector and, critics suggest, poised to have outsized influence in the governor’s office if she’s successful.

The walkout was also an unmistakable show of political strength. A year before, Drazan’s predecessor as Republican leader had been unpleasantly surprised when some of his members defected, joining Democrats in a vote that upended a GOP strategy of slowing legislation to a crawl. Now, Drazan had pulled off a far more tricky feat.

“That is a huge thing to get your caucus to unify and do that,” said state Rep. Barbara Smith Warner, D-Portland, who often jousted with Drazan as House Democratic leader. “It’s not easy to do with 22 people. It’s not easy to do with 10 people.”

The walkout had a less perceptible impact on state policy. Less than a week after Democrats’ cap-and-trade bill died, Gov. Kate Brown used her authority to issue a sweeping executive order limiting carbon emissions from many of the same sectors.

It’s a move that Drazan still chafes at. If elected, she plans to kill Brown’s order as one of her first official acts. “The story’s not over yet,” she said.

Klamath Falls to the Capitol

Drazan was born in Klamath Falls, the youngest of three children in a family that she has said sometimes worried about money. Her father worked in a veneer plant, she said, and eventually moved the family west to the Medford area to seek better job prospects as the timber industry faded.

Drazan graduated from Eagle Point High School, and in 1993 earned a communication arts degree from George Fox University, a conservative Christian school in Newberg.

“She’s always been one of those kids who naturally acted older than they really were,” said Scott Deboy, the elder of Drazan’s two older brothers. “I think that’s a side effect of being so aware of the world around you, most kids at that age just aren’t.”

Following college, Drazan worked briefly in public relations before gravitating to Salem and the epicenter of state politics.

“I want to make a difference with my time and efforts,” Drazan said. “Growing up, my family often talked about how the politicians down the street and across the country too often made things worse, not better. These conversations made me want to find out for myself if they were right and eventually led me to the state Capitol.”

Drazan landed a job as a staffer for House Republican Leader Ray Baum. She would work for four additional leaders until, in 2001, she became chief of staff for House Speaker Mark Simmons. There, Drazan got a close-up look at how to manipulate the levers of power.

“When you’re speaker, especially during session, you have an appointment every 15 minutes – a different policy, a different aide,” said Simmons. “She was part of most of them.”

Drazan also saw her share of fights with Democrats. In 2001, Republicans attempted to push through new political maps in a way that would bypass Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber, a physician whose prolific use of the veto pen earned him a nickname: “Dr. No.”

Democrats walked out to block the move – the same tactic Drazan would employ 19 years later.

“I thought that they shouldn’t walk out over that issue at the time,” she said recently, adding that her view has since changed. “God has a sense of humor… There’s no better way to gain a sense of perspective than to see both sides.”

Drazan left her staff job in 2003. She became a lobbyist for the Oregon Restaurant Association (now the Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association), then in 2011 took over as director of the nonprofit Cultural Advocacy Coalition of Oregon, where she fought for funding on behalf of arts and culture organizations around the state.

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Joni Land
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OPB
Republican gubernatorial candidate Christine Drazan waves to crowds at the Pendleton Round-Up in September.

Drazan offered a hint that she was angling for a return to politics in 2017. That’s the year she landed a role on the Clackamas County Planning Commission, a fitting spot for someone looking to establish public service bona fides while prepping a run for elected office. By 2018, she was running for the state House.

In that first race, Drazan had an unlikely fan in Brian Pasko, a fellow planning commissioner who had spent years directing the Oregon chapter of the Sierra Club and sided far more with Democrats’ policy views.

“When she ran for the Legislature, I was very supportive,” said Pasko, who’d come to respect Drazan’s intellect on the planning commission. “There was no way a Democrat was going to win, and I thought she was in the best position to create thoughtful policy.”

Pasko’s view soured somewhat months later, once Drazan had taken over the House Republican caucus.

“When she went into leadership,” he said, “I think you saw a different side of Christine.”

A reputation for hardball

Drazan stepped down from her legislative seat early this year to focus on her gubernatorial run. In her wake, she left behind a mixed reputation.

