Monday, February 26

Oregon voters worry about deep divisions while blaming political rivals

Editor’s note: This story is part of a series looking at what voters say are the biggest problems facing Oregon right now, and what Oregon’s next governor might do about them.

In the days and weeks following the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, there appeared to be a moment of shared concern nationwide. Deep divisions, conspiracy theories and lies that the 2020 election was stolen had tipped political extremism into an act of domestic terrorism, according to the FBI.

Long before the events of Jan. 6, Oregonians had witnessed numerous acts of political violence. In 2016, armed anti-government extremists took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Far right groups like Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys frequently sparred with anti-fascist activists in Portland and elsewhere in the state during the Trump presidency. In 2020, more than 100 nights of racial justice protests in Portland resulted in property destruction and a violent federal crackdown. And not long before the attack on the U.S. Capitol, far right activists led a similar breach at Oregon’s statehouse.

But heading into Oregon’s May primary election, voters are less concerned about the political violence in recent years than they are on some of the root causes: partisanship and politicians they believe are responsible for deepening those divisions.

Dueling demonstrations gather in downtown Portland, Ore., Aug. 22, 2020. Groups like Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer showed up downtown to oppose monthslong demonstrations by Black Lives Matter supporters and anti-fascists.

Jonathan Levinson / OPB

According to a February poll conducted by DHM Research for OPB, 15% of voters said partisanship in politics was the most important issue facing Oregon today, while 22% of voters said the most pressing issue was government leadership. Those are among the top concerns, according to the poll, along with homelessness and public safety.

The poll included 600 registered voters contacted by DHM on Feb. 17-23. The poll’s margin of error was +/- 4%.

While voters are concerned about political leadership and partisanship, they’re less concerned about extremist violence that can emerge from those foundational issues.

“Extremism rates lower than a number of other issues we asked about: forest fires, violent crime, cost of living, drug addiction,” said John Horvick, senior vice president for DHM Research.

What do you think is the most important problem facing Oregon today?

Source: DHM Research survey of Oregonians commissioned by OPB, overall margin of error 4%

Voters blame both sides

Voters contacted for the poll tended to see people from other parties as the most extreme in Oregon’s current politics.

Peter Senger, 66, lives in Beaverton and changed his party affiliation recently from Independent to Republican.

“For me, the Democrats have gotten farther away from the center than Republicans have,” he said. “The Democrats have moved so far to the left on a plethora of issues I just can’t.”

Senger pointed to Democratic policies as evidence of extremism in the state. He cited Portland’s liberal politics as a factor that’s exacerbating the region’s homelessness and housing issues.

A Patriot Prayer marcher punches an antifa activist after the activist threw a soda at him during a Patriot Prayer rally on September 15, 2019 in Portland's Pioneer Square.

In this Sept. 19, 2019, OPB file photo, a Patriot Prayer marcher punches an anti-facist activist after the activist threw a soda at him during a Patriot Prayer rally.

Jonathan Levinson / OPB

“Oregon is too blue,” he said. “I want Oregon to be taken back, to have a more neutral, fair platform and not always these extreme decisions that have extreme outcomes.”

Chuck Holbert, an 86 year-old Democrat, believes “there are crazies on both ends” of the political spectrum. Holbert is the former mayor of Coos Bay and worked as a co-campaign manager for former Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski.

When he thinks of political extremism, he envisions the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. He believes everyone who organized, promoted or took part in the mob violence, “including the congressmen — are all traitors.”

“I don’t like the extremism on the other side either,” Holbert said. “The kind of groups that destroy things, trying to make an environmental point or something like that, I don’t support that either.”

How serious is the problem of right-wing political extremism in Oregon?

Source: DHM Research survey of Oregonians commissioned by OPB, overall margin of error 4%

Isaac Montoya, 49, is a community health worker in Bend who responded to the DHM poll. He identifies as Latino and said he grew up a “blue collar Democrat,” but has grown “disgusted on the way both parties have been acting.” He’s an unaffiliated voter, but supports The People’s Party, a progressive political party that advocates for free public college and single-payer health care.

“I’m super concerned about political extremism,” Montoya said. “When I grew up, if anyone were to verbally say they were going to cause violence on anyone, let alone a public official that has been voted in by the people, it was addressed — either by a church official, by law enforcement, it was addressed somehow.”

