Betsy Johnson, an independent candidate for governor of Oregon, wears wildly oversized glasses and campaigns at homey events billed as “Beers With Betsy.” A former state senator who abandoned the Democratic Party, Johnson markets herself as the “goldilocks” alternative to the “extremes” of partisan politics, insisting she’s beholden to “only to Oregonians” and not to ”special interests.”
It’s an attractive pitch. But in Johnson’s case, it bears little relation to reality.
Johnson is not a middle-of-the-road politician. She owns a MAC-10 submachine gun — and received an A-rating from the NRA. On the campaign trail, she comes across like a pro-choice Ron DeSantis, vowing to give a voice to “really pissed off” Oregonians who are “terrified of the progressive left,” while blasting “wokeness” as “another form of intolerance.”
And for all her claims of independence, Johnson is only relevant because she’s received millions from some of the state’s most powerful corporate leaders, including $1.75 million from Nike founder Phil Knight. (What explains the donor-class devotion? Perhaps it’s because Johnson vowed in a recent debate to keep the state’s CEOs on “speed dial.”)
The two parties are running candidates from the state House. Democratic nominee Tina Kotek served for years as its speaker. Republicans nominee Christine Drazan served as minority leader. In a typical election year, the race would not be close. Oregon hasn’t elected a GOP governor since the Reagan era.
But Oregon has had a rough run of late — rocked by sky-blackening wildfires, deadly “heat domes,” pandemic lockdowns, a crisis of homelessness, street clashes between right-wing agitators and antifa, and a federal invasion of Portland that tried to crack down on racial justice protesters. The exhaustion of the electorate is reflected in the fact that incumbent executive Kate Brown polls among the least popular governors in the nation.
The sour mood among voters creates an opening for Johnson, who filed petition paperwork in mid August to officially secure a spot on the ballot. “The race is in play here, because I’m in it,” Johnson bragged to Rolling Stone in an interview last week. “If this was a two-way race, Tina would already be measuring the drapes at our governor’s residence.”
But if Johnson has a path to victory, she could just as easily play the spoiler in November, dragging down Kotek to hand victory to the pro-Trump, pro-life Republican Dranzan — creating political havoc in a state that gave Joe Biden a 16-point victory and takes pride in some of the most liberal abortion policy in the United States.
Early surveys show a tight three-way race, and the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia just shifted the race to a “toss-up”— noting that majority rule may have little to do with the outcome in Oregon, because the “winner may not need to crack even 40 percent” of the vote.
Johnson tells Rolling Stone that her campaign is centered on three big ideas: “We’re going to repair Oregon’s national reputation, get rid of the tent cities, and protect a woman’s right to choose,” she says.
On the trail, Johnson touts herself as a political maverick and vows to “lead with straight talk and common sense and tell it like it is.” But Johnson’s own record is not one of moderation:
It starts with the fact that Johnson is immoderately wealthy. She calls herself “the people’s candidate,” but she is not of the people, economically; she is a multimillionaire heiress of a timber fortune, as well as a legacy politician, with her father also having served in the state legislature.
How rich is Johnson, exactly? She reportedly inherited $11 million from her parents. But details are hard to come by. Taking a page from Donald Trump’s playbook, Johnson is refusing to make her tax returns public, insisting her privacy interest trumps any public interest in scrutinizing her wealth or the potential conflicts of interests presented by her investments.
Johnson has made Oregon’s crisis with homelessness a centerpiece of her campaign. She accuses Kotek of wanting to “preserve tent cities” that have popped up in parks and underpasses in Portland.
Denouncing such encampments, Johnson recently lamented to The New York Times: “You can see the deterioration of the beautiful City of Roses, now the city of roaches.” Critics who don’t share Johnson’s political views heard that language as dehumanizing people in crisis. Johnson insists that wasn’t her intention. “I never called homeless people roaches,” she tells Rolling Stone. “That is total crap!”
Yet the roach riff is hardly the only example of Johnson’s right-wing rhetoric. She recently cautioned that her Democratic opponent — who would become the nation’s first lesbian governor, if elected — wants to “bring the culture wars to your kid’s classroom.” Johnson has also claimed that Kotek’s policies would leave “us all woke and broke.”
As a state senator, Johnson received both an A rating and an endorsement from the National Rifle Association. In Salem, Johnson was a surefire vote against gun control, opposing bills to ban weapons from school grounds and public buildings, to take guns from convicted stalkers, to authorize courts to remove guns from suicidal individuals, and to require background checks for all gun sales.
Johnson is a recreational shooter and also an unusual gun collector. She is one of only a few thousand Americans licensed to own a machine gun — a fact she touted to a group of middle schoolers in 2013, not long after the Newtown massacre: “I’m a Class 3 holder,” she told the students, “which means that I can legally possess a machine gun — and actually have one. So I take the Second Amendment pretty seriously.”
