BlueOregon Interview: Pete Sorenson

Jeff Alworth

[Editor's note: Today, BlueOregon debuts a new feature - the BlueOregon Interview. From time to time, we'll interview candidates and other influential or notable folks in Oregon. And now, without further ado...]

Peter Sorenson is a Democratic candidate for Governor.  Since 1997, he has served as a Lane County Commissioner in Eugene.  Before becoming a commissioner, he was a state senator from '93-'97 and was a member of the Lane Community College Board of Education ('83-'96).  He received his BA, MA, and Doctor of Jurisprudence at the University of Oregon. 

Q: What do you think are the three biggest challenges facing our state, and how would you address them?

Pete Sorenson: I think our state is facing many challenges but the first three are: 1) full funding for the needs of children and public education at all levels; 2) health care and particularly the high cost of health insurance; and 3) tax reform and the fact that the big corporations (those with 75 shareholders or more) are currently paying five per cent of the state income taxes and they aren't paying their fare share.

Pete_1 On the first point, and how I think we should solve this problem: we should fund Head Start (Governor Kulongoski proposed a major cut on Head Start) as Head Start is a tried and true way to help kids get ready to learn, and the investment we make into children at an early age helps them throughout their lives. We also need a massive infusion of money into public schools, community colleges and state universities.

On health care and health insurance, it's clear that the health insurance companies are part of the problem. Governor Kulongoski cut the Oregon Health Plan, a legacy of the prior Kitzhaber Administration (which I strongly supported as Assistant Democratic Leader in the Oregon State Senate). Thousands of people have been thrown off the Oregon Health Plan. To make matters worse, Oregon's businesses are facing massive increases in their health insurance premiums. I support legislation, such as that advocated by Montana's Governor, Brian Schweitzer, which provides state support for half of the cost of health insurance to small businesses. That costs money, but you can get that money with tax reform.

Finally, as a solution to tax reform, we know that Oregonians have voted in the past twenty years or so to reject retail sales taxes, reject two personal income tax surcharges, and they have voted three times to limit the amount of property taxes they pay. However, our tax system isn't fair and most people know or sense it. My solution, to fund schools and health care and other public services, is to rebalance the state income tax. In 1973 the largest corporations doing business in Oregon paid 18 per cent of the state income tax, the other 82 per cent was paid by wage earners and small business. This year, 2005, the largest corporations -- those with 75 shareholders or more -- are paying five per cent. If we had the same tax system now that we had in place in 1973, we'd have $1.8 billion more dollars. I believe that five per cent is too low, that our public investment needs are great, and that we should look to the major corporations doing business in our state for the tax revenue needed.

Q: The Democratic Party is at a crossroads, needing to set direction for the future of the party. Putting aside criticism of the GOP for a moment, what do you see as the big-picture vision that will set the party's direction in the coming years?

Pete Sorenson: As a state senator and as a county commissioner I have worked hard within the Democratic Party of Oregon. I see the Democratic Party, both nationally and statewide, at a unique point in history. We can devise an investment strategy to help those in need, those left behind in our current economic system, or we can pretend they don't exist. I am the only candidate running for Governor who supports the campaign finance reform measures: I see campaign finance reform, taking big special interest money out of politics, as key to an investment strategy. To solve problems as diverse as lack of opportunity in public education, lack of health care, lack of housing, and lack of economic opportunity, increased prudent and efficient public investment is needed.

Q: Oregon's tax structure is both unstable (relying too heavily on income taxes) and unfair (overall tax burden is essentially flat across incomes). What plan do you have to ensure funding for schools, police, social service, and infrastructure without unfairly burdening the poor and middle-class and further destabilizing revenue streams?

Pete Sorenson: I think we need to be serious about funding our schools and our health care system. To do that we need public money. Politicians of both parties often talk about these issues, but they don't say where the money will come from. The Governor has done nothing to solve the problem of revenue. He doesn't even talk about a timetable for solutions. The Republican candidates are split along the lines of "I'll cut more than you." I am the only candidate who is advancing a specific way to get additional revenue: increase the amount of money our state treasury gets from the wealthiest and largest corporations doing business in our state. We're dead last in corporate income taxes and that isn't fair.

Q: In 2005, Oregon corporations received a 36% tax cut in the corporate kicker. Do you agree with that policy and why or why not? [Source]

Pete Sorenson: I don't agree with the corporate kicker concept. I think it's a shame to lower the amount of money paid by the wealthiest while we have so little investment in children and public education and health care. Over 600,000 Oregonians have no health insurance, more than 100,000 of those are children.