Staffers and fellow lawmakers told OPB she sometimes seemed to have a strategic intention behind every interaction, but that she balanced gamesmanship with charisma and warmth.

“I looked around the room and I didn’t see anybody with a better understanding of what we were doing and what we were up against,” said Bonham, who served as deputy Republican leader under Drazan.

“Christine and I always had a pretty good relationship, and I would say that we still do,” said Smith Warner, the former House Democratic leader. “I’m not sure that it ever did my caucus or my policies or my bills any good.”

The flip side was that, as one Capitol figure put it, Drazan does not suffer fools and can be bracingly direct with people who are standing in her way.

At least one state employee, an Oregon Health Authority staffer, lodged a complaint with human resources officials about Drazan’s belittling conduct in a phone call about health benefits in 2019. As Willamette Week first reported, Drazan sent a handwritten note to the employee. “I sincerely apologize for my interaction with you earlier this week,” it said. “I should have been more patient and polite.”

People who worked closely with Drazan in the Legislature also noticed how often she sought input from allies before making a decision. Opinions differ on whether that was a sign of collaborative goodwill or insecurity in her own instincts.

“Christine tends to build sort of an army of lobbyists and consultants around her… and do things by committee,” said Jim Pasero, a Republican booster and consultant who supported Drazan in her early political career, but is backing Johnson this year. “I think a lot of business owners would just say Christine is not ready to be governor.”

But Republican lawmakers under Drazan’s leadership appreciated having their opinions taken seriously.

“Christine had a way of communication that really did share more than ever before,” said Bonham. “It led to a different style of leadership that led to more buy-in.”

What is unquestionable about Drazan’s time in the Capitol: She was more willing than other recent Republican leaders to leverage hardline tactics to achieve her goals.

By 2021, Republicans had won an additional seat in the House after following Drazan’s elections strategy – their first-such gain in a decade. But the party was still heavily outnumbered, 37 to 23, and soon showed they would rely on an old trick for making things difficult for the majority: requiring bill readings.

By refusing to waive a constitutional rule requiring bills to be read in full before passage, Republicans could add hours or days to what would otherwise be quick, often noncontroversial, votes.

The tactic gave the GOP a rare bargaining chip: They’d only waive the rules if Democrats offered something of value. And in April of 2021, Drazan believed she’d secured just that.

After Republicans forced bill readings for weeks, House Speaker Kotek ended delays by agreeing to grant the GOP an equal say on the committee drawing new legislative maps that would rejigger state politics for the next decade.

The deal was potentially huge for Drazan, whose party would be able to block legislative and congressional maps they felt were biased in Democrats’ favor.

“We should have gotten fair maps for these next 10 years,” Drazan said recently. “That should have been what we got out of hardball tactics. That’s what our caucus prioritized.”

But Kotek reneged when Republicans on the committee would not agree to a map that analyses suggested strongly favored Democrats. In a move that surprised and angered lawmakers in even her own party, Kotek reshuffled committee membership at the last minute to give Democrats the votes they needed.

“I had to make a game-day decision to move forward to make sure these maps could get done,” Kotek recently told the Oregonian/OregonLive editorial board. “Leader Drazan was not willing to hold up her end of the bargain, which was to be a constructive player at the table.”

Candidate for the Republican nomination for Governor Christine Drazan, left, at an election night party in Canby, Ore., May 2022.
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Candidate for the Republican nomination for Governor Christine Drazan, left, at an election night party in Canby, Ore., May 2022.

Drazan has called that version of events “fantasy.” She and her allies say the broken deal exposed to the wider world how untrustworthy Kotek could be.

It also nudged Drazan toward higher office. The Republican now says one of her main reasons for running is preventing Kotek from taking the governorship.

“I am running to serve, and I’m running to do the job,” she said, “and it’s very important that Tina Kotek is never governor of my state.”

“The answer is change”

Drazan has rooted her sales pitch this year partly in her past and partly in the state’s lackluster present.

