Why Lifelong Democrats in Oregon Say They’re Ready to Vote Red
‘Look outside. You see the homelessness, people dying in the streets from overdoses, people having psychotic breaks. It’s in shambles. It wasn’t always like this.’
PORTLAND, ORE.—Christine Drazan—a pro-life, pro-gun rights Republican best known for fighting a state climate-change bill—is in a dead heat to become the next governor of Oregon.
I repeat: Oregon.
Oregon, where Democrats have controlled the governor’s mansion for four decades, and the state legislature for 15 years. Oregon, where medical marijuana has been legal since 1998 (trailing only California) and assisted dying is a birthright and hippies have long been a major constituency. (In 2013, the real-estate blog Estately ranked Eugene the No. 1 city in America for hippies.)
If you want to know why super-progressive Oregon is thinking about voting red, consider one small community of people living in houses floating on the Columbia River.
Linda Donewald is one of them. She moved here from the Phoenix suburbs because her husband dreamed of living on the river. They’re not especially political. They love Portland for the same reason most people love Portland. “The downtown area is filled with history and a variety of restaurants, shops, theaters, and an awesome Saturday Market on the Waterfront,” Donewald said of the Portland she knew a few years ago. Now, she said, downtown Portland “looks like a war zone.”
Until recently, the city’s biggest homeless encampment stood just across the street from the floating-homes community, in what’s called the Big Four Corners Natural Area. The camp was founded in 2018 by homeless activists on a protected wetlands site. They used to call it the Village of Hope.
By 2020, hundreds of people were living in the Village of Hope, and crime was rampant. Houseboat community residents started finding their car windows smashed in. Thieves stole their catalytic converters, and then their cars. On one occasion, a resident returned to his floating home to find someone in his bathroom taking a shower.
“We considered hiring a nightly foot patrol, but it was too expensive,” said Denise Olson, another floating home resident. “We felt terrorized.”
The sound of gunfire became routine, residents told me when I visited the site last week. One said you could smell the paint thinner-like odor of meth labs in the encampment, which burst into flames on several occasions. City firefighters refused to go into the encampment; it was too dangerous.
Then the homeless started stealing neighborhood dogs for ransom, Kevin Dahlgren, the president of a Pacific Northwest homeless advocacy group, told me. One homeless person told Dahlgren that bodies of deceased camp residents are buried in the site’s marshy ground.
Trying to get the city to do something about it was useless.
Residents said they got bounced from one unresponsive government agency to the next, until they finally got a meeting with an aide to their state representative, Democrat Zach Hudson, Olson told me.
The aide told the houseboat owners that their homeless neighbors “just need a hand-up.” She suggested they organize a barbecue for the homeless. A barbecue?! The houseboat owners were stunned.
“I've never experienced anything like this,” said Donewald, who, with Olson, created a neighborhood security committee. “There’s been a failure of leadership.”
It seems like everyone here is talking about “failure of leadership” right now.
The outgoing, term-limited governor, Kate Brown, a Democrat, is the least popular governor in America. In April, a poll showed Oregon voters preferring a generic Republican over a generic Democrat by 18 points.
For most of October, Drazan led her Democratic rival, Tina Kotek, by a few points. In the last week, the race has tightened, with both candidates now at 39.1 percent. They are joined by third-party candidate Betsy Johnson, a moderate Democrat, with just under 14 percent. (Drazan and Kotek overlapped in the state House, with Kotek serving as Speaker from 2013 to 2022, and Drazan serving as Kotek’s counterpart, minority leader, from 2019 to 2021.)
Homelessness is the number one issue among Oregon voters, particularly in Portland, followed by drugs and crime. The gubernatorial race has become a referendum on political leaders’—and, really, Democrats’—handling of these issues, and on the general deterioration that has taken place on their watch.
Signs of that deterioration are everywhere.
The murder rate is surging in Portland, especially among those living on the street. In a recent survey of Portland residents, 84% of those polled said they felt unsafe downtown at night, and 61% felt the same way during the day. Eighty-two percent want more police in the city.
