Larry Sowa Should Resign

Kari Chisholm FacebookTwitterWebsite

LarrysowaLarry Sowa was elected as a Democrat to the Clackamas County Commission. Today, the Oregonian brings news that Sowa has switched parties and re-registered as a Republican.

Now, he's entitled to be a member of whatever party he wants. But, having been elected by the voters as a Democrat, changing parties in the middle of his term breaks faith with the voters.

The voters of Clackamas County have twice nominated Larry Sowa as the Democratic nominee and twice elected him as a Democrat. To remain in office now, as a Republican, is simply wrong.

Larry claims - as party-switchers always do - that he's not leaving the party, but the party left him.

"I'm conservative, and I think (Democrats) tend to get more and more liberal all the time"

And that may or may not be true - but the voters knew what they were getting when they last elected him in 2002. After all, that same year Sowa was the founder and chairman of Democrats for Kevin Mannix. As it said in Kevin Mannix's voters' pamphlet statement:

"Kevin Mannix is always looking for innovative and efficient ways to get the job done. That's why I'm putting Oregon's future ahead of my political party and supporting Kevin for governor." - Larry Sowa, Democrat, Clackamas County Commissioner and former legislator

It's time for Larry Sowa to resign. If he wants to run as a Republican, that's fine - but he shouldn't serve as a Republican after the voters elected him as a Democrat.

The famous example, of course, is that given by then-Congressman Phil Gramm. When he changed parties, he resigned. He immediately filed in the special election to replace himself - and won as a freshly-minted Republican. Larry Sowa should do the same.

[Disclaimer: I'm assisting another likely candidate in the campaign, but I speak only for myself.]

  • Steve Bucknum (unverified)

    Should he resign - NO.

    I don't like him switching parties to the extent that he might have been deceptive with voters, but I don't like even more setting up future conditions that work against my party. If Sowa and Mannix want to switch parties, which both have done now, then good riddance. Perhaps as a Republican, Sowa will have Mannix's election success.

    Tom McCall (remember him?) switched from being a Republican to being a Democrat. I thought it was great.

    Where the voters of Clackamas County have their place is in the next election. They elected the person, not the party. If they don't like his party switching, they can either recall him, or not renew his contract.

  • polemarchus (unverified)

    Sowa should not resign because he switched parties. People should resign because they appoint their college roomate to protect our country in cases of emergency.

    People should resign for incompetence.

    Pithy political partisanship is a waste of everyone's time and should be ignored.

  • (Show?)

    I disagree. I believe that "Democrat" and "Republican" are not meaningless labels. They are not the sports-team equivalent of red uniforms and blue uniforms.

    As anyone who has gone door-to-door for a candidate can attest, the only thing that many, many voters care about is "Is he a Democrat?" or "Is he a Republican?" For many voters - perhaps some 65-80% - who vote a straight ticket, the label carries a very important meaning.

    Sure, Democrats disagree amongst themselves a lot - and so do Republicans. Larry Sowa was certainly a very conservative Democrat.

    Nonetheless, as a "Democrat", the voters assumed that he had certain basic views of the world.

    By changing parties, he's breaking faith with the voters who voted for him. He should resign immediately, and give them a chance to elect whomever they want. Including him, as a Republican.

    Steve, you're right. The voters voted for a person. But they elected that person because he made meaningful representations about his basic view of the world. Now, he's indicated that he no longer shares that basic view of the world. He's not the same person they thought they voted for.

  • Aaron (unverified)

    NO, let the voters vet the issue in 2006.

    How many Democrats in Clackamas County(and Oregon as a whole) voted for President Bush in 2000 and 2004, and Senator Gordon Smith in 2002; for same reason(or near) that of what Cmmr Sowa stated: "I'm conservative, and I think (Democrats) tend to get more and more liberal all the time."

    Loyalty to one's party can only go so far based on how other members of the party treat each other--and idealogy and methodology is part of treatment.

  • Hisham Zubi (unverified)

    I don't think it makes Steve's original point any less relevant, but I believe it was Wayne Morse, not Tom McCall, who switched from being a Republican to a Democrat during his political career.

    As opposed to Sowa, Morse was an independent for a while before he formally became a Democrat.