Merchandise available on Drazan’s campaign website proclaims her a “small town girl,” a mantra she unfailingly drops at every appearance. Drazan fans can also purchase shirts proclaiming her support from farmers and ranchers, or a tote bag that nods to the fact she’s a mother of three.

These are the things Drazan wants to talk about this year.

She promises to bolster the natural resource economy that once thrived in towns like her birthplace of Klamath Falls, pledging a policy of stepped up forest management that she says would allow increased logging while helping prevent wildfire.

She rails against business regulations she says make the state inhospitable to economic growth.

And she gets indignant when she discusses the school closures Brown mandated during the COVID-19 pandemic, saying the policies harmed students like her high-school-aged daughter, contributing to worrisome learning loss for Oregon kids.

Those stances have helped Drazan stay financially competitive in the state’s most expensive campaign on record. While the Republican Governors Association is her largest donor at more than $4 million, she’s gotten major support from timber and construction companies, along with Oregon Realtors. Nike co-founder Phil Knight, the state’s richest man, recently contributed $1 million to Drazan after supporting Johnson earlier in the race.

Other things Drazan wants to talk about this year don’t get their own merch. She argues Oregon Democrats have taken a lax approach on homelessness, crime and addiction, and allowed all of them to fester.

“Our state is in a very, very difficult position after a decade of single party control,” she says in another standard campaign line. “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?... If the answer is no, then the answer is change.”

Drazan is pledging to push for a repeal of Measure 110, the 2020 law that decriminalized low-level drug possession, and to beef up the ranks of Oregon State Police.

She plans to declare a state of emergency on homelessness. Drazan often argues such a designation would help the state use its resources more efficiently, but she also believes it might allow her to challenge federal court rulings that limit when governments can sweep homeless camps.

“I’m raising my hand and I’m saying I want to take leadership for this,” she said, without offering specifics. “We’re going to try my way for a while and see, if somebody sues, how the court responds to this approach.”

Quiet on some issues

There are also things Drazan doesn’t like to talk about.

An anti-abortion candidate, Drazan has the backing of Oregon Right To Life, opening her up to attacks from Kotek and Johnson that she’d seek to roll back the state’s robust protections on abortion now that Roe v. Wade has been dismantled. Drazan’s reaction has been to remove a mention of her pro-choice stance from the campaign’s website, and downplay any influence she could exert as the state’s most powerful elected official.

“I have been very clear that I will in fact enforce existing laws and will not change existing laws,” Drazan said at a recent debate in Portland. “The fact that this is all my opponents want to talk about means that this is all they have to run on, and it’s a little bit pathetic.”

Oregon Right to Life, the state’s pre-eminent anti-abortion group, doesn’t hold Drazan’s strategic posturing against her. “We’re always looking at what is our best opportunity to move the ball,” Executive Director Lois Anderson said. “Clearly one of our best chances this cycle is this governor’s race.”

Drazan’s stance on gun safety laws mirrors her approach to abortion. As a candidate with a stellar rating from the National Rifle Association, she has said alternately that Oregon’s existing firearms restrictions are saving lives and too tough. She argues that mental health care and increased policing – not gun control – are the solution to gun violence.

But Drazan suggests she would have little power to act on her own as governor, and that a Democrat-led Legislature is unlikely to hand her a bill to roll back gun laws. She has acknowledged, however, that she might try to use her authority as governor to retool a “red flag” law that confiscates guns from people who are deemed a danger to themselves or others.

Drazan has also been reluctant to weigh in on the extremism and conspiracy theories that have taken hold of some segments of the Republican Party.

She acknowledges that President Joe Biden won the 2020 election – often after bristling at questions about the matter. And she attempted to deflect when asked by a Medford news anchor in August whether she supported Jo Rae Perkins, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate who has embraced the QAnon conspiracy theories. After parrying with her interviewer on why the question was being asked, Drazan said she wished all fellow Republican candidates “the best.”

