Buehler…? Buehler…? Buehler?

By Tim Neville

Oregon Business

 

Bend — Knute Buehler slipped on running shoes and headed to the gym on the first floor of the Best Western Plus Rama Inn in La Grande, where he had arrived the night before.

It was early February, a cold and windy morning in Union County, but inside the gym was quiet and warm. Buehler climbed aboard a treadmill for a 3-mile run paced at nine minutes per mile — a respectable workout for a 53-year-old orthopedic surgeon.

He wore no headphones and watched no TV. If you knew nothing of his ambitions, you could mistake him for just another businessman fending off the fat.

LA GRANDE WAS THE FIRST stop in a three-day, 700-mile trip along the Columbia and south to this town of 13,000 people, where Buehler, a state legislator from Bend, had come to get in shape for a different kind of race. He’d meet commissioners and business leaders, and hear about water rights and potato exports. He’d give a stump speech in a truck stop and talk with newspaper editors.

In November, Buehler hopes to do what no one has done in decades: become the Republican governor of Oregon.

“There’s no reason it can’t happen here,” he told me later, mentioning liberal states like Vermont, Maryland and Massachusetts that all have Republican governors. “When people tell me I can’t do things, it just motivates me more to prove them wrong.”

Back in his room, Buehler cleaned up. He pulled on a button up shirt and a sport coat with a pin of dueling flags pressed into the lapel. His goatee was trimmed and his chestnut hair parted on the left. There would be no tie, though his socks were Western and fun. Professional, not stuffy. Serious, but relaxed.

How Buehler presents himself and what he stands for assumed a renewed sense of statewide importance in August 2017, when the two-term lawmaker from District 54 ended weeks of speculation and announced that he would indeed run for governor —  a move that would potentially set him up for a rematch against the Democrat incumbent, Gov. Kate Brown.

Brown had beat Buehler in the race for Secretary of State in 2012, but this time, the ripples of Buehler’s announcement were immediate. Within a month he had raised nearly $1 million for the campaign. The Tillamook County Creamery Association gave him $10,000. John Shelk of Ochoco Lumber Company donated $25,000. Hayden Homes of Redmond chipped in $50,000.

Less than two weeks after the announcement, Nike’s Phil Knight donated $500,000, the most the sporting goods giant had reportedly ever given to a candidate.

By stepping into the race, Buehler also immediately confronted odds of historically hostile proportions. You have to flip all the way back to 1982 to find favorable election results for an Oregon Republican governor. That year Republican Victor Atiyeh, the son of Syrian immigrants, won every single county in the state. Since then races have tipped Democratic, although not always by blowouts. In 2010 Gov. Kitzhaber defeated Republican Chris Dudley, formerly of the Portland Trail Blazers, by less than 23,000 votes.

The liberal gale has grown stiffer now that the number of registered Republican voters in Oregon as of January has dwindled to 698,000 people, third place behind Democrats (957,000 people) and nonaffliated voters (814,000), whom Buehler will most certainly need to sway in significant numbers.

That shift is the direct product of the state’s business environment and the workforce it attracts, says Jim Moore, the director of the Tom McCall Center for Policy Innovation at Portland’s Pacific University, who is working on a book about Atiyeh. Timber and other legacy resource jobs gave ground to a more high tech, global economy, and the workers who come for those jobs tend to be Democrats, he says.

Fast forward to today:

“If a Republican is going to break the Democrat hold,” Moore says, “it will almost certainly have to be a moderate.”

“There’s no reason it can’t happen here,”  says Beuhler, mentioning liberal states like Vermont, Maryland and Massachusetts that all have Republican governors. “When people tell me I can’t do things, it just motivates me more to prove them wrong.”

Whether Oregon voters see Buehler that way — or if they want any flavor of a conservative — will be answered soon enough. But two months ahead of the May 15 primary, Buehler has another hurdle to clear. A few hours after checkout he swung by Willow Elementary School to meet with the superintendent, but the superintendent wasn’t there and hadn’t been expecting him that day. It wasn’t a snub, just a scheduling snafu.

Still, the school’s receptionist seemed confused.

“I’m sorry,” she asked him, sheepishly, “who are you again?”

SHORTLY BEFORE Christmas, Buehler met me at his house in Bend, a spotless, 3,100-square-foot home perched along the Deschutes River that he and his wife, Patty, bought in 2014 for $1.04 million, records show. Patty is an eye surgeon and partner at Bend’s Infocus Eye Care. She met Buehler, who grew up in Roseburg, when they both were medical students in Baltimore.

At that time Buehler already had a microbiology degree from Oregon State University. Soon he would earn his medical degree from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and a master’s degree in politics and economics  from Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. In the spring of 1989, Buehler proposed to Patty among the tulips of Baltimore’s Sherwood Gardens after the couple had jogged the 2 miles there from campus.

“No fancy outfits, no fancy ring,” Patty recalls.

When he was 12, his father, Werner, suffered a major stroke that would ultimately kindle Buehler’s interest in medicine and politics. In his 40s, Buehler says he was ready for new challenges, namely running for office, after becoming “the best surgeon I could be” while working as a managing partner at the Center, an orthopedic, neurological and research facility in Bend.

