Oregonians have been reluctant in recent years to elect Republicans to statewide office. They have reason to end that streak in November by voting for Knute Buehler, an independent-minded challenger who will bring leadership and fresh ideas to an office in need of both.
Buehler can’t boast incumbent Kate Brown’s experience in elected positions. However, he’s an exceptionally well-rounded candidate with an impressive professional career and experience pushing, through the initiative process, for beneficial election reforms. An Oregon State grad, he studied politics and economics at Oxford University on a Rhodes scholarship before heading to medical school. Buehler’s interest in politics is long-standing, as his graduate experience suggests, and includes a stint working for Ross Perot’s presidential campaign.
Voters might wish for a term or two in the Legislature, say, to flesh out Buehler’s résumé. But long experience in elective office doesn’t guarantee stellar performance. Over the past 20 years-plus, Brown has become a fixture in Salem, first as a legislator and then, beginning in 2009, as secretary of state. This experience has led neither to memorable leadership as the state’s top election officer, nor to immunity from high-profile blunders.
Just months ago, in fact, her office gave the two candidates for labor commissioner a last-minute notification that their election would occur in November rather than May. Both Bruce Starr and Brad Avakian were surprised by the news, which they received after the filing deadline. Starr tried unsuccessfully to challenge the switch, which, he argued, helped Avakian. Though the office of labor commissioner is nonpartisan, Starr is a Republican and Avakian, like Brown, a Democrat.
This episode is far more likely to be a simple mistake than a nakedly cynical attempt to help a fellow party member, as some have alleged. And it isn’t, by itself, justification to turn Brown out of office. But it has eroded public confidence in Brown, if not the office itself, and it’s one reason for voters to give serious consideration to Buehler, who is anything but rigidly partisan. Heck, the guy contributed $2,500 to John Kitzhaber’s gubernatorial campaign in the 2010 election.
Buehler’s nonpartisan bent and his familiarity with issues relevant to the office are evident in his involvement with 2008’s unsuccessful Measure 65, which would have created a top-two primary. Buehler served on the steering committee for the measure, which was proposed by former Secretaries of State Phil Keisling and Norma Paulus. He also worked on a similar initiative in 2006 that failed to qualify for the ballot.
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Buehler’s support for the top-two primary has waned since then, and he now prefers a less open model he refers to as an “Oregon solution.” It would create primary ballots for qualified minor parties such as the Independent Party, which now represents about 81,000 registered voters, and all parties would be encouraged to open their primaries. This is a step in the wrong direction, and we hope Buehler as secretary of state will rediscover his enthusiasm for the top-two model. Still, it’s more innovative than what Brown has to offer, which is a dutifully stated commitment to ask the two major parties to open their primaries. Ho, hum.
Buehler and Brown also differ on the matter of legislative redistricting, a once-a-decade task that falls to the secretary of state whenever the Legislature can’t come up with a plan. Buehler would prefer to take the task out of partisan hands and give it to an independent commission, an idea that deserves serious consideration. Brown says the current process works just fine, though she’s “watching” what’s going on elsewhere. Not much enthusiasm for new ideas there, either.
Buehler, notably, has introduced the condition of the Public Employees Retirement System to the campaign, vowing to use the office’s bully pulpit to seek reforms, which, of course, would help the numerous government entities subject to examination by the secretary of state’s Audits Division. Fixing PERS has little to do with the secretary of state’s formal role, but Buehler’s position is a reminder that secretaries frequently run for — and can inherit — higher office.
Neither Buehler nor Brown would rule out an eventual gubernatorial run. And Brown, by way of explaining her long list of union endorsements, said, “They’re concerned about who might be next in line for governor.” Voters should be, too.
Both candidates say they would like to make the office’s Corporations Division more business-friendly. But Buehler, unlike Brown, actually has an extensive business background. Not only is he a partner in a large medical practice, but he sits on the board of St. Charles Health System, one of central Oregon’s largest employers.
Brown is a smart, energetic official with a long record of public service. But she’s had her shot at this office, and it’s time for a change. Voters should elect Buehler.