Roseburg native Knute Buehler is trying to break the Democratic Party’s stranglehold on statewide elected offices.
No Oregon Republican has won a state office since 1998, when Jack Roberts was elected labor commissioner, ostensibly a nonpartisan office. No Republican has been secretary of state since 1985.
Buehler, an orthopedic surgeon in Bend and first-time political candidate, has engaged Secretary of State Kate Brown, a former Democratic legislator from Portland, in a spirited and high-profile race.
Both candidates are expected to spend more than $1 million to try to win an office that has been a steppingstone for Oregon politicians such as Mark Hatfield, Tom McCall and Barbara Roberts.
Buehler, 48, says he would bring a fresh perspective and approach to the office, which oversees elections, audits public agencies, registers corporations and maintains state archives.
In an interview with The News-Review, Brown, 52, jabbed at Buehler’s lack of government experience. “It’s not an entry-level position,” she said.
Although new to elective politics, Buehler boasts impressive credentials. After graduating from Roseburg High School, he went to Oregon State University and became the school’s first Rhodes Scholar. By accepting the honor, he committed himself to public service, Buehler said.
“It’s time for me to serve and give back for that investment that’s been made in me,” he said.
Buehler, who earned his medical degree at Johns Hopkins University, has built his campaign on the premise that his outsider’s perspective will translate into sharper scrutiny into how governments are performing, businesses are being treated and elections are being run.
“I’m a different kind of candidate,” he said. “I think people want fresh, new faces.”
Brown has heard Buehler make that appeal. “I think I have a pretty fresh face myself,” she said.
Brown also boasts an impressive educational background. She has a law degree from Lewis and Clark College and went though a senior executive program at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
She has held elected office since 1991, serving five years in the state House, 11 years in the state Senate and now nearly four years as secretary of state.
Brown maintains that while she’s been secretary of state the office has uncovered ways to make government more efficient, such as identifying Oregonians who paid federal income taxes but did not file state returns. “For anyone to say we’re underperforming is absolutely not the case,” she said.
Both candidates assert they are champions of campaign finance reform.
Buehler was involved in initiative drives in past years to increase voter participation and place limits on the amount of money candidates can spend. He said he wishes candidates could agree on voluntary limits. Brown said that if re-elected, she will push for a state constitutional amendment to limit campaign spending.
The secretary of state, along with the governor and treasurer, sits on the State Land Board.
Buehler describes the board members as three Democrats from Portland, although Gov. John Kitzhaber, is, like Buehler, a former Roseburg resident and physician. Buehler said the board is “out of balance” and would benefit from having a Republican.
Brown noted that the land board recently approved increasing timber harvests on the Elliott State Forest from 25 million board feet to 40 million board feet a year. Environmental groups have blocked the increased logging by filing lawsuits.
“I thought we made the right decision. The problem is we’re tied up in the courts,” Brown said.
Buehler criticized the state’s current method for redistricting. A bipartisan commission of legislators holds hearings and comes up with a proposal to redraw legislative boundaries after each census.
Buehler said self-interested lawmakers shape boundaries to ensure re-election and that citizens should have a stronger role.
“The goal of both parties is to make those districts safer and safer” for incumbents, Buehler said, “The voters should be selecting the politicians. The politicians shouldn’t be selecting the voters.”
Brown said the current system worked well in 2011, with the commission reaching a bipartisan agreement approved by the Legislature. It was the first time redistricting ended at the legislative level. In other years, deadlocked lawmakers have had to turn the job over to the secretary of state.
“I think the Legislature did its job extremely well,” she said.
Buehler also has the endorsement of the Independent Party while Brown also was nominated by the Oregon Working Families Party.
There are two minor-party candidates running.
Robert Wolfe, a Portland wine salesman, represents the Progressive Party.
Seth Woolley, a Portland software engineer, is running as the Pacific Green Party candidate.
Wolfe and Woolley criticize Brown for supporting a plan to increase logging in the Elliott State Forest.
The secretary of state’s annual salary is $72,000.