“He was always interested in public service from the beginning, though,” clarifies his best friend and medical school roommate, Tom Beer, the deputy director of the Knight Cancer Institute at Oregon Health and Science University. “He’s had this constant, deep interest in how society betters itself.”

That intensity shows up in the state legislature, where Buehler serves on several committees.

During a health hearing in January, Buehler interrupted an economist to press him on prescription drug prices and to ask how “social determinates” affect Medicaid costs. At a revenue hearing, he voted against committee bills for their lack of transparency, calling himself a “martyr.” He seemed well liked as he walked through the lobby, waving, smiling and shaking hands, but his limited stage time offered little insight into leadership potential.

That’s a problem dogging nearly every Republican in Oregon state government, says lobbyist Len Bergstein of Northwest Strategies.

“Kate Brown will demonstrate she has a record of leadership on issues that matter to voters,” he says. “Republicans can’t do that. They wind up having decent people who are probably very successful in their own lives, but they have not been able to translate to Oregon voters anything that looks like leadership skills.”

SITTING COMFORTABLY in a club chair with a snoozing bichon mix at his feet, Buehler describes himself as an independent leader who “always seeks bipartisan results.” He cringes at attempts to label him, even as a “moderate.”

“I reject all those narrow labels,” he says. “I think they increasingly don’t define any of us and increasingly divide all of us. I’d rather have people just look at me based on the results. Look at my record.”

“Everywhere I go, I see people hungry for change.” — Knute Buehler

During the four sessions he has served in Salem so far, Buehler has authored laws to protect public whistleblowers and voted to pass anti-coal legislation. He co-sponsored a bill with Democrats to create a state office tasked with boosting Oregon’s outdoor-recreation economy. He’s particularly proud of the work he did to make birth control more readily available.

Those votes may distance him from his conservative base, which could come back to haunt him in the primary, but Buehler has also routinely fought liberal stances.

He voted nay on a bill that makes it harder for suicidal people to have a gun. (One day after the shooting in Parkland, he voted for a bill Gov. Brown introduced that restricts domestic violence offenders from buying guns and ammunition.) He voted against mandatory paid sick leave, against minimum wage increases, and against the health insurance tax bill that eventually led to Measure 101, which Oregon voters passed overwhelmingly in January.

“I don’t see that vote as a comment on my ability to read Oregonians at all,” he tells me. “My takeaway is the no campaign was outspent 40-to-1. I’m not interested in Band-Aid solutions.”

SO FAR NINE REPUBLICANS and two Democrats have entered the governor’s race, and next to some of them, Buehler does look centrist. Sam Carpenter, a Bend-based businessman, wants to “Make Oregon Great Again.” Bruce Cuff, a realtor from Mehama, wants to  gut state government jobs and advocates for putting federal lands under county control. Yet Buehler does vote conservatively most of the time.

“When you look at his taxes and economic record it’s classic Republican stuff,” says Moore. “Are Oregonians ready for a Republican message on economics? The strong suggestion is since 1986, no, they are not.”

Buehler, of course, disagrees. “Everywhere I go, I see people hungry for change,” he says.

“If a Republican is going to break the Democratic hold, it will almost certainly have to be a moderate.” — Jim Moore

He claims Gov. Brown has asked for new taxes or tax increases 26 times in three years, while tax revenues are already high. He says he wouldn’t sign a single new spending bill until lawmakers put a public-employee retirement system reform bill on his desk. They could start by getting teachers all under one contract, he says. Controlling costs and facing Oregon’s budget challenges rank among his top priorities.

It’s a platform that resonates with mainstream business leaders.

“Candidly, what we are all are looking for in a governor is someone who understands the gravity of the challenge we face and has the political courage to call the question and set the table,” says Sean Robbins, vice president for government affairs at Cambia Health Solutions and former CEO of Business Oregon, who worked for both Govs. Kitzhaber and Brown. That means “pulling in legislators, labor, business, mayors from around the state to have an open and transparent budget package for 2019,” he says.

Buehler, whom Robbins called “a thoughtful, bipartisan pragmatist,” would also support a revenue-neutral carbon tax to stimulate demand for green energy but not a cap-and-invest bill that reeks of “crony capitalism.” He wants to see the LNG natural-gas export terminal come online in Coos Bay and to help rural communities create value-added timber products. For him, the biggest problem in Oregon government is the inefficient muck created by one party in power for so long.

“We’ve just lost a shared sense of purpose and problem solving, and frankly, it’s grown a lot worse under Kate Brown,” he says. “She seems more fixated on dividing us on national issues than fixing ones here in Oregon.”

IMMEDIATELY AFTER news of Buehler’s bid for governor broke, Gov. Brown’s team emailed supporters asking for campaign contributions to defeat Buehler and other “Trumps in training.” For his part, Buehler says he’s blindly loyal to no one other than his wife, and certainly not to the president, whom he has criticized on Facebook. But that might not matter if a national backlash against Republicans at all levels materializes on Election Day.

