Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Tapping into Oregon's independent streak

As we await the results of the Merkley/Novick contest to see who will take on Sen. Gordon Smith for the Democrats, it’s worth revisiting the campaign of independent John Frohnmayer.

Weeks ago, in talking with John about his U.S. Senate candidacy (we go back to college days), not surprisingly he put it in its best light. I mentioned a couple of his talking points in yesterday’s post.

He has name recognition (thanks largely to his brother David), and Vermont and Connecticut have both elected independents to the Senate. So it can be done.

I suggested that lack of money could be a problem for John. Of course, independent Senators Joe Lieberman and Bernie Sanders had a long history of winning elective office and creating political bases and networks. Think, money and volunteers.

Frohnmayer has virtually none of that. His highest public office, chair of the National Endowment for the Arts (not “Humanities” as I incorrectly stated in my post yesterday), was appointive.

But John made another point that is worth considering. The “independent” label is a good one to have in this state — and in this year.

Both Barack Obama and John McCain share a streak of independence. So far it has helped them in 2008.

Obama decries the partisanship that has divided Washington. His whole being background speaks of independence.

McCain has a record of bucking the Republican establishment, although his acceptance of Bushite positions on several key issues is damages his prospects.

Oregon voters historically have embraced independent-minded politicians. Wayne Morse and Mark Hatfield are the two most prominent examples, even though they wore party labels. As early, outspoken opponents of the Vietnam War, both were in a minority in their parties.

Interestingly, Morse began as a Republican, then served a term as an independent before becoming a Democrat. Always the maverick, as a Democrat, Morse supported Republican Hatfield's candidacy for the Senate against a hawkish Democrat, Robert Duncan.

Frohnmayer has been a Republican, then was briefly a Democrat and now is an independent, supported by the Oregon Independent Party.

The word “independent” continues to resonate with many Oregonians of both the left and right. They find a lot to dislike about both parties and about two-party hegemony in general.

About one-third of registered voters call themselves independents. That’s a base Frohnmayer hopes he can count on and build on. And although small compared to the Oregon Democratic and Republican parties, the Independent Party is now the third largest in the state. It takes a hands-off position when it comes to where its candidates stand on the issues.

Although right now the Frohnmayer candidacy seems like a long shot, it could take hold if it can tap into Oregon’s deep independent streak and into the public’s desire for change — not only in the policies and political rancor of the last eight years, but also in the two-party system.

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