Ore. lacking contenders for 2008 elections


The power of the incumbency is an unmistakable force in the world of politics, and judging from candidate filings for the 2008 election cycle so far, local office holders have been able to fend off challenges.

The state's 60 House seats are all up for grabs in November 2008, including the ones held by Reps. Peter Buckley, the House majority whip, and Rep. Sal Esquivel, the maverick Medford Republican whose candor has strained his relationship with some of the GOP caucus.

While Buckley has yet to file his re-election papers to seek a third term, the Ashland Democrat said he plans to do so today. To date, no challengers have emerged to take on either Esquivel or Buckley, the chairman of the House Education Committee and member of the House Democratic leadership team.

"I am eagerly looking forward to the campaign," said Buckley, noting that although he hasn't heard of anyone interested in running for the seat, having a challenger emerge is always a possibility. "I have to keep up doing what I am doing and see if someone steps up and enters the race. Either way, I plan to keep on."

So far, the only Southern Oregon legislator to have a primary challenger is House Republican Whip Dennis Richardson of Central Point, known as one of the most conservative members of the state Legislature. He is being challenged by fellow Republican Ronald Schutz of Grants Pass, a self-described moderate who says he opposes "government giveaways."

"This will be Richardson's fourth term," Schutz said in a telephone interview. "Maybe it's time for a change; maybe it's time for some new ideas," the retired California highway worker added.

Half of the state's 30 senators are also up for re-election. Sens. Doug Whitsett, R-Klamath Falls, and Jason Atkinson, R-Central Point, are so far running unopposed in the May 20, 2008 primary.

Legislative candidates have until March 11, 2008 to file their election papers with the Oregon secretary of state's Elections Division. State Sen. Alan Bates, D-Ashland, will not be on the ballot until 2010.

Buckley, who coordinates candidate recruitment for the House Democratic Caucus, partly attributes so few people filing to the approximate $20,000 annual salary given lawmakers. To help supplement his income, Buckley works as a freelance copywriter.

"It takes a unique set of circumstances to be able to serve in the Legislature," said Buckley, adding that between helping his constituents and serving on committees, he spends more than 40 hours a week on legislative business, even during the interim.

"The constituent work is constant," Buckley said. "The work doesn't stop when we're not in session."

After launching his political career with an unsuccessful bid for Congress in 2002, challenging Rep. Greg Walden of Hood River in the heavily Republican 2nd Congressional District, Buckley won the Democratic primary against three-term former state representative Judy Uherbelau in 2004. In 2006, he ran unopposed.

Since his time in the Legislature, Buckley is known well for his collaborative work with Esquivel, who says he will likely file his election papers by mid-November.

As for his plainspoken style, Esquivel said Sunday his loyalties belong to the people of Medford, not to advancing the causes of the House Republican Caucus, no matter what political mores might dictate.

He is unashamed for proposing such ideas as a beer tax to fund 24/7 state police patrols, at which most of his Republican colleagues balked; and unapologetic for his crossing party lines to work with Buckley, in particular, on issues of mutual concern, including an overhaul of the state tax code and community college funding.

During the 2007 legislative session, Esquivel's rift with the GOP caucus escalated to the point that he stopped attending their meetings, as did a few others amid internal disagreements.

"I represent 57,000 people from Medford, not a caucus," Esquivel said. "Has it hurt me? Probably. Is that OK? Yea, that's fine."

Like Buckley, he agreed that the level of legislator pay is a barrier to more people seeking office, especially for younger candidates who are trying to raise a family.

"I would like to see it revamped; not for me, but for the people that can't afford to go up to Salem," said Esquivel, a real estate broker and former Medford city councilor. "There are some very talented people with small children that cannot afford to go up because the pay is so awful, and that's a shame."

Lawmakers ought to be paid between $3,000 and $4,000 monthly, not the $1,583 current base salary, Esquivel said.

"I like the idea of a part-time Legislature, but I don't like the fact that we underpay them and that we don't have young people involved," Esquivel said, noting that five lawmakers under 35 years joined the House Democrats in 2006.

"I thought that was refreshing," Esquivel said. "But who can live on $1,500 a month if that was your sole income and you had small children? You couldn't do it."

Professor Bill Lunch, who heads the political science department at Oregon State University, said so few races are contested not so much because of the meager pay, but rather because state legislative districts have generally been carved in such as way that few districts are genuinely competitive, where the seat is winnable by either a Democrat or Republican.

The only "really competitive districts" in the state are typically suburban districts, mostly in the Willamette Valley, Lunch said in a telephone interview from his Corvallis office.

"The urban districts now are essentially just about a sure thing for the Democrats, and most but not all the rural districts are just about a sure thing for the Republicans," Lunch said.

covers the state Legislature for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at csrizo@hotmail.com.

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