Meet the Democrats vying for the nomination for redrawn House District 19 in Salem

Claire Withycombe
Salem Statesman Journal
"I Voted" stickers at the Marion County Elections County Clerk's office in Salem on Friday, May 11, 2018.

This story was published April 17 and has been updated to reflect events after the fact. On April 22, candidate Jackie Leung announced to campaign supporters she was withdrawing from the race and later posted the same statement on her website. It has also been corrected to reflect Andersen's start date on the council.

On May 17, the leafy grounds of Bush's Pasture Park and other neighborhoods of southeast Salem will become a battleground as twoDemocrats seek their party's nomination to run for the Oregon House.

Democratic voters in House District 19 in Salem will make their choice between city councilor Tom Andersen and State Rep. Brad Witt, D-Clatskanie. City councilor Jackie Leung will appear on the ballot but has suspended her campaign due to a health matter.

The primary race showcases some interesting forces in Oregon politics, including a well-funded effort to promote moderate Democrats like Witt as the state Legislature grows more liberal, and the influence of new district boundaries drawn in 2021.

For years, the 19th district has been represented by Republicans, including its current representative, Rep. Raquel Moore-Green, who is running for the Oregon Senate.

The winner of May's contest will head to the general election in November and face Republican TJ Sullivan. Sullivan, a former Salem city councilor who co-owns an insurance company, doesn't have any challengers for the Republican nomination.

Right now, the district stretches from southeast Salem to Turner and Aumsville.

But last year, the district boundaries were changed. Because of changes in population recorded by the U.S. Census every 10 years, district boundaries are redrawn at 10-year intervals. The new district includes parts of downtown and south Salem and is now expected to lean Democrat, according to the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, which studies how legislative districts are drawn.

November's winner will represent that district.

But first, Democrats must choose who they want to nominate.

Leung, who is no longer campaigning, had thrown her hat in the ringfor a second time after losing to Moore-Green in 2020. Andersen was elected to the city council in 2014.

Witt, a state representative who has long represented Dist. 31 in Columbia County and parts of Multnomah and Washington counties, says his current district had become "hostile to Democrats," and that redistricting made it harder for him to win the district he has represented for 17 years.

State representatives and senators write the state's budget every two years and pass new laws. There are 60 state representative seats and they each serve two-year terms.

Tom Andersen, city councilor

Salem city councilor Tom Andersen speaks at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the opening of the historic Salem baggage depot in January 2018.
(Photo: FILE / Statesman Journal)

Tom Andersen, a lawyer, has been a Salem city councilor for nearly eight years.

"We are in a time of great peril, but also great opportunity on many fronts," Andersen said. "We need someone who has experience, and who is effective and gets things done. And that's what I have done in eight years on the city council."

He said Democrats should choose him because five councilors he served with have endorsed him and because he has lived in Salem and served the community longer than Witt.

"What Salem really needs is someone who has lived here and has served the local community for 16 years," Andersen said, "As opposed to someone who just decided, 'Well ... since I didn't like the redistricting where I represented before, I think I will now declare my residence to be in Salem.'"

Andersen said he introduced the motions on the City Council to create a climate action task force, set the city emissions goals and sat on the task force, which recommended more than 100 ways for the city to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The council approved $200,000 of contingency funds in early April to start addressing the recommendations, Andersen said.

Andersen, who has ridden his bicycle to every council meeting, also wants to get more state money for transit and active transportation. He also says he introduced and got a resolution passed in 2017 declaring Salem an inclusive city, and introduced other resolutions condemning white supremacy and institutional racism and the border policy of former President Donald Trump.

Andersen also says he wants to get more state money to provide services and shelter to the city's homeless population and to build affordable housing. He pointed to his work through the city on promoting affordable housing, like offering a tax incentive to build apartments near the Oregon State Hospital campus in Salem in exchange for some of the units being designated as affordable housing.

He has raised about $8,000 in campaign contributions this year as of mid-April, according to Secretary of State records.

Brad Witt, state lawmaker

Representative Brad Witt, far left, speaks during the House Interim Committee On Agriculture and Natural Resources informational meeting on a lead ammunition survey at the Oregon State Capitol in Salem in 2014.
(Photo: FILE / Statesman Journal)

An unexpected entry into the race just a day before the deadline for candidates to file, Brad Witt, a retired labor negotiator, is one of the Legislature's longest-serving members.

Since 2005, he has represented a slice of northwest Oregon bordered on the north by the Columbia River. Right now that district spans all of Columbia County and includes parts of Washington and Multnomah counties.

Last year, Witt announced he wouldn't be running for reelection to that district, where his margin of victory has been narrowing.The Princeton Gerrymandering Project shows the new district is likely to favor Republicans. Witt won handily in 2014, 2016 and 2018, but beat his Republican opponent in 2020 by just about 500 votes. That year, Witt won 50.5% of the vote and Republican Brian Stout received 49.3%.

