Will Oregon Give a Third-Party Gubernatorial Candidate a Chance?
by Bill Sardi by Bill Sardi
What role will third-party candidates have in the upcoming election, or even in the future of politics? Will the prevailing two major parties even allow a formidable third-party candidate to enter the gubernatorial race, or permit equal exposure in public debates? What’s going on in Oregon is very revealing.
Having already committed a major mistake by attempting to block a third-party candidate from entering the gubernatorial race, a blunder that backfired and gained considerable publicity for that third-party candidate, the big question now is how the two prevailing political parties are going to keep candidate No. 3 out of the upcoming gubernatorial debates scheduled to begin in late October.
The reason is candidate No. 3 is no amateur when it comes to television debates. Sharp-minded Mary Starrett, a former TV news anchorwoman and radio talk show host, running under the banner of the Constitution Party, is likely to handle questions on camera better than the Republican or Democratic candidates for governor.
It appears the two major party candidates, Republican Ron Saxton and Democrat Ted Kulongoski, want nothing to do with a camera-savvy third candidate on a debate stage. But a KOIN-TV (CBS affiliate) survey showed 90% of the public want a minor party candidate included in the debate.
So how do the two major party candidates give the appearance they are being fair and still hold the irrepressible candidate No. 3 at arms length so she can’t land a punch?
League of Women voters withdraws
When the League of Women Voters of Rogue Valley, the sponsor for the debates, said they would only require third-party candidates to garner 5% of an independent poll in order to participate, Kulongoski, Saxton and TV station KOBI couldn’t agree to the rule and backed out of the debate. The League of Women Voters had no choice but to withdraw sponsorship for the four scheduled debates. The two prevailing political parties and the news media don’t want to give credence to an under-funded minor party candidate.
The Constitution Party now wants to know who is going to conduct the independent poll that determines who will participate in the debates, and will the methodology and results of the poll be available for public scrutiny? Or will there be a debate at all?
Another problem facing third-party candidates is voters often feel they are wasting their ballot for these candidates. Starrett handles this issue by saying voters aren’t getting what they want out of government but fear leaving the two major parties. She calls this u201Cbattered voter syndrome.u201D Voters somehow think u201Cit’s going to be different this time,u201D she says.
The current governor of Oregon has the lowest approval rating of any reigning governor. Starrett asserts that many people who weren’t going to vote have said: u201Cif I’m wasting my vote, I might as well vote for her, rather than not vote at all.u201D It’s the kind of argument that Starrett must make to win over voters.
Splitting the ballot
Criticized for entering the race and possibly splitting the conservative vote, the unflinching, anti-abortion, anti-illegal immigration, anti-federalization of the National Guard, pro-Constitution Starrett might push a tight election towards the incumbent Democratic candidate. This has upset the status quo, with Starrett offering a bona fide conservative platform rather than the current u201Cneou201D conservatism. She says: u201CI’m the only choice if you are a conservative in this election.u201D
The news that Starrett might split the Republican gubernatorial vote gained wider attention, being mentioned in the New York Times and prompted FoxNews to send a film crew to cover the story. Both parties would rather that Starrett somehow disappear from view, or at least not have her say at the upcoming debates. But obviously, Starrett cannot be easily set aside.
Voting on principles is thrown out the door
If you can imagine this, Oregon Right to Life has endorsed Saxton, the Republican, even though he is pro-abortion! Oregon Right to Life is sticking with Saxton, feeling they will have a better chance to be involved at the negotiation table in the future by backing a Republican. Voting on principle is out the door, even among conservatives. It’s no wonder Starrett is running for governor.
Woes that Oregon must face
Oregon appears to be facing current woes that aren’t being fully addressed by the major gubernatorial candidates.
With unemployment in the southern end of the state emanating from onerous environmental protection laws and other mandates on Oregon’s natural resources, there are no real solutions being offered from elected representatives.
Illegal immigration is also an overwhelming problem in Oregon. The Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) estimates there are 139,000 illegal immigrants (2005 estimate) in the State, with a massive increase in their ranks in the past 3—4 years. According to FAIR, the estimate of the annual fiscal cost of local expenditures for education of the children of illegal aliens, emergency medical care and incarceration in jails currently amounts to $479 million and this figure will grow to $830 million in 2010. Another 800 illegals are in jail, costing taxpayers more millions. That’s quite a financial burden for just 3.6 million Oregonians, with less than half being wage earners.