Q: Oregonians consistently deride the polarization of politics and recall the golden era of the 1970s when Democrats and Republicans worked together to craft truly groundbreaking—and progressive--public policy. Leading Oregon to a better future means more than winning elections. Do you see a way to move toward a new golden age for Oregon?

Pete Sorenson: Yes, I do see an opportunity for the moderate Republicans and the Democrats to work together to bring about a better state. Obviously, we have to elect more moderate Republicans to the super majority Republican seats in the Oregon legislature while electing what I call "real Democrats" to the super majority Democratic seats. It is also crucial that the Democrats win the swing seats, by standing for peace, public investment, equal opportunity, tax reform, health care, public education, support for the working people, and the environment.

Q: A legislative majority is critical to the success of a governor's policy initiatives. What will you do, or have you already done, to help win majorities in the Oregon House and Senate?

Pete Sorenson: I have worked tirelessly for Democratic candidates for the Oregon legislature. I served as a state senator for four years and I worked as Assistant Democratic Leader, recruiting candidates and helping them. As an active Democrat--for example, as an elected delegate to the Democratic National Convention--I have door-belled in Cornelius, Newport, Junction City and in other swing areas for Democratic candidates. As Governor I would work actively to elect Democrats.

Q: Related to that, in order to form a stable governing coalition, the Democratic Party will have to bring together rural and urban Oregon and attract moderates and liberals. How will you accomplish that?

Pete Sorenson: I grew up in Coos County, Oregon and I don't think you can get much more "rural Oregon" than that. I worked for Congressman Jim Weaver (D-Oregon) and our then 4th congressional district stretched from the California border to Albany. I worked for Congressmen Weaver on the House Agriculture Committee and I worked for several years for the Secretary of Agriculture in the Carter Administration. So I've worked politically with rural voters and their issues.

As a Lane County Commissioner I work in a county with over 4,600 square miles, so I think I have a good handle on rural issues. We need to work for payment limitations on farm support, so that we strengthen small and midsize farmers. We need to stress support for housing, economic opportunity for small and micro business, and direct farmer to consumer marketing, farmers markets, sustainable energy development (solar, wind, wave) and not just give money to wealthy out-of-state investors. An example of this is that the Governor flew into Ontario and announced state economic development money would go to an ethanol plant, opposed by the local farmers. Giving money to wealthy out-of-state corporations characterizes Governor Kulongoski's rural development strategy. I've visited with people in Newport, Burns, Ontario, and Mollala and it's pretty well known in rural Oregon that the Republicans and Governor Kulongoski support out-of-state corporations and give them subsidies while local businesses get very little. We need to turn that around. Q: Finally, where can readers go to learn more about you, your background, your position on specific policy issues, and how they can get involved in your campaign?

Pete Sorenson: Thanks for asking how people can help the Pete Sorenson for Governor campaign. Our campaign phone is 541-302-5929. We are available on the web at and you can always email us at [email protected]. We are running a grassroots campaign. I've logged thousands of miles, with several volunteer drivers, since January 2005 and I would enjoy speaking at your group or your function. Individuals are more than welcome to give their help and ideas, too. Finally, we are largely supported by political donations from people taking advantage of their Oregon political income tax credit, so please send your contributions to Elect Sorenson, 804 Pearl Street, Eugene, Oregon 97401.

  • iggir (unverified)

    good interview, but, uhm:

    "what I call 'real Democrats'"

    what does this even mean?

  • (Show?)

    4 years ago, Bev Stein, who began with about the same name recognition as Pete but a larger, more public platform -- Multnomah County, as Chair -- ran the same kind of campaign Pete's running, and for much the same reasons. she spent 2 years going around the state, getting to know people in the different communities, surprising them that a liberal from Portland actually cared about what was going on in the hinterlands. she spent two years trying to mount an effective campaign based on much the same good ideas Pete represents.

    she got creamed. she never had a chance, not to raise the money nor the organized support that Kulongski and Jim Hill dominated. that her ideas were probably closer to the goals and beliefs of ordinary Oregonians than the two men who finished well ahead of her was irrelevant. in terms of campaign politics, she was doomed.

