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PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — Betsy Johnson, an unaffiliated candidate for Oregon governor, is drawing mixed reactions for her recent harsh criticisms of Portland and Democratic opponent Tina Kotek.
Johnson, a former Democratic state senator, called Portland “the city of roaches” instead of the “City of Rose” in an interview with the New York Times that was published in a June 28 newsletter. And she called Kotek, a former Oregon House speaker, “Tent City Tina” in a follow-up video posted on Twitter.
In the interview, Johnson was referring to Portland‘s battle with homelessness and crime. She was promptly criticized by Marisa Zapata, director of Portland State University’s Homelessness Research and Action Collaborative.
“Unfortunately her comments are very reminiscent and in some cases identical to comments we’ve heard that dehumanize whole sets of people,” Zapata said. “It goes beyond an oversimplification, but it completely erases their humanity. It’s deeply upsetting to have somebody using that language to describe people who are living their lives the best they can. It’s especially upsetting to have someone who’s been in a position of leadership in our state talk about future constituents this way.”
Zapata also noted that the term “cockroaches” has been used historically to demonize marginalized groups in society.
A spokesperson for Johnson spoke to the Pamplin Media Group and defended the “roach” comment.
But Johnson now says she was talking about trash, not homeless residents. And then took her shot at Kotek.
“I just told the New York Times that our beautiful City of Roses was turning into the ‘city of roaches’ due to all the garbage that’s piling up,” she said. “Now, unbelievably, the forces of ‘Tent City Tina’ and some woke professor from Portland State are attempting to manufacture false outrage. My comment was about trash — not people — and they know it, and you know it.”
Johnson also recently posted a statement to her campaign website accusing Gov. Kate Brown, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and Kotek of bridging the urban-rural divide by unifying Oregonians in “mutual frustration with their leaders and their government.”
“Right now, Portland is failing,” Johnson said. “I don’t think any problem demonstrates the need better to change Oregon’s politics than the failure to solve homelessness on our streets.”
Chuck Duffey, a Portland Democratic Johnson supporter and former aide to the late Mayor Bud Clark, defended Johnson as someone who is telling the truth.
I’m not just a Democrat, I’m a liberal Democrat, and Johnson is right. I travel all over Portland and things are terrible. The tent are one thing, but there are also piles of trash, feces, needles and dead rats. I know a lot of other liberals who say the same thing in private but don’t want to offend anyone by saying it in public. I hope Johnson gets elected and does something about it,” said Duffey, who appears in a Johnson TV ad that shows her driving past homeless camps in Portland.
According to Duffey, the “Tent City Tina” comment refers to a bill Kotek passed as speaker that made it harder for cities to sweep homeless camps.
In the ad, Johnson stressed getting unhoused people into shelters utilizing police, addiction treatment services and mental health services.
“Democrats are right that we need compassion, services and housing,” Johnson said on her drive. “But Republicans are also right that we need more personal responsibility, accountability and no more tent cities.”
John Horvick, political director of the DMH Research firm, said he is not sure Johnson’s comments will help her win over the Democratic votes she needs in the November election. That is especially true in Portland, Horvick said, where Kotek got 65% of the Democratic votes in the May 2022 primary election.
At the same time, Horvick believes most Portlanders and Oregonians currently have a very poor opinion of Portland. Annual polls that ask city voters if Portland is moving in the right direction have fallen from a high of 76% in 2000 to just 8% in September 2021, the most recent one. A statewide poll conducted them found 45% of Oregonians have a very or somewhere positive opinion of Portland compared to 60% with a very or somewhat negative one. This was far worse than their views on Oregon’s rural communities.
Mostly, though, Horvick said he is puzzled by what he considers Johnson’s “extreme rhetoric.”
“She is running as a moderate, reasonable candidate who can bring people together but using very insulting language. I’m not sure how she thinks that makes her look middle of the road,” Horvick said.
The city of Portland, along with economic and tourism groups, has been actively involved in campaigns to bring shoppers and tourists back to downtown Portland and to help businesses crippled by the pandemic and repeated vandalism.
They say Johnson’s comments aren’t helping.
“It’s easy to articulate the challenges Portland is facing,” Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said. “We need a governor who will partner with us to help find solutions and fight for Portland — not disparage and write us off.”