We tend to pay less attention to down-ballot state races, as if their only real importance lies in the creation of strong political benches, a sort of stockpiling of talent for the future. Even so, just reading the names Katherine Harris and Kenneth Blackwell reveals that we do actually understand that Secretary of State is among the most important political jobs in the country. From the opposite end of the spectrum, Californians proved it, yet again, when Debra Bowen was elected, last year. Now, it’s Oregon’s turn.
A few years ago, it came to the attention of some Portland activists that Portland General Electric (or PGE- and not to be confused with California’s PG & E- Pacific Gas & Electric) had been charging rate-payers for its federal and state tax liabilities, even though it wasn’t actually paying the taxes. The Public Utilities Commission had given PGE a waiver. So, PGE was using false pretenses to over-bill its customers. In the amount of $150,000,000 a year! The total came to over $1,000,000,000! These activists thought it might be a good thing to stop this outrageous practice; so, they approached a prominent state legislator with the idea of passing a law that would forbid it, and that would require utilities to refund to ratepayers the money they were charged for taxes that the utilities did not pay- plus interest. The legislator didn’t want to do it. PGE is enormously wealthy and politically powerful. So powerful, in fact, that it had never suffered a legislative defeat! The activists approached a second legislator. A third. A fourth. A fifth. None had the political courage. The sixth legislator they approached was Vicki Walker, a state senator from a mostly rural Willamette Valley district that also includes Oregon’s second largest city, the university town of Eugene. Walker said she’d do it.
Oregon’s Democratic Governor, Ted Kulongoski, refused to take a stand on Walker’s effort. Even he lacked the guts to confront PGE. But Walker ushered the legislation through both the Senate and the House, and Kulongoski signed it into law. It was one of those extremely rare examples of a government standing up to a powerful special interest, on behalf of the people. And it was the first time PGE had ever been defeated in Oregon’s legislature! And Vicki Walker was singularly responsible for making it happen. And Oregon’s utilities tried to make her pay for it. Eugene’s popular mayor ran against her, in the next election. Eugene’s mayoral candidates need not declare party affiliation, so until this mayor challenged Walker, many of his constituents probably didn’t even know he was a Republican. So, he could run as a liberal Republican, a species with which Oregon actually has a long, and often happy, history. And needless to say, he was very well-funded. He was actually favored to win. And then they had their debate, and Walker was so much smarter, and so much better versed on the issues, that all the local media agreed she had soundly defeated him. And that turned the election, and led to her victory. Now, Oregon has the opportunity to bring her intelligence, integrity, and courage to state office.