For GOP, it's Saxton

May 13, 2002 12:00 am

A new poll conducted by KATU-TV and The Oregonian shows voter opinion in the race for the Republican nomination for governor is still too close to call.

That hasn't been the case for the vast majority of the state's newspapers, however. Of 24 that have advised GOP voters, 23 have come to the same conclusion: Ron Saxton.

Why is Saxton attracting newspaper endorsements?

Each editorial board makes its own decisions independent of their colleagues statewide. Nearly universally, however, the state's daily and weekly newspaper editors recognize that the endorsement for governor will come closer to November. In the primary — especially a closed primary — a newspaper's editorial board's role is to advise that party's voters on who their best prospect is, not only ideologically, but electorally.

And after a 20-year losing streak, Republicans are in need of some counseling on who they nominate for governor.

An argument can be made for each candidate.

Kevin Mannix is a favorite among social conservatives, and invites some broader appeal thanks to his association with Oregon's mandatory-minimum sentencing laws. His candidacy statewide, however, would invite the same sort of left-leaning swing-voter backlash as Bill Sizemore's 1998 campaign.

Jack Roberts is the only Republican in the race to have stood for and won a statewide election. His experience not only in the state executive branch, but as a county commissioner in Lane County, creates a background attractive to political insiders, but maybe a little inaccessible to voters.

To win in November, Republicans need to go back to the last time they won the office, with Vic Atiyeh, and the sort of Republican who used to win the statehouse — leaders like Mark Hatfield and Tom McCall.

Those latter two would likely be shot down as greens in GOP clothing by today's hard-line ideologues in the Republican party. But they are remembered in Oregon history as great leaders who united Oregon instead of dividing it.

Saxton offers the rank-and-file GOP majority that possibility.

All three Democratic contenders are career politicians. Saxton has been a Portland School Board member, but makes his living as a lawyer in a firm representing local governments in Oregon and other Western states. Voters who like an outsider will look at Saxton; when they listen, we suspect they'll like what they hear.

His emphasis on reforming the Public Employees Retirement System isn't union bashing. It's about finding a way to protect retirees while protecting taxpayers from a retirement plan that is robbing cities, counties and school districts to pay the plan's return on investment, which is guaranteed regardless of how the market performs — guaranteed by tax dollars.

Then there's Saxton's drive to help local governments find a way to more competitively buy health insurance to help cap the skyrocketing cost — at taxpayer expense — of providing health benefits to public employees.

Notice he doesn't propose slashing benefits, but finding a way to get a better "bulk" buy from insurance companies.

These are goals born of being in local government and working with local government and seeing the challenges Baker City, Baker County, Baker School District 5J and other governments like these face with each successive budget cycle.

Saxton also wants to change the governor's role in helping small communities with economic development. He sees no reason why a targeted recruiting mailing from Heppner to 20 businesses they'd like to see relocate to Morrow County couldn't be followed up by 20 phone calls from the governor himself.

It'd take half a day of the governor's time, but it might make a lifetime of difference to towns like Heppner.

Saxton also thinks regionally, a side effect of his law firm's focus beyond Oregon. While the other candidates talked solely about opportunities and the lack thereof in Oregon, Saxton additionally spoke of connecting fishing fleets in Alaska with shipyards in Astoria. That's a big picture outlook, and one that should resonate well in Baker City: The proposed Northwest Law Enforcement Training Center would serve this same region.

But what ultimately qualifies Saxton to be the Republican nominee for governor is that he doesn't want to be the Republican governor of Oregon.

He says he wants to be the "governor of Oregon."

While Roberts and Mannix might take swipes at Saxton's appeal to Democrats, that potential for cross-party support is what makes Saxton the GOP's best bet in November.

Working on school-funding issues as a member of the Portland School Board raised his profile in that advocacy community, typically thought of as leaning a touch left of center. At the same time, the business community of Portland recognized him with a special chamber of commerce community service award. In other words, Saxton has the groundwork in place for a competitive campaign in Portland.

George W. Bush won a majority of Oregon counties in 2000, but lost the state. Why? The Portland metro area.

If Saxton can carry the rural part of the state — and he could, with former-Rep. Bob Smith already squarely in his corner — and hold his own in Portland, the GOP wins in November.

And in advising Republicans on their best prospects for victory in the fall, that would have to make the Baker City Herald 24 of 25 Oregon newspapers endorsing Saxton for the May 21 primary.