  • Chris Woo (unverified)

    Does Sowa's switching-of-parties have any meaningful impact in his work on the Commission and how he votes? I assume that the R/D label will be more significant in the next election, but given that there are only three commissioners to begin with, I don't see any new caucuses forming. It might also be worth noting that over the last decade the numbers of registered R voters in Clackamas Co. has been steadily outpacing the number of D registrations (to the tune of about 4%, currently). Maybe Sowa's philosophical shift has more to do with sensing where the political winds are shifting in his county than how he sees himself voting.

  • Ramon (unverified)

    What's the big deal?

    No-one is the same in office as when campaigning. They "grow" once in office. They change and adapt to - shall we say - the rigors of governing. That's why elective offices are not lifetime appointments, and that's why term limits make sense.

    Most everyone knows rule #1: power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. If you are too naive for that you are miscast for a career in politics and public policy.

  • Rorovitz (unverified)

    Question: If larry were to die in office, resign or otherwise need to vacate prior to filling his term, what is the process for replacement. I believe (perhaps wrongly) that in some cases the replacement in these instances in Oregon is chosen based on having the same party as the person leaving offices. If this is the case in Clack co, it would be a HUGE deal to have a person switch parties, and thus the method of replacement. Anyone know the answer on this?

    Comment: In reading polls (like on there are often breakouts for what R's D's and I's think about an issue. Check out some of those breakouts and then try to tell me that party affiliation is meaningless.

  • Rick Metsger (unverified)

    Response to Rorovitz:

    Election law says if someone were to die in office, and it is a partisan office they must be replaced by a person of the PARTY FROM WHICH THEY WERE ELECTED. Thus in Sowa's case, though he is now a Republican should he vacate the office a Democrat would be appointed to replace him.

  • roman (unverified)

    That's absurd. Should Wayne Morse have resigned from the U. S. Senate when he switched from Republican to independent to Democrat? Views change - parties change.

  • (Show?)

    Chris -- It's not about how Sowa "see himself voting". It's about how the voters assumed he would be voting. The voters elected him as a Democrat, not as a Republican.

    "Democrat" means something. "Republican" means something. Those are not meaningless labels. The voters elected a Democrat. Now, there's a Republican in that office.

    Certainly, there can be a discussion about whether the Clackamas County Commission ought to be a nonpartisan office (like Multnomah) but the citizens of Clackamas County have decided long ago that their County Commission ought to be a partisan job - with party primaries and candidates labeled as one or the other.

    Given that it is a partisan office, he should resign. He is no longer the elected official that the voters elected.

    Oh, and you need look no further than his hero Kevin Mannix's environmental voting record (helpfully posted on BlueOregon by Jonathan Poisner) after he changed parties to see that the very act of changing sides often precipitates a shift in voting direction.

  • fred (unverified)

    hey for anyone out there, just out of curiosty is the county commission a partisin office, in Multnomah county it is a non partisian election, no party ID on the ballot, I thought that was the rule through out the state.

  • polemarchus (unverified)

    Rorovitz writes: "Check out some of those breakouts and then try to tell me that party affiliation is meaningless."

    But this "democrat" doesn't believe in those issues. So why does his party registration matter? He, I imagine, has voted in a manner inconsistent with D values all along. Now, before the election, he has chosen to identify as a Republican. Big Deal. If it was a month after his election I would cry foul. But he is probably going to announce his run for 2006 and its great that he makes this change before he runs.

    Resignation should not be part of this discussion. Whether either party has any integrity whatsoever is another discussion.

  • (Show?)

    Fred - I think I was writing my comment at the same as yours. In Clackamas County, it is a partisan office.

  • LT (unverified)

    There are various types of party switch: 1)Fed up with current party for specified detailed reasons; 2)Truth in label (Cong. Sonny Montgomery of the deep South should have changed to Republican because of his friendship with Bush 1 and his voting record, but because Democrats controlled the Congress back then he would have lost his committee chairmanship); 3) Opportunistic

    I recall in the 1991 session where a member got fed up with Larry Campbell's bullying and had a press conference announcing he was leaving the caucus. That would be my model of 1)

    But I don't agree with what Kari said "Democrat" means something. "Republican" means something. Those are not meaningless labels. "

    Do Kate Brown, Peter Buckley, the members of the Rural Caucus agree on everything? How does one define "Republican " which includes Frank Morse, Ben Westlund, Roger Beyer and Gary George?

