Five candidates line up to be Oregon's No. 2

Janie Hair // Published April 14, 2008 in The Oregonian
Take three state senators, a former television journalist and one guy who's flopped from Democrat to Republican back to Democrat and what do you get?

A race for Oregon secretary of state, widely considered a launching pad for higher office and next in line to the governor.

This year, the battle to succeed Secretary Bill Bradbury is one of the most competitive statewide races on the ballot, with three well-known Democrats and one Republican hankering for the open seat.
The three state senators campaigning for the May 20 primary are Kate Brown of Portland, the ethics and elections committee chairwoman; Rick Metsger of Welches, the business and transportation committee chairman; and Vicki Walker of Eugene, the government and education committee chairwoman. Also on the ticket is Newberg "voter advocate" Paul Damian Wells, who has run previously for the office as a Democrat and Republican.

"One of the attractions of the job is that you're No. 2, and it's seen as a stepping stone to other office," says John Lindback, who runs the Elections Division and reports to the secretary of state.

Mark Hatfield, Tom McCall and Barbara Roberts all were secretaries of state before serving as governor. Hatfield also went on to a long career in the U.S. Senate.

Oregon's secretary of state runs statewide elections, audits state government and serves on the state land board with the governor and treasurer, overseeing 2 million acres of state trust land.

The next secretary of state will face continued calls for limits on campaign contributions; the challenges of refereeing a vigorous ballot initiative system; and a Legislature eager to take on enhanced auditing duties. The person will encounter a growing number of Oregonians disenchanted with the two-party system and will have to redraw legislative district lines if lawmakers can't agree on boundaries after the 2010 U.S. Census.

"I think one of the issues is, how do they handle themselves under fire?" Lindback says. "And are they truly going to run elections in a nonpartisan way?"

Democrats have held the seat since 1985 and feel upbeat about keeping it.
Five candidates line up to be Oregon's No. 2

One of them will face political newcomer Rick Dancer in the fall. Dancer resigned as a Eugene television news anchorman in February to take his first crack at elective office.

Bradbury is stepping down after serving the two full terms allowed by the Oregon Constitution. Under his watch, the country saw its first all vote-by-mail presidential election and Oregon candidates started reporting campaign finance numbers online.

But his critics have called him partisan and hostile to ballot initiatives, citing as examples his decision to keep independent Ralph Nader off the 2004 presidential ballot and his redrawing of legislative boundaries in 2001 that Republicans say favored Democrats.

"Bottom line for me, the office ought to be independent and it ought to be somebody who is fair and impartial," says Sen. Bruce Starr, R-Hillsboro, who has pushed to make the job nonpartisan, a statutory change. "It's an administrative position, and that position ought to be one we don't apply partisan labels to."

The three Democratic legislators largely share the same political views, although they emphasize different priorities and style. All want to keep fake signatures and dubious petition pushers out of Oregon's initiative system, get more voters registered, and make sure state agencies are spending public dollars well.

Brown says her top priority is to get rid of fraud in the initiative system. Walker talks about aggressively auditing state budgets and business tax breaks to prove fiscal accountability to Oregonians. Metsger goes beyond the listed duties of the office, and says he'd use the post to champion broader issues, such as sustainable development.

On the Republican side, Dancer would push to make the office nonpartisan and says he's tired of government second-guessing voters.

Bradbury acknowledges that taking hits comes with the territory. But he wouldn't wave anyone off the job he's had since 1999, when he was appointed to the post.

"It's a great honor," he says, "and it's a huge challenge to make sure you are implementing elections so people can trust the democratic process."

Janie Har: 503-221-8213;