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Our opinion: County cuts its own political path

Voters in Clackamas County sharply diverged from the trends seen in Portland and Multnomah County.

In our area, two candidates who ran on an anti-Portland, anti-Metro platform won with about 52 percent of the vote last week. John Ludlow will be the next county chair after defeating incumbent Charlotte Lehan, and Tootie Smith was successful in unseating Commissioner Jamie Damon.

The election is clouded by allegations that a county elections worker altered a handful of ballots. We don’t think the number of ballots in question is sufficient to affect the election’s outcome, but we strongly encourage the Oregon Department of Justice to wrap up an investigation swiftly so there are no lingering doubts.

However, with that margin of victory, Ludlow is correct to say that he does not have a mandate for the county to part ways with TriMet or Metro. If the breakdown turns out to be anything like what it was in the May primary, North Clackamas areas such as Milwaukie and Oregon City largely supported Lehan. These voting precincts are also the areas that receive the most benefit from regional agencies for such things as public transportation services and land purchases for parks.

North Clackamas voters also advanced a slate of Democratic legislators to the Oregon House of Representatives. While asking voters more questions can’t hurt, in the meantime, Ludlow and Smith have wisely suggested they’ll continue working with regional and state partners.

Democrats Brent Barton and Shemia Fagan, newly elected to the Legislature, are a couple of other faces on the local political map who are pledging to work with other political perspectives.

Also diverging from the trend, Clark County, Wash., rejected a sales tax increase to pay for light rail and bus rapid transit. That decision creates a new obstacle for the Columbia River Crossing project, which is supposed to include a MAX extension as well as a new Interstate 5 bridge.

Generous voters ride political seesaw

The Oregon electorate is locked in a seesaw mode — with Democrats realizing large gains in presidential years, and Republicans having their best chances in midterm elections.

This being a presidential year, Democrats dominated from top to bottom on Nov. 6. President Obama won Oregon by a 10-point margin, and Democratic candidates for statewide office cruised to victory. Democrats reclaimed control of the Oregon House.

Locally, voters were extremely friendly to tax measures proposed in Portland and Multnomah County.

These results were a contrast from just two years ago, when the GOP won the legislative swing seats it gave back this year, and when Republican Chris Dudley came within an eyelash of defeating John Kitzhaber for governor. This move to the left could be misinterpreted as fickle behavior on the part of voters who seemingly flocked back to Democrats after being more supportive of Republicans in 2010.

We don’t believe, however, that Oregon voters are quite so capricious. The Democratic highs seen in the Nov. 6 election were not the product of people’s changing loyalties, but of the turnout generated by a presidential election. When more people vote in Oregon, Democrats and tax measures do better. Within that context, the election results cannot be viewed as a repudiation of Republicans in the Legislature. After all, they weren’t fully in control of either chamber — so what was there to reject?

The lesson for candidates and measure proponents, though, is to pick your election years carefully. For the foreseeable future, Republicans can be most competitive in Oregon during midterm elections, and people who support tax measures will be better off proposing them during presidential years.

The large turnout in Tuesday’s election (statewide turnout was more than 80 percent) certainly benefited the Portland school bonds, the Multnomah County library district and the income tax for arts education. The question going forward is whether voters who participate in elections next year will have the same appetite for tax increases. That’s when a Metro open-space measure could be on the ballot.

The electorate in an odd-numbered year, however, is likely to behave quite differently than the one that voted last week. Our new county commissioners, and our new state representatives, must keep these balances in mind if they want to keep voters’ faith and avoid future seesaws.



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