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Brown sidesteps traditional summer debate with Pierce at publishers' gathering

TRIBUNE PHOTO - Gov. Kate Brown has declined to debate GOP challenger Bud Pierce during the July Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association gathering. The debate is a tradition during gubernatorial campaigns. Gov. Kate Brown has declined to participate in a July 22 debate that has been a longstanding tradition for candidates in the race for Oregon governor.

The debate, organized and moderated by the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association, has typically ushered in the general election campaign season for the past 30 years.

“It is disappointing because she was not elected in by the voters, so it seems unfair for voters to miss out on this opportunity,” said Laurie Hieb, ONPA executive director.

Brown gave no specific reason for skipping the 90-minute debate, which is typically streamed live on newspaper websites and reported in news stories.

“The governor is looking forward to debates and forums as soon as the fall arrives, but right now she is focused on her official duties,” said Liz Accola Meunier, Brown’s campaign spokeswoman.

Republican gubernatorial nominee Bud Pierce agreed to the debate the same day ONPA extended the invitation, two days after the May 17 primary, Hieb said. Hieb initially said that before declining the invitation, Brown’s campaign asked whether the governor could get a copy of the questions in advance, which ONPA declined, Hieb said.

An email chain with Hieb provided by Brown's campaign shows that Michael Kolenc, Brown's campaign manager, actually asked whether the questions would be reviewed by a committee.

"Do you happen to have a list of the editor and publisher members? Do their questions need to be reviewed by a committee?" Kolenc wrote.

The campaign also asked who would be asking the questions, and Hieb said she didn’t yet know.

The campaign then declined the invitation.

“We were told she needs to focus on her ‘official duties,’ ” Hieb said. “I emailed her campaign manager back and asked, 'do you have a minute to discuss on the phone,' and he didn’t reply.”

Pierce, a Salem oncologist, said the governor’s excuse is “very weak.”

“I am still practicing medicine as I run,” Pierce said. “I am focused on taking care of patients with cancer and blood diseases and running for office, so we are all busy.

“It’s obvious she doesn’t want to be there to answer questions. We know she is the incumbent and feels she is the strong favorite. It might be a good political move as the incumbent, but it is very disrespectful to the democratic process. If you are the leader of the state, Oregonians want to know what you are thinking and to take hard questions.”

'Classic incumbent campaign'

Republican Chris Dudley, a former NBA player who ran for governor in 2010, may be the only other gubernatorial candidate from a major party who has opted out of the event, according to the ONPA.

The event “is a forever thing that has been the opening of the campaign,” said Jim Moore, politics professor at Pacific University and director of the Tom McCall Center for Policy Innovation.

Brown’s move is unlikely to hurt her campaign, Moore said.

As secretary of state, Brown succeeded Gov. John Kitzhaber when he stepped down in February 2015 over influence-peddling allegations.

“Her campaign is simply to be governor,” Moore said. “It is a classic incumbent campaign, and it has been stunningly successful. The last time an incumbent governor was beat was in 1978.”

The debate gives journalists a chance to interact with the candidates one-on-one and to report on the candidates’ positions.

“The public benefits from having that information early on,” Hieb said.

Instead of a debate, the association has given Pierce 30 minutes to present and answer questions during the association’s convention July 22 at the Oregon Garden near Silverton. The convention also includes a presentation on a controversial corporate sales tax measure on the November general election ballot.

By Paris Achen
Portland Tribune Capital Bureau Reporter
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