SALEM, Ore. (AP) – State Sen. Ben Westlund said Tuesday he’s bolting the Republican Party and entering the 2006 race for governor as an independent because the two-party system prevents solutions to the state’s serious problems.
Westlund is bucking history by joining the gubernatorial race as an independent; Oregon has had only one governor elected as an independent, in the 1930s. One political observer, however, says he believes Westlund, though a long shot, could put together a victory this fall.
Westlund joins three Republicans and three Democrats in the race, including incumbent Democratic Gov. Ted Kulongoski.
"I feel that extreme partisanship is keeping us from solving Oregon’s most pressing problems and the party label was keeping me from truly being able to provide leadership on the issues Oregonians care about," Westlund said.
As an independent, Westland, 56, from Tumalo, north of Bend, said he would campaign as a candidate whose "politics defy party labels."
Westlund said he has no interest in playing a spoiler’s role, the way social conservative Al Mobley did in 1990 when he drew 13 percent of the vote. Many observers believe that prevented Republican Dave Frohnmayer from outpolling Democrat Barbara Roberts in the general election.
"We’re in this to win. I’m confident we will have enough financial resources to be very competitive," Westlund said, adding that he hopes to raise as much as $3 million.
Portland pollster Tim Hibbitts said Tuesday that no one should write off Westlund.
Hibbitts noted that five independent or third-party candidates have been elected governor around the country since 1990, and he said Westlund’s message about the failings of the state’s partisan political system could resonate with a lot of Oregonians.
"We have a state where a growing number of voters are displeased with the direction of the state," Hibbitts said. "If that’s not a good set-up for a third-party candidate, I don’t know what is."
In response to reporters’ questions about Kulongoski, Westlund praised the incumbent governor’s "human" qualities and said he didn’t plan to criticize Kulongoski or any of the other gubernatorial contenders in particular.
Instead, Westlund said he would be running against a political system so bogged down by partisan politics that it’s left Oregon "mired in mediocrity."
"Oregon’s future can no longer afford to be held hostage in the frontlines of partisan politics," he said. "Over 600,000 of our citizens don’t have health insurance, and over 10,000 Oregon children go to bed hungry each night. We have one of the shortest school years in the nation, and home prices are outpacing wages."
To qualify for the ballot, he will have to gather more than 18,000 signatures by Aug. 29.
As the House budget chief in 2002, he led an effort to cut more than $1 billion from the state budget when tax revenues fell, but he supported a tax increase that voters defeated in 2004. He opposed same-sex marriage on the 2004 ballot, but sponsored legislation in 2005 to legalize marriage-like civil unions for same-sex couples.
Besides his reputation as a political maverick, Westlund also brings a compelling story of personal struggle to the governor’s race.
Westlund was diagnosed with lung cancer in May 2003. He underwent three rounds of surgery, and he says advanced medical scan tests have turned up no sign of cancer.
Westlund is backing ballot measures that would make basic health care a right, create incentives for the alternative energy industry and hike cigarette taxes to provide health insurance to more low-income Oregonians.
Westlund was elected to the Oregon House in 1996 and was appointed to the Senate in 2003, winning the seat in 2004.