An opening for something better

U.S. Rep. David Wu's decision to resign is a relief and an opportunity for an Oregon district embarrassed by its erratic congressman and long neglected by both major parties.

It's hard to imagine a congressional district that has endured more and gotten less from its representative in Congress over the past several years than Oregon's 1st, which stretches from downtown Portland across the state's vibrant, fast-growing high-tech communities to the Northwest coast.

Over seven general elections and going on 14 years, the Democratic Party ceded the 1st District seat to Wu — whose most graceful moment in all that time was his four-paragraph statement of resignation Tuesday.

Republicans, meanwhile, have offered voters in the 1st little more than congressional cannon fodder — candidates lacking leadership experience, name familiarity or fundraising ability or, in some cases, all three.

There's an opening for something better now that Wu has responded to the chorus of calls for his resignation in the face of allegations that he engaged in unwanted sexual activity with the 18-year-old daughter of a friend and campaign donor. There's a chance for an election that would be truly special, with experienced, well-financed candidates of both parties battling in a bellwether election for the nation.

Gov. John Kitzhaber announced Tuesday that he will call a special primary election once he receives a formal letter of resignation from Wu. Kitzhaber is right to set a primary, rather than invite the parties to nominate their special election candidates in political conventions. The last time Oregon held a special congressional election was in 1996. That's when Rep. Earl Blumenauer won the congressional seat previously held by Ron Wyden, who won a Senate election after Bob Packwood resigned.

It's not clear exactly when Wu will resign — he said he will leave after the debt-ceiling debate is resolved. (What if it's not?) Whenever he goes, the candidates who replace him won't have much time to introduce themselves to voters. Mail ballots will be delivered three weeks before any election. And that means any and all prospective candidates need to get off the fence.

Two Democrats, Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian and state Rep. Brad Witt of Clatskanie had announced plans to challenge Wu in 2012 and have been campaigning for weeks. Sen. Suzanne Bonamici of Beaverton is expected to join them.

The Republican Party has produced a list of possible candidates, including Rob Cornilles, a businessman who lost to Wu last year, and three state legislators from Hillsboro — Sen. Bruce Starr and first-term Reps. Shawn Lindsay and Katie Eyre. Another businessman, Rob Miller, and a couple of Tea Party candidates Doug Keller and John Kuzmanich, also are on the Republican list.

It's far too soon to handicap the race. Democrats have a double-digit advantage in voter registration. But Cornilles ran within shouting distance of Wu in the last election, even without much money or attention. The debt-ceiling, budget and tax debates, as well as the Wu scandal, all will figure into the election.

Whenever Kitzhaber sets the special election, the campaign will be a sprint. And the stakes are high.

The winner will claim the rest of Wu's term and carry the power of incumbency into the regular 2012 campaign. Congressional incumbents seldom lose. And as voters in Oregon's 1st know very well, a poor choice can haunt you for a long time.

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