Drug addiction is as bad as ever. “There is no evidence that Measure 110 has reduced drug use, drug-related crime, or overdose in the state,” Keith Humphreys, a psychologist who specializes in addiction and served as a senior advisor in the Obama administration, told me, referring to a progressive 2020 initiative that decriminalized drug possession. Meanwhile, Mexico’s Sinaloa drug cartel is active in “every corner of the state”, as The Oregonian puts it. (Police in Eugene recently seized 18 pounds of fentanyl in a single traffic stop, enough to kill most of the state of Oregon.)
And, for the first time in over a decade, Portland is shrinking, with young adults leaving in particularly large numbers: between 2020 and 2021, the county that includes Portland had a net loss of more than 4,000 residents between the ages of 25 and 29. Oregon as a whole has experienced one of the biggest slowdowns in population growth in the country.
All of which has led lifelong Democrats to reassess their loyalties.
Angela Renteria, a longtime Portland resident who used to work for a downtown branch of U.S. Bank said she’s watched Portland “completely turn to shit.”
“The homeless situation has skyrocketed,” she said. “Mental health has gone downhill.” The decline has cast a pall over public life. Renteria is a smoker, and every time she lights up a cigarette outside, she said, she’s accosted. “I work really hard for my $10 pack of cigarettes,” she said. People come up to her and ask to bum one after another after another. When she says no, they call her “a fucking bitch,” she said.
“The biggest thing to me, though—the most off-putting thing, is open defecation,” she said. “I’m walking down the street with my kids going to a bookstore, and someone is squatted on the sidewalk taking a shit.”
“My kids, there are times they want to go to Portland and check out shops,” Diana Sapera told me. “Now, I don’t feel comfortable doing that. My kids are scared, seeing grown adults yelling, hitting things, throwing things. They see needles and are like, ‘What is that?’”
“I don’t know one person who says ‘I want to go downtown today, want to come?,’” said Olson. “Nobody wants to go there.”
Sapera, a social worker who has voted Democratic her entire life, said: “It feels like night and day from even just this last year.” She cast her mail-in ballot for Drazan.
Sapera’s husband, George Carillo, was similarly disgusted with Portland’s spiral. Like his wife, Carillo has been a lifelong Democrat. Now he’s not so sure.
“It’s single-party control,” he told me. “Things are going downhill: inflation, crime, homelessness, addiction, overdoses. Here in Oregon, look outside—you see the homelessness, people dying in the streets from overdoses, people having psychotic breaks. It’s in shambles right now. It wasn’t always like this.”
Carillo became so frustrated with the status quo in Oregon that he ran for office for the first time in his life in the Democratic gubernatorial primary. After dropping out, instead of going with his party’s nominee, he threw his support behind Christine Drazan.
Drazan has positioned herself as a moderate—unlike many Republicans, she acknowledges that Joe Biden is the freely and fairly elected president of the United States—but the caucus she comes from is far from it. Last year, a Republican state representative opened the doors of the state Capitol to allow armed, anti-lockdown protesters inside. The protesters pepper-sprayed cops and attacked journalists. A month later, the Oregon GOP called January 6 a “‘false flag’ operation” and compared it to the Nazis burning down the Reichstag.
Even so, 13% of undecided voters leaning toward Drazan are registered Democrats, according to a recent poll. (Among undecided voters leaning toward Kotek, only 4% are Republicans.) In an era of hyper-partisanship, that degree of party disloyalty is remarkable. According to a Pew study from 2020, only 4% of voters that year cast ballots for a major candidate of the opposite party.
Key to her appeal is Drazan’s break with the status quo on homelessness—rejecting the Housing First philosophy that has become orthodoxy in progressive cities up and down the West Coast. Housing First posits that the main reason people are living on the streets is lack of affordable housing, and the best way to solve the problem is to build more of it.
Drazan thinks the real problem is drug addiction—not high rent. She wants to “end encampments,” repeal Measure 110 and expand addiction-treatment services, in addition to building more housing. “We have to help Oregonians get sober and stay sober,” she said in August in response to a series of questions posed by Oregon Public Broadcasting.
