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Bonamici tops strong Dem field

More than Avakian, Bonamici has shown an ability to work across the aisle.

Democrats in Oregon's 1st Congressional District have three good options as they look to replace U.S. Rep. David Wu, who abruptly resigned this summer following allegations of sexual misconduct.

The top Democrats vying to replace him all have solid (and similar) legislative records in the statehouse, as well as other public service that would serve them well on Capitol Hill.

With three qualified candidates who differ little on the issues, we applied two tests in making our endorsement (the same two we used to pick Republican Rob Cornilles last week).

First, which candidate has the best chance of breaking through the partisan gridlock in Washington, D.C.? And second, which offers the party the best chance of success in January's general election?

On both counts, Suzanne Bonamici came out on top.

That's not to say that her challengers couldn't hack it in Congress.

If our endorsement were based on the 'grab a beer' test, Brad Witt would get the nod. The three-term state representative from Clatskanie has worked in sawmills, on construction sites and still bales hay on his farm. His rural roots would give him a good perspective for the issues facing the district, which rolls over the coast range and up to Astoria.

But Witt hasn't established himself as a power-player in Salem or serious contender for Congress, which raises questions about his ability to navigate the murky political waters along the Potomac.

Brad Avakian, by contrast, has been adept at moving up the political food chain. The Beaverton lawyer got high marks representing Oregon's 34th House District and more of the same in the state Senate. He launched a bid for secretary of state in 2008, but bowed out when then-Gov. Ted Kulongoski picked him to fill the vacant state labor commissioner post.

Avakian likes to point out (and rightfully so) that he announced his intention to run against Wu back in April, months before news of the sexual misconduct allegations surfaced. That shows a level of ambition that is not only healthy, but also necessary at the federal level.

Our concern, however, is that the same drive pushing Avakian through the electoral ranks also rankles some of those around him, including members of his own party. As labor commissioner, he got into an unnecessarily public snit with Attorney General John Kroger, a fellow Democrat, over which office should take the lead on civil rights enforcement. And, while he has worked well with several Republicans in Salem, others say he can be partisan and abrasive.

In addition, Avakian is carrying the most political baggage of the three. He and his wife struggled financially after he left his law practice to become a legislator and he fell behind on his taxes and student loans. While that experience gives him empathy for those facing tough times today, his tax liens and delinquent loans will provide fodder for the Republicans in January.

Keep in mind that this will be the last congressional race before the presidential primaries start next year, and both parties will open their bank accounts to make a statement. Avakian has the temperament to stand up to the attacks; however, his money troubles will get magnified and raise questions about what other surprises are out there.

But Avakian's biggest problem is Bonamici, who seems like an ideal candidate for Democrats in January.

There's a reason Republicans would rather face Avakian than Bonamici.

In four years of following Avakian's path in the House and Senate, Bonamici forged a progressive voting record, but in discussions about trade has staked out a slightly more pro-business stance than Avakian and Witt. That will play well with independent voters.

She, more than Avakian, has shown an ability to work across the aisle. She's smart, but not intimidating. She's wealthy, but has no airs about her. And as a suburban woman, Bonamici appeals to the 'soccer mom' vote, which is a key constituency in the district.

In fact, our primary concerns with her are that Bonamici, a lawyer, dodged a few tough questions and has shown absolutely no flash and sparkle during the campaign.

Cornilles, her likely opponent, appears at ease in front of cameras and large crowds, thinking on his feet and connecting with voters on an emotional level. If Bonamici faces him in January, she'll need to drop her game face and exude a bit more warmth.

Still, among three good options, she's the Dems' best bet.