Back in April, before Oregon primary voters decided who would be up for the general gubernatorial election in November, we reported on a concerning comment from from one of the candidates. Former Oregon state senator Betsy Johnson (D-Scappoose) told radio host Lars Larson she didn’t want any transit, bike or pedestrian facilities on a new I-5 bridge between Portland and Vancouver — an extreme position that is a political non-starter.
Johnson is running for governor as an Independent, marketing herself as someone with a “get ‘er done” attitude who can bypass the Democratic and Republican party establishment. This is appealing to some Oregonians who think our state’s current leadership is taking us in the wrong direction. Though Oregon has had Democratic governors for more than three decades, Johnson is showing she might be able to shake things up – polls now show Johnson and Democratic candidate Tina Kotek are locked in a tight two-way race.
Since then, more has come to light about Johnson’s transportation perspective. A recent series of questionable decisions and revelations is worth noting…
The 2013 car crash and aftermath
In a Willamette Week article published last week, Rachel Monahan reported that Johnson rear-ended another driver at a red light in Scappoose in 2013, when she was serving in the Oregon senate.
Both Johnson and the person in the other car, a 42-year-old woman named Melissa Gallentine, suffered serious injuries due to the crash. But when Gallentine filed a lawsuit against her to recover money for her medical expenses, Johnson tried to shirk responsibility by claiming legislative immunity. (In a statement to Willamette Week, Johnson said she was ‘thinking about a bill’ she was on her way to Salem to introduce, and ‘didn’t notice that the intersection light had just changed.’)
In the article, Monahan writes Johnson and her lawyers were “attempting to create a sort of Catch-22 that would have allowed Johnson and her insurance company to escape all responsibility.” Johnson also attempted to put the financial onus for Gallantine’s injuries on Oregon taxpayers, claiming the state should be responsible for footing the bill since she was serving legislative duty at the time of the crash.
“Johnson may not have overstepped the law. But her effort to exempt herself may prove embarrassing for a candidate who has made accountability and transparency bywords of her gubernatorial campaign,” Monahan wrote.
Distracted driving in a campaign ad
Even after the 2013 crash, it seems like Johnson hasn’t learned her lesson about distracted driving.
Last month, Johnson’s team posted a new campaign ad showing her driving past homeless encampments in downtown Portland and talking about her strategy for the city’s homelessness crisis. In the video, she’s shown taking her eyes off the road to directly address a camera in the passenger seat as she’s operating the moving car. That’s a concern, especially in downtown Portland where there are a lot of people riding bikes and walking. It’s troubling that Johnson’s team would make this decision without considering the irresponsible driving behavior it promotes.
‘City of roaches’
As is evident from the aforementioned advertisement, Johnson’s campaign has arguably targeted homelessness in Portland as the primary statewide concern, and in doing so, she has made disparaging comments about the state of this city some residents haven’t taken kindly to.
In at least two recent interviews, Johnson referred to Portland as ‘the city of roaches’ (as opposed to Portland’s official nickname, ‘the City of Roses’). An article in the Oregonian summarized the situation, stating “Portland does not actually have a cockroach problem. Instead, Johnson’s roach comment appeared to be her summary of how unsanitary, unsightly and unsafe she feels Oregon’s largest city has become.”
Johnson has denied accusations that she was referring to homeless people – she says she was talking about trash, not using a dehumanizing term for people who live on the streets – but the quippy comment didn’t land well and struck some as needlessly divisive.
In addition to these three examples, which have specifically created ire among transportation and homeless advocates (groups of people who often overlap in this city), Johnson has also received backlash for her controversial opinions about gun control recently platformed on TedxPortland. It was another moment when she made it clear calling yourself an independent isn’t necessarily enough to push past the political fighting happening across the state and around the entire country.
Taylor has been BikePortland’s staff writer since November 2021. She has also written for Street Roots and Eugene Weekly. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org