    I vote candidate quality first and issues second. What does that make me?

  • (Show?)

    LT, I'll refer you to my earlier comments:

    Sure, Democrats disagree amongst themselves a lot - and so do Republicans. Larry Sowa was certainly a very conservative Democrat. Nonetheless, as a "Democrat", the voters assumed that he had certain basic views of the world.

    While there is room within "Democrat" for lots of differing views (and I've been among those arguing for an expansive definition), I do think that the phrase comes with meaning. It is not meaningless.

    As for "what does that make me" - I suspect that it puts you in the 20-35% of voters who are swing voters.

    In politics, we spend almost all of our timing trying to educate and motivate the swing. That doesn't change the fact, however, that some 65-80% of all voters are straight-ticket party voters.

  • Eric Berg (unverified)

    I was active in the Young Democrats of Oregon before I was old enough to vote and I've been a Democratic precinct commiteeperson in three Oregon counties. I've never voted for a Republican in a partisan race.

    Unfortunately, money has replaced the party structure as the driving force in electoral politics. Parties aren't as important as they used to be.They certainly aren't to the nearly half-million non-affiliated Oregon voters. My guess is non-afilliated voters would outnumber Ds and Rs if Oregon had an open primary. In all honesty, I'd probabaly be one of them.

  • george mitchel (unverified)

    The only place party matters in this state is with Democrat legislators. They always vote in lockstep. Rarely venturing out. So if Sowa were a legislator you may have a point. Because he would be free to vote outside the D box down there. As a county comish big deal. I think Kari should resign.

  • (Show?)

    I wasn't reading this blog (if it even existed) in 2001 when Jim Jeffords switched from being a Republican U.S. Senator from Vermont to being an independent who caucused with the Democrats, thereby turning control of the Senate over to the Democrats until the next election.

    Can someone please send me a copy of Kari's outraged comments at the time insisting that Jeffords resign and run again under his new party label?

  • (Show?)

    Jack - that's funny. BlueOregon started in July 2004.

    I'm not a voter in Vermont and I don't know Vermont's political culture. Of course, if Jeffords had resigned, there would not have been a special election. There would have been an appointment, by then-Governor Howard Dean.

    That said, I do believe that elected officials should resign and re-run when they change parties. Certainly, there were plenty of Republicans who argued that way when Jeffords jumped.

  • (Show?)


    For the record, to the best of my knowledge, Tom McCall was a Republican for his entire career in elective office.

    Perhaps you have confused him with the late U.S. Senator from Oregon, Wayne Morse, who was elected as a Republican -- what we then called an "Oregon Republican" -- became an Independent and finally a Democrat.

  • LM (unverified)

    As a former Vermont Citizen who voter for Dean (D) Jeffords (R) and Sanders (I) in 2000 I can assure you that 3/4ths of Vermonteers were fine with Senator Jeffords switch. He was never intensly partisan (as his voting record proved) and the citizens of Vermont were comfortable knowing that he would represent their interests over that over the parties.

  • Steve Novick (unverified)

    I weigh in here only to voice amusement at Kari's well-placed praise of Phil Gramm who in all other respects was one of the worst people ever in American politics.

  • (Show?)

    Kari, the situation with Jeffords and Sowa is the same; there won't be a special election if Sowa resigns either.

    My point really is that this is all about whose ox is being gored. Democrats complain when one of their own jumps ship, chortle when a Republican comes aboard. Republicans do the same on our side. The advantage of a state rather than a federal office is that if the voters are really upset, they have the recall option.

    I think it's also important to note that Sowa isn't expected to change his voting record just because he's changing parties. He was conservative before and will be conservative still (just as Jeffords was moderate-to-liberal before and after his switch).

    I don't mind the partisan pot-shotting. I just don't think we should take it (or ourselves) too seriously when we do it.

  • LT (unverified)

    Eric is right.