Third-party candidates must attack these weak points and bring them to the attention of prospective voters. For example, Starrett is quick to say it costs $32 million a year to teach illegals English. u201CWe spend $131 for a talented and gifted student and $2600 for an English language learner.u201D
Will government refund the money?
In June, the Oregonian, the state’s largest newspaper, said Oregon taxpayers were due to receive more than $1 billion in personal and corporate tax rebates. However, Gov. Ted Kulongoski said he would urge the Legislature to suspend the rebates and instead use the millions in unanticipated tax revenue to rebuild the state’s education system, beef up health care and invest in alternative fuels. So much for Oregon law. Will Kulongoski withhold the $1 billion payback to tax payers, which could jeopardize his re-election, or will he give the go ahead sign for the state treasurer to write the tax refund checks just prior to the election? This question adds more intrigue to the election.
Voter unrest: pension fund problems
The current state of voter unrest in Oregon is unknown. But what more would it take for Oregon voters to give consideration to a third-party candidate like Starrett?
Whether voters in Oregon have caught on to the current dismal state financial ledger is unknown, but a couple years back cartoonist Gary Trudeau ridiculed the state in his u201CDoonesburyu201D comic strip about its unbelievable budgetary mess for two full weeks.
Like other states, Oregon is facing a crisis in the funding of its public employee pension fund. Governor Ted Kulongoski says he took swift action to save the Public Employees Retirement System (PERS), which was on the brink of collapse, but it is still under-funded and public employee unions are pressing for reinstatement of their pension funds in the courts. Also, there are efforts to retain part of the $1 billion tax refund to reinstate some of the cutbacks public employees had in the pension fund.
Oregon has 30,956 state employees and according to the Government Performance Project, 17.7% of classified employees will be eligible to retire in the next 5 years, 29.6% in the next 10 years. For every dollar in salary, Oregon employees receive 32 to 44 cents in added benefits, including 100% health insurance coverage.
Starrett attacks on more weak points in Oregon government. She points to the glaring mismanagement of state funds and in some cases obvious conflicts of interest. For example, legislators manage the PERS fund that will benefit themselves. This is the fox guarding the henhouse, says Starrett.
Furthermore, Starrett says good stewards of the tax payer’s money would put a stop to those public employees who game the retirement system by retiring early at age 55 with 100% of their retirement check, and then find employment in another state job that gains them a second check. Starrett says some public employees collect three pension checks. Will these points resonate with voters?
Living off tobacco money
Like many other states, Oregon is living off tobacco money. Oregon has to shuffle most of its tobacco-generated revenue to the general fund rather than use it for smoking cessation programs. This might be a good target for a third-party candidate to attack, but voters are likely to conclude tobacco money lowers their own tax burden, so why fix the problem
According to The Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, over a half million Oregonians (18.5% of adults) smoke tobacco and the state collects $307 million in tobacco generated revenue (FY2006) to help pay for the $1.11 billion in estimated annual health care costs directly caused by smoking. That’s about $600 per smoker. However, Oregon only directs $3.5 million (16.56%) of this revenue towards tobacco prevention programs (the Centers for Disease Control suggests a minimum of $21.3 million) and shuffles the remaining funds to unearmarked spending. Like many other states, the state is beginning to rely on Oregonians to continue smoking to provide general revenue. It’s not surprising. Oregon’s net tax-supported debt as a percentage of personal income was 1.2% in 1994 and then jumped in 2004 to 4.5%.
In fiscal 2003, 73 percent of Oregon’s tobacco settlement funds were used to address budget shortfalls while 25 percent was used for health-related expenditures. In fiscal 2004, approximately 79 percent of the funds went to unallocated purposes while 18 percent was used for health-related expenditures and 3 percent was spent on debt service on securitized funds. Bottom line, a third-party candidate probably can’t rally voters over the misuse of tobacco funds. For third-party candidates, tobacco money hides some of the economic woes facing states today and keeps incumbents from appearing to be poor money managers.
The larger question is how much longer will voters in Oregon take all this? Will they stand up for a third-party candidate and insist she have a place in the upcoming debates? Will the third-party candidate be given a fair opportunity to challenge the Goliaths in the Democrat and Republican parties? The rest of the nation is watching. And how long will voters continue to allow the virtually merged political parties to continue to drag Oregon into fiscal and social decline?