Johnson told Rolling Stone the weapon is a MAC-10 submachine gun, which she calls a “Cold War artifact” and says she stores in a safe, adding that it has “appreciated in value.” Johnson has been touted for years on gun forums by fans who call her Betsy “Machine Gun” Johnson.
Now that she’s running for statewide office, Johnson has suddenly adopted new views on guns. “My thinking has evolved,” she says, claiming she now supports background checks. “If we’re going to make progress on guns,” she says, “we need responsible gun owners at the table — not being told that it’s evil to have a gun.”
As a Democrat in the state legislature, Johnson worked to undermine her party’s efforts to ban fracking in Oregon and reduce climate emissions, while accepting donations from Koch Industries. In 2019, the state’s Democrats nevertheless gathered the votes needed to pass a historic cap-and-trade bill. But Republican lawmakers made national headlines by fleeing the state to deny the legislature the quorum needed to pass the bill.
While Republicans were in hiding across state lines — one GOP legislator menaced state troopers with violence if they tried to track him down, snarling: “Send bachelors and come heavily armed” — a front group for the state’s extractive interests calling itself Timber Unity staged an intimidating show of force in Salem.
Rolling Stone was on the ground as massive logging trucks circled the capital and a rowdy crowd poured onto the stairs of the statehouse. Their ranks included members of the III% militia, wearing gear with the slogan: “When tyranny becomes law, rebellion becomes duty.” QAnon followers were also in force holding an American flag banner emblazoned with the words, “Where We Go One We Go All.”
Johnson didn’t shy away from this group, riven with extremists. To the contrary, she soon accepted an award from Timber Unity, and she joined them with a broad smile on her face on the statehouse steps when they staged a similar protest in 2020.
In the recent debate, Johnson declared that “climate change is real” but accused progressives of seeking to punish “hard-working Oregonians.” Johnson insisted the state should increase logging to diminish wildfire risk. “The biggest thing we can do to mitigate climate change is not let the place burn down every year,” she said.
One of the leaders of Timber Unity, Angelita Sanchez, reportedly went on to participate in the events of Jan. 6 at the U.S. Capitol. She recently posted on Facebook that she’s kept in touch with Johnson and that they spoke this summer when Johnson was seeking Timber Unity’s endorsement.
Johnson did not give a straight answer when asked about her connection to the Timber Unity leader, insisting that she was “not a friend of mine” and accusing Rolling Stone of trying “to put views and words in my mouth.”
Johnson has other troubling fans. Her campaign was recently endorsed by former state representative Mike Nearman, who was expelled from the body after being caught on video literally opening the doors for armed militants who attempted to storm the state capital in December 2020. (The intruders were turned away by state troopers and Nearman pleaded guilty to a count of official misconduct). Johnson tells Rolling Stone, “I didn’t seek his endorsement. I reject what he did.” She adds: “I probably would have voted to expel him had I been in the legislature.”
Johnson insists that, because she is not a part of the two-party system, she is free from the influence of special interests — examples of which, she’s said, include unions that back Democrat Kotek and Oregon Right to Life, which backs the Republican, Drazan.
“We need a governor,” she said on the debate stage, “who’s loyal only to the people of Oregon.”
But Johnson’s campaign is only relevant because of the enormous war chest she’s built with the help of executives and CEOs from across the state. These are the same folks she’s vowed to keep on speed dial — a rather extreme form of loyalty.
Pressed on the contradiction of denouncing special interests while being dependent on them for her political fate, Johnson deflected, insisting that her corporate donors are just great citizens. “If people who love Oregon are a ‘special interest’ then we’re more screwed up than it seems,” she says.
Johnson even characterized the huge contributions by Nike’s founder as an investment: “Phil Knight is investing in a candidacy that is trying to bring more balance into our Oregon political life, and I welcome his participation and his friendship.”
Knight did not respond to an interview request. But this is not his first attempt to, in effect, buy the governorship in a state that has no individual contribution limits. In 2018, Knight gave at least $2.5 million to the GOP nominee and steered another $1 million to the Republican Governors Association — only to see his favored candidate fall by eight points.
On the debate stage, Johnson told voters she views corporations as the “customer” and described the job of the governor as asking, “What do you need?” She insisted she will be “reaching out to them constantly saying, ‘What can the state of Oregon do … to anticipate your needs?’”
Pressed, Johnson didn’t back down. “They are customers,” she told Rolling Stone, lamenting that chipmaker Intel recently moved some of its business to Ohio because Oregon, in her view, wasn’t more solicitous. “I am embarrassed about that.”
Johnson makes clear that she believes that the role of government goes far beyond creating a level playing field or a favorable investment climate. “I think that government needs to be attentive to the businesses that are here,” Johnson insists, “especially when a lot of high-net-worth individuals are leaving the state.”