While Montoya said he has Republican friends who he believes “would stand up to any type of racism,” he said because he is a person of color, he’s primarily concerned about the far right and white supremacy.

How serious is the problem of left-wing political extremism in Oregon?

Source: DHM Research survey of Oregonians commissioned by OPB, overall margin of error 4%

Candidates acknowledge extremism

Almost all of Oregon’s gubernatorial candidates who responded to an OPB questionnaire, expressed some concern about partisanship and extremism.

Jessica Gomez, a Republican candidate for governor, said political extremism is a product of a polarized society.

“It is a growing challenge for the state because there appears to be far too many voices promoting extremism and far too few voices advocating for unity,” she wrote. “I believe the governor, along with all political leaders from both parties, need to lead by example and reject all forms of political violence if we are going to have any hope of reversing this trend.”

Democratic frontrunners Tina Kotek and Tobias Read both said people who engage in hate and violence around politics should be punished. Meanwhile, Republican candidate Bill Sizemore excoriated the media for protecting “the woke left,” and said white supremacy is a smaller issue than described in the press.

Patrick Starnes, who ran for governor in 2018 as the Independent Party’s candidate, is running this year in the Democratic primary. He said if elected he would set up a task force to address political violence and threats, which he said can also lead to bullying in schools.

“Extremism is the number one domestic terror threat today,” Starnes wrote. “As January 6th has shown, the rising influence of groups like the Proud Boys in Oregon should not be ignored. Their campaign to recruit soldiers from our rural communities to further their stated objective of instigating civil war through threats of violence cannot be tolerated.”

One consequence of a polarized electorate is that Oregon’s next governor will likely have a harder time addressing other key issues on the minds of voters, such as homelessness or wildfires.

“We hope that we can move forward statewide across the party lines to resolve some of those issues,” said Paul Gronke, a professor of political science at Reed College in Portland. “It’s hard. It makes it hard for political leaders, very difficult.”

Gronke noted that in recent history Democrats have “muscled” policies through the Legislature by holding their caucus together and using supermajorities to pass laws. By contrast, Republicans’ only tool has been to walk out.

“That’s also quite damaging,” Gronke said. “Walking out, that’s not a governance mechanism. That’s really stopping governance and it makes it hard for any kind of leaders.”

Researchers say the effects of hyper-partisanship and extremist actions have already seeped into the mainstream of Oregon’s politics in a way that the next governor will need to address.

During the last decade, Oregon has experienced the sixth highest number of domestic violent extremism incidents in the country, according to a report released last month by Oregon’s Secretary of State.

The mainstreaming of extremism

“The last few years have seen a really troubling rise in bigoted and anti-democracy activity in our society, in our politics,” said Lindsay Schubiner, with the Western State Center, a regional organization that researches extremism. “What’s particularly troubling is that we’ve seen explicitly and overtly bigoted and anti-democracy figures and groups fairly successfully working to mainstream their ideas.”

Those “ideas” are often opposed to an inclusive democracy that grants equal access to protected rights, Schubiner said.

“Bigoted and anti-democracy groups have intentionally been working to build political power, taking advantage of disruptions and all the anxiety and fear created by the pandemic, really focusing on the local level,” she said.

A file photo from Dec. 21, 2020, when far-right protesters breached the Oregon Capitol building in Salem.

A file photo from Dec. 21, 2020, when far-right protesters breached the Oregon Capitol building in Salem.

Dirk VanderHart / OPB

On Dec. 21, 2020, former Republican state Rep. Mike Nearman supported protests over pandemic restrictions. Video showed him planning and later opening a locked door for a group of far-right protesters gathered outside the Oregon Capitol. The building was closed to the public during a special legislative session because of COVID. Five protesters were ultimately arrested and charged.

Schubiner said while Oregon has been in the national spotlight because of violent extremists, the Nearman incident is also a demonstration of how democratic institutions can respond.

Nearman was expelled from the Legislature by his fellow lawmakers, and criminally charged with two misdemeanors. He pleaded guilty to one count of official misconduct.

“Oregon is one of the few places that in a really strong way has held an elected official at the state level accountable in a bipartisan manner for promoting political violence and attacks on democracy,” Schubiner said. “The fact that Mike Nearman paid a political cost for supporting political violence is really important.”

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