Art Robinson and Peter DeFazio haven’t made one joint appearance this campaign season, but their rematch in the 4th Congressional District still packs theatrics.
The candidates have exchanged insults and accusations from afar and battled over debate formats and the definition of “scholarships.”
“It’s just about the same level of vitriol (as in 2010), maybe a little more,” Douglas County Democratic Party Chairman Dean Byers said Monday.
DeFazio and Robinson went through a bruising campaign two years ago that included attack ads and the candidates muttering insults to each other at a Roseburg Area Chamber of Commerce forum.
Defeated but unbowed, Robinson, a Cave Junction Republican, promised on election night to run again to unseat DeFazio, a Springfield Democrat who has been in Congress for 26 years.
Robinson, who carried Douglas County, didn’t stay out of the news for long.
A few months after the election, he publicly accused Oregon State University and DeFazio of conspiring to sabotage the education of three of his children.
“OSU dances to the tune of the Democrat machine, and DeFazio controls that machine,” Robinson wrote in a piece published by WorldNetDaily.com, an online conservative news site.
OSU officials denied that Robinson’s children were being mistreated because of their father’s politics.
Earlier this year, one of those children, Matthew Robinson, switched party allegiance and filed to run against DeFazio in the Democratic primary.
Art Robinson said he didn’t orchestrate his son’s candidacy, but he was “delighted” by it.
Another Robinson son, Noah Robinson, managed both campaigns, and the move by the tight-knit family befuddled Douglas County Republican Party Chairwoman Linda Hellenthal.
“Personally, I thought it was silly,” she said Monday. “There had to be a reason for it, but I’ve never asked the family. It wasn’t done willy-nilly. There had to be a reason.”
Hellenthal said she thought Matthew Robinson’s candidacy would be “very negative” for Art Robinson. But while knocking on doors in Roseburg, Elkton and North County for Republicans, Hellenthal said she hasn’t encountered voters who have turned against Robinson.
“I’m finding an awful lot of support for him,” she said. “From my standpoint, outside looking in, I think their campaign is much better organized (than in 2010), and there is much, much more name recognition.”
Hellenthal agreed she hasn’t seen as many Art Robinson campaigns signs attached to vehicles as two years ago, but she said she didn’t think that indicated declining enthusiasm for Robinson.
“I’m kind of picky about my car paint, so I didn’t put it on,” she said.
DeFazio easily dispatched Matthew Robinson, but hard feelings from the primary linger.
On Friday, Art Robinson kept an appointment made several days earlier with The News-Review editorial board, but he didn’t stay long.
He said he wouldn’t grant an interview until the newspaper reported that state elections officials found no basis for claims that Matthew Robinson made misleading statements in the May voters guide.
Robinson passed out copies of his 410-page campaign book, “Common Sense in 2012,” and left.
The News-Review had, in fact, reported in August that state officials found there was insufficient evidence to support a claim that Matthew Robinson falsely stated his family has donated more than $600,000 worth of scholarships to needy families.
The story quoted Art Robinson observing that the accusation, made by Byers a few weeks before the primary, was deemed “bogus.”
The News-Review reported the complaint when it was made. The Secretary of State’s Office issued its ruling in June after the primary, and both sides have kept the issue alive.
DeFazio has long made a practice of setting aside his congressional pay raises for scholarships to students attending college. His campaign said that through last year, he had given away $348,600 of his after-tax salary to 217 college students.
The Robinsons based their figure on discounts for the Robinson Self-teaching Home School Curriculum, which, according to Robinson, has been used by about 60,000 home-schooled students.
“How they consider it scholarships is mystifying to me,” Byers said.
In his book, Robinson repeats the assertion that his family has given away more than $600,000 in educational materials and calls it a “scholarship program.”
“Many other lower income families have benefited because our curriculum for an entire 12 years of education costs only $195 per family,” he wrote.
Debates, or the lack of them, have been another flashpoint.
Robinson agreed to appearances with DeFazio on the condition that the congressman join him for a debate hosted by conservative talk show host Lars Larson in Portland or by tea party groups in Brookings and Coquille.
DeFazio said he would have met Robinson in forums hosted by the Roseburg chamber, the League of Women Voters, OSU students or Eugene City Club. Robinson’s campaign deemed sponsors acceptable to DeFazio as pro-DeFazio and that it would be only fair for DeFazio to accept a pro-Robinson sponsor in return.
DeFazio said sponsors acceptable to him are well-established and nonpartisan community organizations, while Robinson’s proposed sponsors are not.
DeFazio said he thinks Robinson wounded himself with the OSU episode, followed by Matthew Robinson switching his party registration to run as a Democrat.
“I think a lot of mainstream Republicans thought that was a pretty stupid stunt and didn’t appreciate it,” DeFazio said.
DeFazio said he thinks support for Robinson is “much less ardent and broad” than in 2010. DeFazio notes that he survived a historically bad year for Democrats and says that Obamacare, for which he voted, isn’t such a millstone hanging around his neck this year.
“It isn’t such a huge negative,” he said. “I think a fair number of people have seen some benefits from this.”
At the conclusion of the 2010 forum hosted by the Roseburg chamber, Robinson called DeFazio a “dishonorable liar,” and DeFazio responded by telling Robinson he was “pathological.”
Robinson has added “coward” to the name calling this year and accused DeFazio supporters of stealing his campaign signs.
In an interview, DeFazio characterized Robinson as an “extreme libertarian” with a commanding speaking style and a long history of opposing public education and Social Security. For this election, Robinson has tried to recast himself as a conservative Republican, DeFazio said.
In his book, Robinson describes himself as a father, scientist and businessman, not a politician.
He calls Social Security an “essential program” and states public education can be improved with more local control.
Robinson, who has a doctorate from the University of San Diego, is president of the nonprofit Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine in Cave Junction.
The institute reported being involved in various fields of research, including aging, science education and disaster preparedness, according to reports to the Internal Revenue Service required of nonprofit organizations. The institute reported total revenues of $435,808 in 2010, the most recent year available online at guidestar.org, which tracks activities by nonprofits. Robinson was paid $100,000, while his son Noah received $90,000. They were the only two full-time employees listed.
Asked to describe his political philosophy, DeFazio roams around a bit, calling himself a “balanced-budget Democrat,” “populist-progressive” and “pragmatic.” He doesn’t mind reminding constituents of earmarks he’s secured for district projects.
“I’ve brought some benefits to the county and want to continue that,” he said.
News-Review City Editor Don Jenkins can be reached at 541-957-4201 or firstname.lastname@example.org.