"I was actually recruited to talk him out of running there last summer," said former state Rep. Brian Clem, a Democrat who until late last year represented parts of Salem that are now in House District 19. "The majority leader said, 'Look, we're gonna be obligated to support Brad because he's an incumbent in his district, but that district is now nearly impossible and we're gonna waste like a million dollars trying. Can you talk him into not running?'"

So Clem and a few others encouraged Witt not to run. Then Witt approached Clem late last year, Clem said.

"(Witt) said, 'Brian, this is a weird idea, but what would you think about me running in your seat?'" Clem said. "And given I had talked him out of his seat, because I didn't think he could win, I was like, 'huh.'"

Part of the appeal, Clem said, is that keeping Witt in the Legislature helps maintain some institutional knowledge. Rep. Teresa Alonso Leon, D-Woodburn and Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, are in their last terms and will take with them years of experience in the Capitol when they leave, Clem said.

"He's not going be there forever, but if he could come in and sort of fill the void of experience that we're just losing, I thought that would be great," he said.

Witt has owned a house in southeast Salem since 2010, according to Marion County property records.

"I have lived or worked within a five-block radius of my home here for the past two and a half decades," Witt said.

This year, Witt's campaign has raised about $33,000 as of mid-April. He has received nearly $8,000 of that in in-kind contributions in the category of "surveys and polls" from "Oregonians Are Ready," a political action committee intended to promote moderate Democrats. That PAC has committed to spend about $97,000 and perhaps more to support Witt's campaign, Clem said.

In 17 years in office, Witt says he's fought for Oregonians, including votes to increase the minimum wage and in favor of a new program where workers can take paid leave after the arrival of a child or to take care of a sick family member. He says he helped pass legislation to keep the coast's Elliott State Forest public land and to get overtime pay for the state's farmworkers. He also says he's an animal welfare advocate and he's especially proud of legislation he got passed in 2011 to make it illegal to have or sell shark fins, and wants to continue to try to ban coyote-killing contests.

Witt says he also wants to tackle the city's housing crisis, saying one short-term solution could be having the Oregon National Guard build tent housing using military surplus supplies on land that isn't being used — like the KMart parking lot along Mission Street. Long term, he wants to look at repurposing buildings like vacant commercial space into permanent housing and renovating substandard housing.

Witt's time in office has not been without controversy. Last June, a committee of state representatives found he violated state legislative rules against harassment in a text to another state lawmaker, Republican Vikki Breese-Iverson of Prineville. An investigator found that while Witt did not intend to harass Breese-Iverson or offer a vote in exchange for a date or sexual favors, it wasn't unreasonable for her to interpret the texts as suggestive. The investigator wrote that they interviewed five witnesses who "reported that (Breese-Iverson) was genuinely upset and offended by the text exchange, which she interpreted as sexual harassment."

Witt said the report "exonerated" him. At the time of the texts, Witt was the chair of the House Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources while Breese-Iverson was the vice chair.

"Everyone understands that when a committee chair is constantly being challenged by the vice chair and trying to find some kind of accommodation in terms of making sure that the minority party's bills get through the committee, that the person that's at loggerheads with you has legislation that passes out of committee and none of that works, that at some point it's time to sit down and settle whatever differences there may be and an offer to do just that either over a beer or dinner or a venue of that person's choice in no way constitutes any kind of sexual harassment," Witt said. "And I think that the average person sees through that very quickly."

After a Statesman Journal reporter interviewed Witt for this story, two women, including former state legislator Betty Komp, called the reporter wanting to in support of Witt on the record. The campaign, unprompted, provided a list of three women lobbyists for the reporter to contact "who could speak to Brad’s character and have worked with him for decades."

Clem said he asked Komp to call because she was a third party not concerned about "political ramifications" and that she and other former female lawmakers were "third-party validators, who, they pick up on things that guys don't pick up on."

Asked whether he had changed anything about how he communicates with colleagues after the investigation, Witt said he has "always" tried to "consider everyone's interest."

"I am always trying to consider everyone's interest, everyone's welfare and, I've always done that, will always continue to do that," Witt said. "And I think that not only the report, but my working relationship with a number of legislators, lobbyists and the general public, over 17 years, with no previous problems is a testament to that."

Witt has been endorsed by Clem, Komp, Salem Mayor Chuck Bennett, and Democratic state Reps. Teresa Alonso Leon, of Woodburn, and Paul Evans, of Independence. He's also been endorsed by several labor unions, including the United Food & Commercial Workers, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the United Steelworkers of America.

Claire Withycombe covers state government for the Statesman Journal. Contact her atcwithycombe@StatesmanJournal.com