If Drazan wins, it will be “a shock to the system,” said Parker Butterworth, a Democratic consultant who works frequently for Oregon candidates. Democrats will be relentless and myopic in positioning themselves to win the seat back in four years. “Right at the beginning she has to make the case to Democrats, to the center left, that she’s not an enemy. She needs to tap into that old Oregonian way of independence and populism.”
George Donnerberg, the developer behind the floating-home community, has seen this return to political independence among Portland voters firsthand.
Donnerberg, who traces his family history in Portland to 1864, lives in one of the floating homes himself. The mayhem he has witnessed from the Big Four Corners camp compelled him to run for state representative—as a Republican. His district, like pretty much all of the Portland area, is overwhelmingly Democratic—“I'm walking a tightrope on this thing,” he told me. But, he said, he keeps meeting disillusioned Democrats while knocking on doors.
One of those disillusioned Democrats, a self-described “union guy” from a union family, told me that nearly every vote he’s ever cast has been for Democrats. This time, he’s voting for Drazan. He insisted on staying anonymous out of fear of drawing attention to himself.
“There’s a stunning amount of violence from Antifa,” he said, referring to the self-styled radical “anti-fascist” activists who are particularly numerous and active in Portland.
Antifa has become the most dramatic symbol of the city’s lawlessness.
Angela Renteria’s old job, at U.S. Bank, was near where the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020 happened. “They had to shut down the branch—people were blocking the streets, throwing trash cans at cars,” she told me, adding: “Right after Columbus Day, they spray-painted our bank. Our higher-ups and security instructed us on what to do if things got out of hand: you’re going to lock yourselves in the vault.”
She said the entire time she worked at the branch, she saw “maybe two police cars the whole time. I saw ambulances, fire trucks, but no cops. They just let them do their thing.”
Denise Olson, the floating-house resident, echoed Renteria. “A solid year of rioting—daily, nightly,” she said. “The city of Portland allowed that rioting to go on for so long.” She believes the rioting contributed enormously to the crime in her neighborhood by tying up the police downtown and leaving the rest of the city to fend for itself. “If there wasn’t an immediate life or death situation you weren’t going to get a response,” she said.
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The question is where all these people—these newly unaligned voters—go next. After the midterms are over. After 2022.
“The Republican Party has almost nothing to offer me,” the unnamed “union guy” told me. He described himself as a “1960s Civil Rights type,” the kind of person who believes that “the best way to end discrimination is to end discrimination.” In 2016, he voted for Bernie Sanders. Now, he said, the Democrats are all about dividing the world into victims and oppressors. “It seems to be their goal,” he said. “They want more division.”
Olson is likewise disillusioned with the party she grew up in. She was born and raised in Portland, in a Catholic family, and she mostly voted Democratic. Now, she felt embarrassed to admit where she came from. When people asked, she’d say, kind of sheepishly: “I’m from Port…land.” Everyone in her floating home community agreed that it was great that the city recently cleared away the homeless encampment across the street, but it took ages, and there was no guarantee they wouldn’t come back, and if they did, you couldn’t rely on the old Democratic leadership to take action.
Olson’s politics are shifting. The first time she voted for a Republican was in 2016—for Donald Trump. She couldn’t stand Hillary Clinton. “The Democrats will stay with the status quo, and nothing will change,” she said of this year’s election. “Kate Brown has had eight years, and I can’t recall one thing that was a good thing that she’s done. I’m voting for Christine Drazan.”
Diana Sapera told me that she had hoped to be able to support Tina Kotek. She was a social worker, after all. Social workers vote for progressives. But she couldn’t do it.
Because of the three-way race, whoever wins next week will almost definitely have less than 50% of the vote, Butterworth said. The victor will have a lot to prove. Symbolism and ideology won’t be enough—voters need the kinds of results they can see with their own eyes in places like downtown Portland. Speaking of the mood of Oregon voters, he said, “This sort of tribalism—I’m left, you’re right, we have nothing in common—has got to go.”