    Pete has no chance, either. his name recognition is not growing, and he's lagging far behind in fundraising (last i saw). however unhappy many are with the Gov, most Dems are unwilling to abandon an incumbent (cf: Gray Davis). we may look longingly at Kitz, we may wish Pete could break through, but barring some unforeseen disaster, Kulongski will win the nomination. and then we better be willing to put past disappointment with him aside and make damn sure he wins and not Sexton or Mannix. what good will it do us to take back the House and lose the governship? we're right back into deadlock.

    i hope Pete runs a strong race and is able to promote his ideas; i hope his campaign pushes Ted to see the need to be more bold and progressive. but the hard fact is that incumbents don't lose unless scandal is involved. let's re-elect the Gov, provide him with a Legislature that's not hamstrung by Queen Minnis, and then force him to lead as a "real" Democrat, whatever the hell that is.

  • close to being Independent (unverified)

    Some quotes concern me as vague:

    We need to stress support for housing, economic opportunity for small and micro business, and direct farmer to consumer marketing, farmers markets, sustainable energy development (solar, wind, wave) and not just give money to wealthy out-of-state investors.

    OK, that is a vision statement, but the other side of the equation is "exactly how do you propose to achieve your vision--what specific steps?"

    I am the only candidate running for Governor who supports the campaign finance reform measures

    It is possible to support the concept of campaign finance reform in the abstract, to be glad that the topic was discussed in detail at the recent Legislative Commission meeting, and to question, for instance, the Lonsdale measure which some of us have discussed via email and question how the measure is worded. If we ever get to a place where someone of the Democratic persuasion says "if you support campaign finance reform, you support this measure as written" how is that any different than Minnis saying that those who support better school funding support her proposal to take 51% of the personal income taxes but no one has the right to question the details? Robust debate (which this state needs) DOES involve questioning wording and details!

    Obviously, we have to elect more moderate Republicans to the super majority Republican seats in the Oregon legislature while electing what I call "real Democrats" to the super majority Democratic seats

    As mentioned above, define "real Democrats". Does that mean people who agree with Sorenson, with Edmunson and Pender, with Merkley and Brown, or with Howard Dean?

    I am one of 19 State Central Comm. members from the mid 1980s who were told we were "not real Democrats" because of our stand on a ballot measure and on a state party resolution which won by about 6 votes. At other times, the phrase has been used to describe people supporting one primary candidate as "better Democrats" than those supporting the opposition. I fail to see how such infighting elects more Democrats to public office.

    Successful candidates create enthusiasm within the electorate, not just go around preaching what we need to stand for.

  • David English (unverified)

    Just a side note: I've been working on Wikipedia and noticed someone added a very minimal article about Pete Sorenson. I went and added to it and tried to find as much information on his as I could. This is not because I support or endorse him, but I like to write articles about politics.

    I'm hoping to write articles on as many of the 2006 Gubernatorial candidates as I can. In fact, there is an article specifically about the upcoming Gubernatorial election as well. I won't post the link (unless Kari says it's ok), but you can search for the site and enter his name. It's easy enough to find.

  • (Show?)

    post the link! -- sheesh. This is your site, not mine.

  • David English (unverified)

    Here are the links:

    Pete Sorenson article:

    2006 Oregon Gubernatorial Election

    If you look at the last article, you'll see a link to the article about Kevin Mannix which I rewrote.

  • iggir (unverified)

    hey Sorenson, where are you (and the answer to my question)? you've got to have some cajones if you want to be recognized by Blue Oregons man...

  • iggir (unverified)

    ugh, that was poorly worded (i meant "Oregonians")...that's probably why i should never run for office.

  • Tito (unverified)

    Hey Sore-Peter! 1) full funding education? Suppose all of your money fell out of a hole in your pocket. Would you put more money in your pocket, or sew the hole shut? PERS is a hole in the educational pocket, it will always be empty no matter how much money you feed it. 2) health care insurance? Frivolous lawsuits, jack-pot justice, uncapped settlements, unionized workers, illegal aliens, research institutions... Where are you going to lower the cost of healthcare? Giving unlimited coverage to everyone is not a solution. Paying for it with taxes doesn't lower the cost. Fix any of these problems and you will reduce the cost of healthcare. 3) tax reform? Tax corporations at 99%!!! Who cares?!?! They aren't staying in Oregon anyways. Businesses can see that they are not welcome. Try a flat tax of 15% for every man, woman, child, and business. No exemptions... no tax credits... no corporate loopholes... no abatements... no social-engineering... just a flat 15% tax on all income! You don't want tax reform. You want income redistribution.