    There hasn't been a "Democratic Party" for quite some time in the sense of the 1980s when there was a vibrant grass roots effort, and people from all over the state intensely involved in what went on at the Salem HQ, coming there to drop off items for the newsletter, helping with various efforts or just dropping by to debate, or visiting to use a typewriter just before filing for office.

    There were vibrant district central comm. organizations thrown into disarray when the strong leaders of those groups found themselves dispersed by redistricting in several cases.

    I was in elementary school in Michigan when we were taken down to the auditorium to see the voting machines before they were removed (after the 1956 election, I think). They were the old fashioned kind where pulling a party lever cast literal "straight party votes".

    In that sense, we don't have strong parties in this state. How many can name the chair and vice chair of both major parties, esp. now that Kevin Mannix has left his job?

    Parties as a concept don't have that much influence (unless someone dies or resigns after the primary and a vacancy must be filled by pct. people meeting in convention). Most people I know vote for the individual, not the party.

  • Steve Bucknum (unverified)

    Wayne Morse or Tom McCall - you get old enough its all a blur.

    Point is, if a Republican we liked defected, we Democrats would welcome them with open arms. I just think fair is fair, and if we operate from principles that go beyond laws and fine points - then we should stick to our guns. I don't like Sowa defecting mid-term, but if he is in that camp, good bye!

  • (Show?)

    In his autobiography, McCall devoted a chapter to the possibility of running as a Democrat against Packwood in 1974. It was really quite fun to read. According to McCall, he was thinking about it, but got really ticked off at Blaine Whipple, Oregon's Democratic National Committeeman, after Whipple declared that McCall should start out as a precinct committee person and work his way up to running for U.S. Senate. McCall also wasn't excited about joining a party that had Vern Cook in it.

    I wish Sowa hadn't switched, but I wish that he hadn't endorsed Mannix more. I think Phil Gramm was a bad example -- it was done for show, and if he thought there would have been a risk, Gramm wouldn't have done it.

  • (Show?)

    I agree with Kari...

    Oh, and you need look no further than his hero Kevin Mannix's environmental voting record (helpfully posted on BlueOregon by Jonathan Poisner) after he changed parties to see that the very act of changing sides often precipitates a shift in voting direction.

    It stands to reason - in politics, the labels do mean something, as Kari's said 4 or 5 times now ;-) (And you know damned well how much colors mean in sports, too Kari. lol. But that's irrelevent and something that I can pick on you for offline.). Labels dictate where money comes from. Voting habits will change - with next year being an election year - in order to garner money to be (re)elected as a Republican. Duh. Democratic backers certainly won't give him any money. And Repubicans are going to want to know their money will be well-spent. There's only one way to prove that and that's for him to put his mouth where their money is.

    Additionally, think about the timing. What happened this week to make him decide to switch parties? Nothing!! You don't wake up one day and say "Hmm, I'm changing parties." He's known he was going to do this for a while and there is probably a politically strategic reason not yet apparent as to why NOW.

    Hell, if anything, I think his new party abandoned has abandoned more people this week than his old one. But that's for another thread altogether.

    Also - party switching is nothing new. It's happened for as long as there have been parties. Parties have branched off, they've split, they've reinvented themselves (Yeah, like Bush really represents "the party of Lincoln.") Former presidents have started their own parties giving us your Bull Moose party. Entire regions have decided to go their own twisted backwoods direction giving us your Dixiecrats.. yada yada yada. Then there's the notion that if Reagan had stayed a Democrat, he never would have been President. But none of them changed as a whole mid-term.

    But that's really neither here nor there - when it comes down to it what would this country do if tomorrow morning George W. Bush woke up and said "I think I'll go register as a Democrat today?" All hell would break loose! BOTH sides of the aisle (we sure as hell don't want him. lol). And if they're going to call for impeachment for... lesser things... there would be a call for impeachment then. And Bush wouldn't be able to win. You'd have one hell of a confused Supreme Court, too. Though it would take the spotlight off of this last week's grand bi-partisan failure of hundreds of thousands of people. Maybe he should try it.

    Country or county, it's still one person-one vote (not trying to open the door for an EC debate here, though). Each vote means something and Sowa has just completely betrayed his voters.

