When it comes to party politics, Albany Mayor Alex Johnson II prides himself on being as neutral as possible. He even wears purple to all his public appearances to avoid any trace of partisanship.
His city, with a population of nearly 55,000, could be critically important in one of the tightest congressional races this year, Oregon’s 5th congressional district. So, he interviewed both candidates for possible endorsement and felt that the two opponents were taking very different approaches.
He felt Democrat Jamie McLeod-Skinner focused more on local issues, while Republican Lori Chavez-DeRemer focused more on what Johnson described as “national talking points” like critical race theory. and border security.
“I felt she was more with the national party line,” he said of Chavez-DeRemer. “It wasn’t something I cared about.”
These different strategies emerged during the campaign for what is expected to be an extremely close race in Oregon’s 5th District. Various polls show a virtual stalemate between McLeod-Skinner and Chavez-DeRemer.
A local approach to a federal race
The campaign is set in a newly redesigned district, which stretches from Clackamas County to Bend and Albany, spanning many of Oregon’s conservative and liberal strongholds.
McLeod-Skinner, a lawyer in Terrebonne, made a shock victory over longtime incumbent representative Kurt Schrader in the Democratic primary, where she was seen as more progressive compared to the moderate Schrader.
Although he largely outraged McLeod-Skinner and received the endorsement of President Joe Biden, Schrader struggled to garner local party support after pushing back on the legislation. that would allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices.
McLeod-Skinner has some government experience, having previously served on the city council in Santa Clara, Calif., for eight years and as city manager in the Oregon cities of Phoenix and Talent, but she has never held a federal post.
McLeod-Skinner has focused much of her campaign on climate change and told the OPB it’s a topic of particular concern to voters in the district right now. She said the area around Santiam Pass was particularly affected by the drought.
“I get a lot of support from Republicans who just want someone who understands the issues and takes them seriously and doesn’t have these platitudes answers,” she said.
She also spoke frequently about accountability and said she believes members of Congress shouldn’t buy or trade stocks because the laws they pass can greatly influence the markets.
Abortion is a national issue that McLeod-Skinner’s campaign has embraced, however, as party officials hope for a backlash to Republicans in November after the removal of the United States Supreme Court its previous decision Roe v. Wade. McLeod-Skinner made abortion access a major part of her campaign and attacked her opponent’s shifting views on the issue.
The race has garnered a lot of national attention as a potential revival for Republicans in 2022 after Schrader’s loss in the primary. The Congressional Leadership Fund, a Republican SuperPAC, has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on attack ads against McLeod-Skinner.
McLeod-Skinner told the OPB that the ads contained false information about her background, such as claiming she wanted to defund the police.
She called the ads a distraction from the problems.
“It was a cheap hit piece,” she said. “When our messages, what we stand for and our experience go side by side, I win hands down.”
Although she has received donations from organizations that support defunding police departments, McLeod-Skinner did not say it was a policy she supported, according to KGW News.
National Talking Points in a New Neighborhood
The focus on national themes promoted by the Republican Party goes beyond attack ads on McLeod-Skinner. Chavez-DeRemer has placed these issues at the heart of his campaign.
In her advertisements and on her website, the former mayor of Happy Valley frequently speaks about the need to process immigration at the US-Mexico border. She even visited the border in Hidalgo, Texas as part of her campaign. She said drugs crossing the border directly contribute to the homelessness crisis facing much of Oregon.
She also criticized critical race theory, which is typically taught in colleges, and claimed it was taught in Oregon schools. Critical Race Theory is an advanced academic concept that shows that systemic racism is inherent in American society. Critics have used the term as an inaccurate catch-all to characterize lessons and policies related to race and equity in K-12 schools. In explaining his point of view, Chavez-DeRemer quoted a Oregonian/OregonLive articlewhich does not say that critical race theory is taught.
Despite the national focus of her campaign, Chavez-DeRemer is relying on her experience as mayor from 2011 to 2018 as evidence that she would represent Oregon as well as the first Latin congresswoman from the state. She often points to her time leading the growing town of Happy Valley as proof that she can listen to voters and find policy decisions that benefit everyone.
Chavez-DeRemer’s willingness to hear all sides of an issue, however, may deter some voters, especially those focused on abortion following the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade.
Chavez-DeRemer accepted campaign donations from national anti-abortion groups. And her stated views on abortion have changed frequently during the campaign. At one point, Chavez-DeRemer said she supported banning six-week abortions, but later told KGW she did not support any federal restrictions on abortions.
On October 19, she told the OPB that she supported access to abortion being protected in the first trimester, as well as in cases of rape and incest.
Candidates’ peers notice shift in political tenor
Chavez-DeRemer’s views did not go unnoticed by those who worked with her during her time in Happy Valley, another major population center in the district. Markley Drake has been a Portland suburban councilor for 14 years; he told the OPB he thought Chavez-DeRemer had done a good job as mayor.
He cited a boundary dispute between Happy Valley and neighboring Damascus as an example of skillfully handling difficult situations.
“She was one of our best mayors,” Drake said. “Lori had to make a lot of decisions as mayor and she was kind of the main person.”
Despite his positive feelings for his former mayor, Drake said he supported McLeod-Skinner in the race. He said Chavez-DeRemer’s views have become much more conservative since his candidacy was announced, in a way that doesn’t reflect the city official he once knew. He cited his position on abortion as an example.
“I think she got lost – Lori was very pragmatic,” Drake said. “Every time I spoke to her, she was definitely in favor of choosing women.”
Chavez-DeRemer responded that she had received three endorsements from other city council members and that Drake’s opinions were not indicative of her experience.
“Markley Drake is an outgoing city councilor who doesn’t paint the full picture of the years of bipartisan work I’ve done as mayor, whether it’s supporting our veterans, creating a youth council of Happy Valley to fight online bullying or pay our town debts,” she said.
Rob Wheeler, a former Happy Valley mayor who also worked with Chavez-DeRemer, said he thought focusing on public safety would benefit the Republican campaign. He said he was hearing from people living in Clackamas County who were concerned about rising crime in Portland and would vote accordingly.
He said it is politically advantageous for Republicans to focus on Portland, even though very little of the city is in the 5th District.
“People just want to feel safe in their homes,” said Wheeler, who supported Chavez-DeRemer. “We want to distinguish ourselves from Multnomah County.”
Wheeler agreed that Chavez-DeRemer had moved to the right since working together on Happy Valley City Council, but said he shared many of her opinions.
For Johnson, the mayor of Albany, McLeod-Skinner has his support. More than that, however, he said he wanted both parties to focus more on candidate platforms, rather than a negative campaign that could contain misinformation.
“I think people are tired of arguments,” he said. “I wish it were illegal – I honestly believe it should go away.”