Malice vs. incompetence: Steve Duin column

I often quote the adage that we should not ascribe to malice that which is better explained by incompetence.

Don’t assume the worst. As a Robert A. Heinlein character says in “Logic of Empire,” his 1941 novella, “You have attributed conditions to villainy that simply result from stupidity.”

I keep returning to that conundrum as we approach the November election, when we will discover whether Oregonians, frustrated and unnerved, err on the side of spite or ineptitude as they vote for our next governor.

For much of Kate Brown’s seven-year reign, Democrats have proved incapable of confronting and resolving Oregon’s most debilitating problems.

Yes, student test scores have fallen dramatically since the eve of the pandemic, and rural economies are still on edge. But the heart of the storm is the city of Portland, crumbling under the weight of drugs, crime and homelessness. Even when dollars are available to provide housing, shelter and drug-treatment, the reigning powers can’t figure out what to do with them.

Why reward the party in power by passing the torch to Democrat Tina Kotek, the long-time speaker of the Oregon House?

Perhaps because Republicans, nationally, are a menace.

Not only is the GOP overrun by election deniers who refuse to accept President Biden’s 2020 victory, but the party has nominated 299 of them for federal, legislative and statewide office in November, according to an analysis by The Washington Post.

In Georgia, the Republican leadership is rallying around the Senate candidate, Herschel Walker, who paid for an abortion, in their ongoing crusade to ensure the same choice is no longer available to women. A daunting majority of the party still reveres Donald Trump and derides the threat of climate change.

Why condone this madness by inviting Republican Christine Drazan, the former minority leader in the Oregon House, to the fore?

Betsy Johnson, the conservative Democrat from Scappoose, hoped to take advantage of the impasse by running for governor as an independent.

Johnson argued time and again that she could bridge the divide in a political arena so partisan and dysfunctional that only three bills passed in the 2020 legislative session in which Republicans abandoned the Capitol.

Her unaffiliated candidacy inspired $3.75 million in donations from Phil Knight, the chairman emeritus at Nike, which employs more than 8,000 in Washington County. It triggered frantic conspiracy theories from the likes of Melissa Unger, executive director of SEIU 503, who argued on Twitter that Johnson’s goal all along has been “to make Republican leader Christine Drazan Governor.”

But Johnson’s campaign didn’t impress many Oregon voters. A DHM Research poll, commissioned by The Oregonian/OregonLive, in late September showed Drazan (32%) and Kotek (31%) virtually deadlocked on the leaderboard, far ahead of Johnson (18%). An Emerson College poll released Oct. 4 showed similar results, and Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight sets Johnson’s chances of winning in the shadows between slim and none.

Johnson’s stance on guns and her voting history on climate change were deal-breakers for moderates. For all the humor she brings to a county fair or a booth at the Goose Hollow, she too often came across as a scold. And her insistence that nothing would move in Salem without “bipartisan participation” sounds like a terrifying reunion with the 2020 legislative session.

What remains, then, is the intense showdown between Drazan and Kotek, who don’t agree on much of anything.

Drazan wants to repeal Ballot Measure 110, which decriminalized possession of personal amounts of heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine. In the KATU debate, Kotek argued instead for a more urgent approach to treatment, including a “meth stabilization center in Portland. We need a place for cops to take folks when they are in a meth-related psychosis.”

Kotek is unabashedly pro-choice, Drazan anything but. Given the chance, Drazan says she would, at the very least, eliminate the $15 million in emergency assistance the Legislature approved to help Idaho women find reproductive health care in Oregon.

Not surprisingly, Drazan hangs Portland’s homeless crisis around the neck of the former Speaker. “There is no greater indictment of Tina Kotek’s failed leadership than the homeless situation we see on our streets,” she argues. “She is personally responsible for legislation which has created the tent cities we see every day across our state.”

Kotek argues – more thoughtfully, I might add – that Drazan didn’t support her efforts on foreclosure, single-family zoning and converting hotels into shelters. But she is far less persuasive when she busts out the pompons and insists, “There are ways to solve this problem … Let’s get on the streets, talk to people, get them into housing, get them into services. We can do this!”

Is anyone still buying that? The more telling question:  Are voters more unsettled by the track record the Democrats have brought to this moment, or the Republicans’ vision for what comes next?

We’re about to find out. Ballots arrive this week. The endless barrage of political ads will continue. And a plurality of Oregonians – among those, at least, who are eligible and motivated to vote – will take one last, hard look at the city streets, school curriculums, crime and punishment, women’s health care, and the environment, then decide whether we are better governed by malice or incompetence.

— Steve Duin

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