  • Jeff Bull (unverified)

    I've got to come in on this somewhere between T. A. Barnhart and, surprisingly, Tito. There's also something up on my own site on this, but I think that my thinking on this has benefited from some thinking. For starters, I think Tito gets at the reasons why Sorensen's got an uphill climb at the least; agree with his points or not, I think he's speaking for a good chunk of the state. The point he makes about healthcare adds up: healthcare is a mess and chucking more cash at it isn't the solution - there's truth to that, even if tort reform doesn't and all that crap about protecting the AMA's turf doesn't add up. The same rough problem applies to education; more money just masks the problems.

    Anyway, as for Barnhart, I think he's got a pretty realistic bead on this. But even if Sorensen's name recognition bumps up and even if he somehow made a run in the primaries, he'd get slaughtered in the general. Oregon just isn't that blue. And I think that's a good caution to the person up there talking about Sorensen's cajones. He can speak from the heart all he wants, but it won't mean much if he's not selling what folks want to buy...frankly, I think he's doomed on that score.

  • LT (unverified)

    He can speak from the heart all he wants, but it won't mean much if he's not selling what folks want to buy.

    EXACTLY! Many long years ago, someone I helped get elected to the legislature who went on to a long political career made the statement "Politics is like sales". Truer words will never spoken.

    People shopping for a laptop computer won't buy a large desktop model. People shopping for a Mac are not likely to buy a PC.

    Someone looking for fuel effeciency is not likely to buy a gas hog SUV.

    Someone looking for a vacuum cleaner with replacable bags is not going to buy a bagless vacuum (I know, I used to sell vacuum cleaners).

    It is noble to say "This is what I believe and I hope you will vote for me".

    But voters retain the right to decide for themselves what they believe and who they will vote for.

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    But even if Sorensen's name recognition bumps up and even if he somehow made a run in the primaries, he'd get slaughtered in the general. Oregon just isn't that blue.

    This is a sad--and I believe misguided--commentary on the state of the left in America today. Pete's not a socialist; he's not suggesting anything particularly radical. But he's also not speaking with the mealy tongue of a candidate scared of offending the great neoconservative horde. He suggests tax reform, full funding for schools, and medical coverage for the poor. That these suggestions are regarded--by liberals on a liberal blog!--as radically unelectable is depressing beyond measure.

    I say ignore the polls and try on his candidacy for size. If those are the policies you back, at some point you've got to stand up for the guy willing to support them.

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)

    Most Democratic candidates sound good when speaking on the issues. Some even behave when elected in a manner consistent with what they said while campaigning. It's difficult to know before the election which candidates will follow through.

    It is possible, though, to gauge a candidate by watching and listening, preferably in person. My admittedly subjective judgment of Sorenson is that he is caring, competent, intelligent, and genuine. That doesn't always translate into electoral success, but it should.

  • iggir (unverified)

    health care and school funding! you're nothing but a rabid socialist Alworth! first comes public school funding and then the comes the Stalinist gulags!

    wait a sec, we already have gulags in Eastern Europe for terrorists...where the f**ck is our health care!

  • (Show?)

    Oh come on. When you get all overheated like that, you destroy your credibility. If anything, I'm a moderate socialist. Rabid--pah!

  • LT (unverified)

    He suggests tax reform, full funding for schools, and medical coverage for the poor. That these suggestions are regarded--by liberals on a liberal blog!--as radically unelectable is depressing beyond measure.

    It is not the platform that is unelectable. It is the "this is what I stand for, that is all you need to know, talking about the concrete steps to get there is not needed" attitude that is the problem.

    How does Sorenson intend full funding for schools? Did he ask Senators of his own party why they allowed SB 382 to languish in Senate Revenue for the entire 2005 session? That was a bipartisan, bicameral bill which had been worked on during the interim if not earlier. Does he know about the other proposals which floated around? How would he get his proposal through unless he had 16 Senators, 31 House members, and a commitment to debate the issue publicly?

    How would he fund medical care for the poor? Has he been talking about how to fund the Oregon Health Plan?

    This is not about ideology, it is about getting things done. Many of us are tired of the "we have a great idea, therefore it will work" attitude from politicians of all persuasions.

    <h2>If being a "liberal" means certain proposals are all anyone needs--and the steps to solve the problem don't matter--then count me out.</h2>

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