A Step (or two) to the Right: Betsy Close appointed to Frank Morse's seat

Paul Evans

Ironically, the end result of Morse’s departure will likely be the exact opposite of what he probably hoped: an energized base (on both sides), an expensive – highly charged campaign, and the almost certain election of a state senator that will come to office with far less investment in working across party lines (regardless of who wins) than almost anywhere else in the state.

Most people – even those living in State Senate District 8 – may not yet know the scale, scope, and size of the decision made on their behalf this past week. Former State Representative Betsy Close, past candidate for Oregon Secretary of State and current candidate for Benton County Commissioner, is now State Senator Betsy Close.

This is news, really.

With the unexpected departure of Frank Morse, the Oregon Senate has taken a full step to the right of center. This mid-term appointment marks the return of a veteran of the hyper-partisan 1990s – and will be a factor in the 2013-2014 Legislative Sessions (provided she opts to keep her senate office and turn down a county position – should she win the election). Whatever the case, for the moment this is a stark change that warrants the attention of all/any that follow the Oregon Legislature.

Frank Morse was often called the “last of a breed.” He was so-labeled by a host of political groupies as the last of a soon-to-be extinct political species: the moderate Republican. Some people considered him to be the successor to the legacy of Hatfield and McCall; others regarded him as a Libertarian with a Republican Party registration.

In the end, Morse was less a moderate than a pragmatic public servant. Devout in his personal faith, he just did not appreciate a squishy line between the sacred and the secular, making a few publicized stands on behalf of personal liberties. Morse demonstrated a philosophy of government as neither inherently good nor bad, but rather a tool of the people. And he recognized the role of the private sector to earn profits while doing so in a responsible manner.

There was a time not all that long ago when Frank Morse would have been identified as a relatively conservative member of the Republican Party. However, those days appear to be long gone. The fierce Libertarian streak so palpable during the early days of Hatfield and McCall – has been replaced with a reactionary partisanship that has little in common with the past. History will record that Morse did not so much move to the middle, as his party moved to the right.

The untimely departure of Morse has left the chamber (and the Governor) with a two-fold challenge: the loss of a thoughtful Republican willing to cross party lines on certain and specific issues; and the addition of a true believer Republican that was never fond of bipartisanship. Or more accurately, the return of a veteran partisan that was trained to understand "bipartisanship" as instances of Democratic surrender (to Republican positions).

For good or ill, Senator Betsy Close will energize the 2014 campaign season. She is articulate, experienced, and unafraid to mix it up over so-called “values” issues. As a small city mayor during her last stint in the Legislature I remember her passion, tenacity and work ethic. After time spent away from the Capitol, it is a safe bet that she will fight even harder this time to remain in the fight.

With a background in education at the local level, it will be fascinating to watch her interactions with the new structures and systems in construction at the Oregon Department of Education. Note: the last time around people underestimated Betsy Close at their own peril. There is little reason to believe that she has lost skills, and at least a few indicators that she has learned a few new ones.

With the departure of Morse it is likely that Democratic State Representative Sara Gelser will jump into the race. Given the stakes, Gelser could potentially face a challenger as area Democrats sort out what to do. There are strong potential candidates in Benton County Commissioner Linda Modrell, Benton County Commissioner Annabelle Jaramillo, and former Oregon Senate Candidate Dan Rayfield (2010).

If Gelser seeks the senate her seat will become a pretty big deal. It will be hard for people to opt out of this extraordinary opportunity. Look for at least a few local personalities to enter the political fray. Though relatively unknown outside the area, there are several very talented potential candidates that will be compelled to at least consider the race.

And given the right circumstances, it is possible an open house seat could even attract newcomers to the district hoping to find a progressive seat from which to begin a political career. It is a “Portland” seat but outside Portland, and these are rare indeed. Few seats in Oregon can offer a would-be citizen-legislator with the same amount of room to grow.

What is pretty well established is this: Betsy Close will be the Republican Candidate for that office as long as she chooses. State Representative Andy Olson seems to be uninterested in the position and this is important because he is the only Republican in the region that could effectively challenge Senator Close in a contested primary.

Ironically, the end result of Morse’s departure will likely be the exact opposite of what he probably hoped: an energized base (on both sides), an expensive – highly charged campaign, and the almost certain election of a state senator that will come to office with far less investment in working across party lines (regardless of who wins) than almost anywhere else in the state.

The past is not prelude. There is a lifetime (or three) between now and the 2014 election. That said, Betsy Close is back - she will remake the role in her own mold - and it will be fun to watch.

One thing is certain: 2014 will not be boring for the folks living in Oregon Senate District 8.

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