Bonamici, Cornilles top picks for CD1 primary

by: Photo illustration 1st Congressional District candidates (left to right) Brad Witt, Rob Cornilles, Suzanne Bonamici, and Brad Avakian.

Bonamici has best chance among quality Democrats

When U.S. Rep. David Wu stepped down this summer, several qualified candidates stepped up hoping to replace the troubled seven-term Democrat, whose career ended with a sex scandal.

For Democrats in the First Congressional District, David Wu's resignation offers a chance to 'trade up' in the quality of the representation.

Before Wu abruptly fled public life due to allegations of sexual misconduct, the seven-term Congressman was viewed as an unconventional politician - a fact that sometimes brought him acclaim but also hurt his effectiveness.

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

With three qualified candidates who differ little on the issues, two tests were used to arrive at our candidate endorsements.

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

On the Democrat side of the aisle, Suzanne Bonamici came out on top.

That's not to say her challengers couldn't hack it in Congress. We think either would do just fine.

If our endorsement was based on the 'grab a beer' test, Brad Witt would get the nod. The three-term state representative from Clatskanie has worked in saw mills, on construction sites and he still bales hay on his farm. Of the three, he was the least likely to dodge tough questions during public debates and his rural roots would give him a good perspective for the issues facing the west side of the district, which rolls over the coast range and up to Astoria.

As the only 'local' candidate from Columbia County's neck of the woods, it was a difficult choice advocating for anyone other than Witt. He is hard-working, transparent, has integrity and a good head on his shoulders. We are fortunate to have him representing the 31st House District in Salem, and very much want to see him continue in that roll.

Witt hasn't really established himself as a power-player in Salem, however, or shown an ability to run a serious Congressional campaign, especially as it relates to scoring key endorsements and fundraising. Though not the end-all of political races, endorsements and fundraising provide a measure of campaign success, and of the three top Democrats Witt has placed third across the board.

His under-the-radar presence in Salem and campaign shortfalls raise questions about his ability to navigate the murky political waters along the Potomac.

Brad Avakian, by contrast, has shown an adept skill for 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 necessary at the federal level.

Our concern, however, is that the same drive that has pushed Avakian through the electoral ranks also rankles some of those around him, including members of his own party. As Labor Commissioner, he got into a 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 will 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. We're not too concerned by the fact he and his wife got behind on their taxes. In fact, the couple's financial struggles after he left his law practice to become a legislator afford him some insight and empathy for those facing tough times today. That perspective would be helpful in Congress where nearly half the members are millionaires.

But his tax liens (as well as some outstanding student loans) his will provide ammunition for Republicans in January.

Keep in mind this will be the last Congressional race before the presidential primaries start next year, complete with the obscene campaign budgets and negative ads on both sides. Avakian has the temperament to stand up to the attacks; however, his money troubles will get magnified and they raise questions about what other surprises are out there.

But Avakian's biggest problem is Bonamici.

She's not a perfect candidate for Democrats, but at this point she's close.

Bonamici, a lawyer, has 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 has considerable personal wealth, but has no airs about her. And as a suburban woman, Bonamici has an appeal to the 'soccer mom' vote, which is a key constituency in the district, which is composed of diverse urban, suburban and rural areas.

There's a reason Republicans would rather face Avakian than Bonamici. She's been in office less than four years and appears to be squeaky clean.

In fact, our primary concern with her that she 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.

Republicans have a clear choice with Cornilles

On the Republican side, there are big differences among the three most active candidates and, in our view, a clear choice for GOP voters: Rob Cornilles.

Cornilles ran against Wu last November and while he mustered just 43 percent of the vote, he proved to be an energetic campaigner and a good fit for a district where a candidate's views on the economy matter more than any litmus tests on social issues.

The Oregon native (he graduated from Newberg High) is founder and owner of Game Face, a 16-year-old sports marketing company based in Tualatin.

As a small-business owner, Cornilles speaks passionately about the need to get people back to work and his refusal to participate in partisan gimmicks (he won't sign a no-tax pledge or vow to repeal the new federal health care law) indicates he's a guy who will work toward solutions rather than stand on soapboxes.

In the Republican primary Cornilles is mainly fending off snipes from the right. The most pointed barbs come from Jim Greenfield, who lost to Wu in 2002.

The Tigard talk-show host has embraced the Tea Party platform of cutting taxes and shrinking government. Like many of his fellow philosophical travelers, he carries a well-worn copy of the U.S. Constitution, but he actually seems to have read it. He knows his history (or at least a selective slice of it), has a good grasp of the current economic challenges and the best sense of humor in the entire field.

Still, Republicans will be ill-served by someone who wants to return the federal government's role back to what it was in the 1770s, or even the 1970s. The district desperately needs someone on Capitol Hill who can be part of serious conversations and for that you need more than a pocket guide to the Constitution.

As for the rest of the GOP field, none are mounting a serious challenge to Cornilles. Lisa Michaels has some name recognition from her role as a cable-access host. But during this month's candidate debate at Pacific University she proved she's not ready for prime time, offering vacuous platitudes pulled from the Tea Party playbook.

State and national Democrats, who assume Cornilles will win the Nov. 9 primary, are already hammering away at him. They are pushing a story that Cornilles has backed off previous conservative stances in an effort to appear more moderate.

If that's true (and we're not convinced it is), that could turn off independent voters in January's general election. But for Republicans, Cornilles is the obvious pick in the primary.