    Even if it's not a law that he should resign, it should be an ethical obligation.

  • David English (unverified)

    Being a former voter in Clackamas County, it doesn't surpise me much that Sowa would do such a thing. I think I voted for a third party candidate when I lived in Clackamas County.

    My take is, let it go. In the election next year, it will become an issue that will hurt him. It doesn't matter how long he's been an incumbent. The Democrats need someone strong to run against him though.

  • (Show?)

    I regret getting to the discussion late--it's a good one.

    I dissent with Kari here. In my view, politicians need to be given some latitutude to depart from party orthodoxy--even if it means leaving the party. Jack Roberts raises the question of Jim Jeffords, and I think it's an apt one. Jeffords felt--rightly, I expect most of us imagine--that the GOP had departed from its own positions. He felt that to be true to the will of his voters, he should abandon his party. I think we get worse leaders when we expect them to be too responsive to our (often ill-informed) opinions.

    Sowa is accountable to his constituents. When he runs again, they'll decide whether this decision represented good leadership in accord with their beliefs or was a foolish departure from their views.

  • ron ledbury (unverified)

    CALIFORNIA DEMOCRATIC PARTY V. JONES (99-401) 530 U.S. 567 (2000)

    See amicus too.

    So the Democrats can't strip Sowa of the right to represent the electorate, so what. That is a protection of the electorate's interest over that of a party; quite contrary to your claim to be advancing the cause of "the" electors. You have disregard the notion of protecting ALL the electors in favor of just one group of electors, those who blindly voted party-line for a faceless Democrat.

    "By changing parties, he's breaking faith with the voters who voted for him. He should resign immediately, and give them a chance to elect whomever they want. Including him, as a Republican."

    Don't be bashful. Just say that you disagree with the US Constitution's guarantee of a Republican form of government. (That does not mean the same thing as a guarantee for a party that pins the label Republican on their lapel.)

    For study just do a quick search on

    Italian Electoral System

    The Communists and the Fascists have been going at it for years (decades).

    I do believe that any proposal that you would offer must undergo at least as much scrutiny as that accorded to folks who would shave their heads as an act of party loyalty. (And yes, at least on a scale of sophistication of arguments you need to keep that in mind; unless you feel no embarrassment.)

    Go ahead and make your call for proportional representation, either pure or partial; for that is what your argument implies. But you will have to start by changing the federal constitution.

  • Brian Wagner (unverified)

    This is an absolutely fascinating discussion--it had to be, for me to wade through the backlog of comments. I'm going to say I strongly disagree with Kari, because I find myself, while still strongly liberal, caring less and less about being "Democratic" at this point in time when it seems rather unclear what that label means. I think we are seeing a lot of identity confusion in both parties right now, which makes it, in my mind, even less important now that someone remain true to party than in previous decades.

    That said, I'm reminded of something Mark Hatfield told me in an interview about 3-4 years ago. He said that he always thought politicians, after being elected by people who trusted them to do a good job, should never vote specifically on what polls said voters in their district wanted, as he never thought polls were a great representation of what was "best" for voters. There is a reason, he said, why we elect representatives; we expect them to know what is important and to judge what will best serve us, and in his opinion, he thought that meant following his conscience at times when he disagreed with local polls. What ultimately mattered, though, was that he would always go home and talk to any voter who wanted him to explain his votes, and if they didn't agree with him, they could vote against him in the next election.

    Today, as Andrei Cherny talked about in his book, the NeXt Deal, technology has convinced us we want things NOW, not later. Thus, we are impatient to get a man out of office the moment he disappoints us or unpleasantly surprises us. That is the only reason I can imagine for Kari's call for resignation; because I cannot think of any instance in my memory where a politician has been forced out of his job early just because he decided he no longer fit a certain party label. (feel free to correct me on this if you know of any, but it doesn't change my opinions)

  • (Show?)

    Brian... Good thoughts.

    One clarification: I'm not suggesting that we "force" Sowa out of his job. I'm suggesting, rather, that he voluntarily resign - out of respect for his constituents.

    Congressman Phil Gramm (D->R, TX), scuzzball that he was, did that one thing right - way back when.

