Illustration by Leo Clark

Betsy Johnson is Independent in name only

Johnson is backed by the same dark money that is infecting all of electoral politics

It’s that time again. Nov. 8, 2022 is election day and we have already been beaten down by the onslaught of political ads for several months now. With our current Governor Kate Brown on the way out, we in Oregon are about to be home to a gubernatorial race that will be watched by the rest of the country.


The Republican candidate, Christine Drazen, was a member of the Oregon House of Representatives from 2019 until Jan. of this year. The Democratic candidate, Tina Kotek, was a member of the Oregon House of Representatives from 2007 until Jan. of this year, where she was also the House Speaker from 2013 until she left office. Last but not least, we have the fictitious Independent candidate.


The unaffiliated party candidate running for Governor is Betsy Johnson, who claims that as an Independent candidate she is going to force the Democrats and Republicans to work together. While both Tina Kotek and Christine Drazen will bring out voters based on the letters next to each of their names, the candidate running as Independent is the one that is drawing a lot of attention, and for good reason. So who is Betsy Johnson?


There is a lot to unpack with this question. Regarding her political career of the last 20 years, Betsy Johnson was elected to the Oregon House of Representatives in 2000 where she stayed until 2006 when she was elected as a Democratic State Senator, holding that position until resigning in Dec. of last year to focus on the gubernatorial election for Governor of Oregon.


While Republican politicians are using her former position as a Democrat in the Oregon Senate to attack her Independant status, her stance seems anything but Democrat, let alone Independant. Johnson claimed in one of her more recent ads that she will move Oregon forwards by being loyal to the people rather than any special interest. While this statement seems to say that she won’t be beholden to anyone but her constituents due to her independent status, a look into her fundraising reveals that she is the most likely candidate to be loyal to special interests in the form of her donors.


While both Drazen and Kotek have raised around $5 million each, the Johnson campaign has raised over $10 million. With a lot of these donations being large cash donations from CEO donors, I am not sure how she can say she will be loyal to the people of Oregon. Nike co-founder Phil Knight, who has often made donations to Republican candidates over the years, has donated nearly $2 million to the Johnson campaign. While fans may be wishing for him to be the next owner of the Trail Blazers, I am not sure how it could be considered a good thing that the billionaire co-founder of a notoriously unethical company could donate $2 million to a candidate who claims she will be loyal only to the Oregon people—unless she means wealthy Oregonians, of course. Some would call these donors special interests.


A look at the Oregon Secretary of State campaign finance site shows that all of the campaign donations made to Betsy Johnson, or any other candidate for that matter, are there for the public to see. Billionaire Tim Boyle, CEO of Columbia Sportswear, has donated about $400,000 to Johnson as well. Jordan Schnitzer, deceptively named philanthropist and NIMBY president of Schnitzer Properties, has also donated $125,000 to the Johnson campaign. Johnson and Schnitzer have worked together in the past to turn the Wapato Jail in North Portland into the Bybee Lakes Hope Center, a referral-only transitional shelter that has a number of contingencies to enter. Anyone that is a billionaire or even ultra wealthy can hardly be considered altruistic enough to be a philanthropist, especially since the wealth these people gain is always at the expense of the working class, regardless of whether they inherited their wealth or not.


With Johnson’s TV ads having a primary focus on the houseless in Portland, it was no surprise to find some links to the dark money group People for Portland. Dan Lavey and Kevin Looper, co-founders of People for Portland, have been helping with the Johnson campaign as political consultants. Wheelhouse Northwest and Gallatin Public Affairs, firms owned by Lavey and Looper, received a combined $75,000 from the Johnson campaign back in December, while also making a combined $300,000 in contributions to the Johnson campaign to date. Working with an anonymous dark money group with a misleading name should be a cause for scrutiny, especially considering that the group seems to be made up of a bunch of wealthy business owners who just want to get more of their way at the expense of the actual people, contrary to their ridiculous name.


Johnson has also received massive donations from those in the timber industry, which shouldn’t be a surprise based on her past record of voting against climate change legislation and herself being a timber heiress. Her connections to the timber industry also reveal some sinister connections—most notably her past support of Timber Unity in their opposition to cap-and-trade bills in 2019, which famously spurred the Republican walkouts in 2019 and 2020.


While Timber Unity claims to represent the loggers, truckers and other working class rural Oregonians, members of Timber Unity have been linked with the events of Jan. 6, the QAnon conspiracy theory and other far right groups such as the Proud Boys, Patriot Prayer, 3 Percenters and the Oath Keepers. Though Timber Unity hasn’t endorsed Johnson as a candidate, these past connections shouldn’t be forgotten. Keeping the fossil fuel and other environmentally harmful industries alive for the sake of jobs won’t matter much when environmental decline continues to create worsening and unsafe working and living conditions.


While Johnson’s pro-choice views are drawing ire from conservatives and the religious right, her support for legislation regarding transgender sports bans will make her feel right at home with transphobes on the political right.


From crashing her car by rear ending someone at a red light and claiming legislative privilege to escape the consequences of her actions back in 2013, to crashing TEDxPortland as an unannounced speaker earlier this summer, the timber heiress is certainly shaking things up.


While some candidates possess more hateful views than others and are more than happy to share these views publicly, the unfortunate truth is that our entire political system is an oppressive structure that will always favor those who are already benefiting from the fruits of capitalism while the rest of us starve. Running as an Independent to set yourself apart from the other two parties gives an illusion that things will be different, when in reality a vote for Johnson would be the same as a vote for corporations and special interests, rather than a vote that would help improve the lives of the increasing number of people that are suffering in this state and nation at large.