Three Democrats fight it out for Secretary of State

PORTLAND — In the Oregon Senate, Democrats Kate Brown of Portland, Vicki Walker of Eugene and Rick Metsger of Welches can generally be found on the same side, policy allies and reliable votes on their party's priorities.

But on the campaign trail over the last few months, the three have been scrapping to distinguish themselves as they vie for their party's nomination for secretary of state, Oregon's de-facto second-in-command and chief elections officer.

Whoever emerges from the primary will face Republican Rick Dancer, a former TV anchor from Eugene, in November.

All three are distinct personalities, with years of legislative experience at the Capitol under their collective belts.

Brown, the former Senate Majority Leader from Portland, is known as a champion of women and children's rights who has worked on issues like requiring insurance companies to cover the cost of contraceptives and an overhaul of the foster care system, after persistent reports of abuses.

She's also skilled in the art of political warfare, quick to tell audiences on the campaign trail about how she worked to transform the Oregon Senate from the solidly Republican body of the 1990s to one in which the Democrats hold a near-invincible, 18-12 edge.

Metsger, who always notes that he's the only candidate in the race who represents portions of rural Oregon, in a sprawling district that stretches all the way to the edge of Wasco County, is well-known as a business-friendly pragmatist, one of a handful of Democrats that Republicans will seek out if they want a co-sponsor.

A former TV journalist, he's got a knack for choosing headline-grabbing issues to weigh in on, from outlawing political robocalls to floating a beer tax to help pay for transportation improvements.

Walker, who has spent several years chairing the Senate Education Committee and publicly pondered a run for governor in 2006, has a take-no-prisoners reputation in Salem.

She's led a number of high-profile crusades, from cracking down on school districts offering lavish buyouts to retired administrators to forcing more transparent business practices at Oregon's state-owned workers' compensation insurance company. Walker's probably best-known statewide as the key source for Willamette Week's Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into former Gov. Neil Goldschmidt's sexual abuse of a 14-year-old girl when he was mayor of Portland.

The job they are competing for has plenty of advantages: It's a high-profile post that's been a stepping stone for future governors, including Mark Hatfield, Tom McCall and Barbara Roberts, and lets its occupants keep a hand in both politics and policy.

The secretary of state has broad influence over auditing state agencies, the often-controversial initiative process and may also have the final say on legislative redistricting, if lawmakers are unable to come to an agreement on district boundaries after the next census.

All three Democrats share priorities, saying they want to increase the number of registered voters, perhaps via same-day registration, safeguard Oregon's vote-by-mail system and fulfill their role as one of three members of the state Land Board by balancing environmental and economic concerns.

Yet in making their case to voters, all three of the candidates have emphasized varying priorities. Walker has been especially outspoken on the audits function, citing the need for more government accountability. She draws some of her biggest applause with a promise for more regulation of the initiative process, including preventing initiative sponsors from filing new ballot measures if they have repeat election law violations, or outstanding fines.

Brown has highlighted her own role in getting authorization for Oregon's online campaign finance reporting system, and in passing a campaign finance bill in the 2007 session that placed limits on meals and gifts that lobbyists may buy for legislators. Oregon is one of the only states that still places no limits on how much an individual can contribute to a campaign, but Brown has said she would push for such legislation in the 2009 session if elected.

Metsger says he'd like to see more follow-through on the performance audits done by the state, and that he'd lobby to repeal a 2005-era law that bans Oregonians from signing a petition to get a candidate who is not affiliated with a major party onto the ballot, if they have already voted in the primary.

So far, Brown, drawing on well-honed connections from years in party leadership, is easily leading in the fundraising chase. She's raised about $200,000 since the start of the year; her largest donors include the Oregon Education Association's political action committee with $25,000 and the Washington, D.C.-based Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund with $45,000.

Metsger, though, is having a strong few months in the fundraising department, having raised $120,000 in 2008, and he's the first in the race to start airing TV commercials. His largest contributors include some typically more conservative groups, including $12,000 from the Credit Union legislative action fund, and $5,000 from Roseburg Forest Products Co.

Walker has raised about $32,000 this year. Her largest donations include $2,500 from the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, and $5,000 from the Oregon Beverage political action committee.

The final candidate on the ballot is Paul Wells of Newberg, who has previously run for the office as a Democrat and as a Republican, and is running only a token campaign.

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