Rep. Christine Drazan, left, R-Canby, talks with Rep. Shelly Boshart Davis, R-Albany, on the House Chamber floor at the Oregon State Capitol, May 18, 2021 in Salem, Ore.
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Rep. Christine Drazan, left, R-Canby, talks with Rep. Shelly Boshart Davis, R-Albany, on the House Chamber floor at the Oregon State Capitol, May 18, 2021 in Salem, Ore.

That interview has offered an opportunity for Johnson and Kotek to paint Drazan as an extremist. Rivals note she has reaped campaign donations from a benefactor of the Jan. 6 rally in Washington, D.C. that led to the U.S. Capitol insurrection. She also spoke at an Eastern Oregon event that featured a member of a far-right militia movement (though that speaker, B.J. Soper, offered Drazan only faint praise).

But while she avoids the topic, Drazan can credibly claim she has pushed back on some of her party’s more Trumpian tendencies.

When the Oregon GOP passed a resolution in 2021 calling the Jan. 6 insurrection a “‘false flag’ operation,” Drazan and her fellow House Republicans issued a statement criticizing the decision. And after one of their own members, former state Rep. Mike Nearman, carried out a plan to allow raucous demonstrators into the locked state Capitol in December 2020, Drazan and other Republicans voted to expel him from the Legislature.

“We have to hold ourselves to a higher standard in elected life,” Drazan said at the time, “and his actions do not meet that standard.”

A promise to clean house

Winning the governorship as a Republican is a daunting task in Oregon. But if Drazan is able to pull off an upset this year, she’ll face a greater challenge: actually governing.

Democrats have almost 40 years of institutional control in the state, and a bench of party staff and allies who are familiar with the workings of the executive branch. Republicans have no such network.

“Imagine a state where the union bosses are not in control all of a sudden,” said Pasero, the Republican consultant who is backing Betsy Johnson this year, and says he doubts Drazan is up to the task. “What is the counter organization to that? Who are these 50 to 100 citizens that help the new governor take the state in a new direction?”

It’s not just Drazan skeptics asking the question. “When she wins, if she wins, a challenge is that transition period,” said state Rep. Shelly Boshart Davis, R-Albany, one of Drazan’s closest allies in the Legislature. “You have a short time before you would be sworn in. The challenge is to have people in place who you trust to get back to the basics of governing.”

Drazan says she recognizes that challenge. For now, though, she talks more about who won’t be around under her leadership.

“I will fire Kate Brown’s agency heads and replace them with people who are committed to customer service, who are committed to serving Oregonians and who have core competencies in the agencies that they will oversee,” she said at an Oct. 4 debate.

The move would amount to a clean rhetorical break from the Brown administration, which polling suggests is among the least popular in the nation. It also risks tossing out decades of institutional knowledge that Republicans might otherwise lean on during a major transition.

Asked about this, Drazan said “nobody is indispensable,” but also acknowledged the bureaucratic bloodletting might not be as severe as it sounds. Agency directors will be allowed to petition for their jobs, and some might find a sympathetic ear.

“Everybody’s gonna be asked to resign, but not every agency is in free fall,” Drazan said. The directors of the Oregon Health Authority and Department of Education, which played a major role in Brown’s COVID-19 strategy, have no future in a Drazan administration, she said. The director of the business-like Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission might.

Just as pressing is the question of how Drazan would work with Democrats in the Legislature as governor. On this point, Drazan’s fans do not hearken back to Gov. Vic Atiyeh, the last Republican to hold the office, or to McCall, the moderate Republican bridge-builder and Oregon political legend.

They point to Gov. John Kitzhaber – “Dr. No” – the Democrat who vetoed hundreds of bills, and whose pitched battles with legislative Republicans were formative in Drazan’s early career.

If she’s successful, Drazan’s supporters say, Oregon should expect a sequel.

“That is going to be a bloody battle that Oregonians aren’t quite ready for,” said Jillions, the business lobbyist and one of Drazan’s close advisors. “In the end I think it will be a good thing. But it’s not going to be fun to watch, I promise you.”

Dirk VanderHart is JPR's Salem correspondent reporting from the Oregon State Capitol. His reporting is funded through a collaboration between public radio stations around the Northwest called the Northwest News Network.