“Oregon is clearly a blue state with political pundits anticipating an anti-Trump sentiment influencing the ballot this November,” says lobbyist Danelle Romain of The Romain Group. But she’s quick to add that no one should underestimate “the potential of Oregonians to buck trends and assert their independence.”

“Candidly, what we are all are looking for in a governor is someone who understands the gravity of the challenge we face and has the political courage to call the question and set the table.” — Sean Robbins

Buehler’s team is clearly aware of the need to tune the campaign’s message to a moderate key, even if state Republican leaders behind the Dorchester Conference, one of the nation’s longest-running conservative forums, appear to be sounding a shriller note by inviting conspiracy theorist and former Trump campaign adviser Roger Stone to deliver a keynote address this March.

Meanwhile, Buehler’s campaign recently parted ways with its communications director, Jonathan Lockwood, a young firebrand who, before joining the Buehler team, officially rallied for Republicans on Twitter by sometimes posting stories from the far-right Breitbart news site.

But even Buehler himself, who crafts his own tweets, has flirted with what feels like Trump-style name-calling. “Foot dragging Kate Brown has failed to improve education,” he posted on Jan. 20. “I’ll lead to rescue kids and schools with funding and innovative academic reform.” (The governor’s team says graduation rates have gone up under her leadership.)

Republicans do feel hopeful this time around as Gov. Brown’s approval rating recently dipped below 50%, according to two polls. Kevin Hoar, communication director for the Oregon Republican Party, says that shows she’s one of the most vulnerable incumbents the state has seen in recent memory.

“She’s the gift that keeps on giving,” he says. “She’s been great at unifying the business community against her bad ideas.”

Oregon’s business community is, of course, diverse in its views, but Robbins adds most would welcome more bipartisanship.

“They don’t want the governor to be the 91st legislator advocating for one political constituency,” he says. Real estate companies like 360 Ventures, Oregon’s chapter of the American Council of Engineering Companies and even Nike have all donated thousands of dollars to Gov. Brown’s re-election campaign.

As of February, she had about $3 million in her war chest, a third more than Buehler. That said, a Republican can still win a top slot in Oregon if the Democrat appears unloved. Republican Dennis Richardson proved that by beating Democrat Brad Avakian for Secretary of State in 2016 to become the first Republican to hold that office since Norma Paulus left it in 1985.

Buehler’s team is clearly aware of the need to tune the campaign’s message to a moderate key, even if state Republican leaders behind the Dorchester Conference, one of the nation’s longest-running conservative forums, appear to be sounding a shriller note by inviting conspiracy theorist and former Trump campaign adviser Roger Stone to deliver a keynote address this March.

Brown may have a sagging approval rating, but she is far from unloved, with a huge supporter base, says Thomas Wheatley, a Brown campaign advisor, pointing to “an army of more than 10,000 individual donors. Republicans are delusional to think they can win in Oregon this year.”  Molly Woon, spokesperson for the Democratic Party of Oregon, agrees. “His right-wing values are out of step with voters.”

That’s still to be determined, no doubt, but back in La Grande — before the superintendent meeting fell through — Buehler grabbed breakfast at the Smokehouse, a diner on Adams Avenue. There he met with Mark Ward of the Oregon Potato Commission and Curtis Martin of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, among a handful of other community leaders.

“Kate Brown has been great at unifying the business community against her bad ideas.” Kevin Hoar

Over a plate of eggs, bacon and blueberry pancakes, Buehler talked about how wages haven’t kept up, what he calls gross mismanagement of the Oregon Health Authority and how he would personally “march back to D.C.” to make the case for more logging.

“I feel like the people in Salem just pat us on the head,” said Ward.

“So true,” nodded Martin.

“Well, I’m here to listen and learn,” Buehler said.

For the moment, that sentiment may go both ways. At almost the exact same time as Buehler’s breakfast, pollsters at DHM Research in Portland were finding that 65% of likely Oregon voters didn’t know Buehler or enough about his positions to form an opinion.

That identity problem seems fixable this far out from Election Day, and over the weeks, I’d watch Buehler chip away at the deficit. He’d talk to a room of county assessors in Sunriver. The school receptionist at Willow Elementary said she’d vote for him. Then he’d deliver a stump speech at the Flying J Travel Plaza in La Grande, where the Union County Central GOP Committee had gathered over burgers and coffee.

“In 2012 you ran against Kate Brown statewide,” said Jeff Smith, another Republican candidate for governor at the meeting. “What makes you think you can do better this time?”

“I was running against a 25-year incumbent who had her challenges but also a lot of support,” Buehler began. “I learned a lot of really important lessons. The most important one: I don’t like to lose and I don’t intend to do it again.”

The room filled with laughter even if the question still lingered. Later, Buehler addressed the skepticism more squarely.

“I wouldn’t do this if there wasn’t a path to victory,” he told me, noting how he most recently won his House seat in a district that voted convincingly for Hillary Clinton. “I think Nelson Mandela said that everything is impossible until it happens.” Additional reporting by Linda Baker in Portland and Caleb Diehl in Salem.

Read the original piece in Oregon Business here.

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