By DON McINTOSH
For working people, the most important election campaign this year may be for a nonpartisan job that doesn’t get much attention. Oregon’s labor commissioner is in charge of enforcing wage and hour, civil rights, and prevailing wage laws, and oversees registered apprentice training programs. Christina Stephenson—an attorney who helped unions craft some of those laws—seemed to the union movement like a perfect candidate. She got enthusiastic backing from labor organizations, and won a whopping 46% in a seven-way race. In the November general election, she’ll face second-place finisher Cheri Helt (20%), a former Republican state representative and co-owner of Zydeco Kitchen and Cocktails in Bend.
Three of Oregon’s now six Congressional seats are in serious contention this year, and in all three, labor’s top choice will be the Democratic nominee in November:
In the race to succeed longtime labor ally Peter DeFazio in Southern Oregon’s Fourth Congressional District (CD4), current labor commissioner Val Hoyle won with a decisive 64% in a nine-way race. But she’ll be in for a fight in November against Republican Alek Skarlatos. Skarlatos is most famous as a National Guardsman who while on vacation helped disarm a terrorist on a train to Paris. But in recent years he worked for the fanatically anti-union group Freedom Foundation. Two years ago, moneyed backers poured over $5 million dollars into his campaign against DeFazio.
Kurt Schrader has represented CD5 since 2009, but his record as a reliably unreliable Democrat finally caught up to him among Democratic primary voters this year. Schrader is said to have played a key role in gumming up the works for President Biden’s marquee Build Back Better legislation, and he’s voted against priority labor legislation like the PRO Act and a bill to raise the federal minimum wage. Unions mostly backed his challenger Jamie McLeod-Skinner this year, and at press time, she was on track to win with 55% of the vote [The latest in a string of election fiascoes in Clackamas County meant results were not yet official with some ballots remaining to be counted.] In November, McLeod-Skinner will face Republican Lori Chavez-DeRemer, a former mayor of Happy Valley who twice lost campaigns for state representative to Janelle Bynum.
In the newly created Sixth Congressional District, state representative Andrea Salinas won the Democratic primary by a comfortable margin in a nine-way race. She got 37%, about twice the votes of second place finisher Carrick Flynn, a first-time candidate who benefited from more than $14 million in independent expenditures funded by a cryptocurrency billionaire. In the fall, Salinas will face Republican Mike Erickson, the founder and CEO of a logistics management company.
Two other highly rated lawmakers also cruised to easy victories in Democratic primaries in districts where they’re almost certainly win in November: Suzanne Bonamici in CD1 and Earl Blumenauer in CD3.
No big surprise, but former Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek won the Democratic primary; in November, she’ll face former Republican state rep Christine Drazan as well as former state senator Betsy Johnson, who’s running a well-funded independent campaign. United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555 and several public sector unions refrained from endorsing Kotek during the primary, but could reconsider in the general. Meanwhile Johnson has one union endorsement so far, from the Oregon Machinists Council.
In the Democratic primary in House District 19 in Southeast Salem, both union-endorsed candidates —Jackie Leung and Brad Witt—lost to a third candidate, Salem City Council member Tom Anderson. It was close: Anderson won with 36%; Leung, a graduate of the Oregon Labor Candidate School, got 32%; and Witt placed third with 31% after spending over $100,000 on the campaign, twice Leung’s spending and eight times Anderson’s. Witt is a former secretary-treasurer of the Oregon AFL-CIO and has represented Clatskanie in the House since 2005, so the loss brings his legislative tenure to a close. Anderson faces Republican TJ Sullivan in November.
But other union-backed candidates won contested races in the Democratic primary:
- Ramiro Navarro, Jr. HD 21 (Salem-Keizer)
- Ken Helm HD 27 (Beaverton)
- Lisa Reynolds HD 34 (Beaverton/Bethany)
- Farrah Chaichi HD 35 (Beaverton/Aloha)
Neelam Gupta HD 38 (Lake Oswego)[UPDATE: Gupta led in the first two weeks of ballot counting, but dropped behind Daniel Nguyen late-counted ballots.]
- Annessa Hartman HD 40 (Oregon City)
- Mark Gamba HD 41 (Portland/Milwaukie)
- Thuy Tran HD 45 (Portland/Milwaukie)
In the four-way race for Multnomah County chair, the two candidates with union endorsements will face off in November: Sharon Meieran, backed by ONA, got 18%, and Jessica Vega Pederson, who had a dozen other labor organizations, got 42%. The race will be decided by a runoff in November. Union ally Susheela Jayapal sailed to an easy win with 79% against two challengers. Nicole Morrisey O’Donnell won outright for sheriff with 62% of the vote in a three-way race to 34% for Derrick Peterson; both had some union backing.
Clackamas County Commission races were some rough going though. As of press time, union favorite Sonya Fischer, incumbent county commissioner, had 48% in a four-way race, and will face second place vote-getter Ben West (37%) in November. Fellow incumbent Paul Savas led with 37% and will face Libra Forde (36%) in the general.
In Washington County, Chair Kathryn Harrington took 53% and survived a challenge from Beach Pace; both had union endorsements. And incumbent commissioner Pam Treece won reelection backed by unions and 76% of voters. Union-backed criminal justice reformer Brian Decker fell short in his challenge to District Attorney Kevin Barton, earning 45% of the vote.
And in races for Lane County Commission, there was heartbreak for organized labor: Commissioner Joe Berney, who distinguished himself as a forceful and effective advocate of union labor in public construction, lost his bid for a second four-year term by just 87 votes. Union ally Heather Buch squeaked by to earn a second term as commissioner with 51% of the vote. And Dawn Lesley, union pick to represent Western Lane County, came in second and will face Ryan Ceniga in the general.
In City of Portland races, incumbent Dan Ryan won outright with 55%, and union-backed Simone Rede won for auditor by a four-to-one margin. Incumbent commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty got 44% and will face Rene Gonzalez in November. Hardesty was supported by five labor organizations, while seven others backed Vadim Mozyrsky, who came in third in a race with 11 candidates.
For Beaverton City Council, Kevin Teater and Edward Kimmi, both labor endorsed, won.
In Salem, union steward and Oregon Labor Candidates School graduate Micki Varney—whose campaign we profiled in our April 22 issue—won her race for city council 3,167 to 2,983.
Contested Metro races were a clean sweep for union-endorsed candidates: President Lynn Peterson won reelection by a comfortable margin, and Christine Lewis, Juan Carlos Gonzalez, and Duncan Hwang won Metro Council seats by two-to-one margins.