  • ron ledbury (unverified)

    Voluntarily, out of respect for the Democrats? Hum? Sound's like he made his choice on that one. Given that choice, it would be lunacy for him to redeclare some pledge of loyalty and belief in the Democrats, by stepping down. The logic of your request is itself internally preposterous.

    Suppose that you built in a contingency to Democratic Party campaign funding that an elected official who later changes party, or votes contrary to the party line, must repay the entirety, or part, of their receipts. Put on your judicial thinking cap and tell me if it would be an enforceable contract.

    If you were a judge I suspect that your perception of "moral" obligation would easily transform into a finding of a legally binding contract condition. If you were a legislator yourself you would likely not find it objectionable to craft a statute to make such a contract condition, allowing the party to demand return of prior contributions, as valid, in the public interest. If I am wrong then set me straight.

    We already have one case on the books allowing one party (albeit the OEA party) to use campaign contributions as the measure of damages (in the OEA Sizemore case). The Democratic Party could say that they had been swindled under false pretenses, even if obtaining triple damages might be a tad bit harder.

    You are scary, even without a shaved head.

  • (Show?)

    Ron -- I love the one-inch-away misquote...

    No, I didn't say "out of respect for the Democrats". I said "out of respect for his constituents".

  • ron ledbury (unverified)

    His Republican constituents are not in anyway put off, are they? Thus it must only be the Democrats that have been slighted; and particularly those who gave donations.

    Demanding return of such donations would be a lesser intense breach of first amendment principals (in my opinion) than applying the speech costs of the OEA to advocate for a particular issue against Bill Sizemore. The OEA's costs for bringing an action itself are distinctly different than their costs for issue-speech on the merits of an issue campaign.

    This would be an easier case to obtain the return of the prior donations (as a measure of damages against Mr. Sowa) than from Bill Sizemore. If you were to hold back on such a demand based on some principal wouldn't that principal also apply to excluding the costs of OEA's speech against Bill Sizemore?

    The OEA could use any money collected to enhance their future speech and so too the Democrats could use any damage collections to enhance their future speech. Just isolate on the notion of taking money from the hands of one speaker and handing it to another speaker via the court system.

    You could use the Sizemore case as an example to say that it is not incompatible with the first amendment to demand return of donations. Unless, of course, you think that Bill Sizemore's first amendment rights (and by extension that of everyone else via the big chill) were violated.

    I would have excluded the speech costs of the OEA and so too prohibit the demand of return of donations to Sowa, but I can see that some judge might disagree with me. I had argued that in the Sizemore case the folks who had made donations direct to Bill should have been the ones to demand return, as they were the one's who's voice got smeared by the judicial determination of criminal conduct by Bill. Those speakers, via their contributions, who had paid him money could have used it instead via another avenue, free from the criminal taint. This would have isolated out their message from Bill. The Democratic message could be similarly split from Mr. Sowa by getting the money back and handing it to the next Democratic candidate.

    Isn't the choice not to demand the return of campaign dollars by the Democrats from Mr. Sowa the same as the choice of Bill's supporters not to demand return of their contributions? The only chill that remains is to speak words contrary to a big speaker with an opposite view. If you had sued Bill rather than the OEA then the damages might have been inconsequential. It is, in that sense, like . . . like the classic example of saying that forced sex upon a virgin is rape whereas forced sex upon a prostitute is not rape. We need to have uniform penalties for criminal conduct that does not vary based on the class of victim or enforcer, and certainly with regard to free speech issues too.

    Would you be willing to repudiate the validity of the award of damages upon Bill, for just being Bill, that reflect OEA's issue-only expenses? Suppose Bill's contributors had intervened to reclaim their donations. Thus placing their claim to the cash in Bill's hands directly against that of the OEA claims. Bill's supporters would have to rely on some theory for recovery other than merely pointing to a statutory provision, as the statutes point only to speech opposing the campaign that committed some campaign offense. Surely one plausible state interest in campaign finance laws is for the benefit of donors to assure them that the recipients don't abscond with the money or use it for unlawful purposes.

    Just go get his future speech money instead.

    <h2>(Surely some else could condense the above for easier reading.)</h2>

connect with blueoregon