Ben Westlund: Welcome to the Party

It's official. From today's Bend Bulletin (not available online):

Independent Westlund switches to Democrat

SALEM - State Sen. Ben Westlund, the Central Oregon legislator who left the Republican Party in February and flirted with an independent campaign for governor, will officially join the Democratic Party today.

The switch in allegiance was sparked by a realization that his politics mesh more with Democrats than Republicans, Westlund said in an interview Monday.

"During the campaign it became very clear to me that I shared many more of the Democratic Party's values than the Republicans," he said.

Among those: He supports universal health care, civil unions for same-sex couples and a fiscal reform package that includes a sales tax along with reductions in income and property taxes.

Westlund, I-Tumalo, said he has been mulling an affiliation change for weeks but made his decision after re-reading the platforms of both parties this weekend.

Neither Republican nor Democrat figureheads in Central Oregon expressed surprise with Westlund's political evolution, pointing to the senator's work this fall to defeat two tax-cutting initiatives and his endorsement of Gov. Ted Kulongoski, a Democrat.

And some speculated that Westlund, 57, may be setting the stage for another bid for higher office, either for a statewide post such as treasurer or possibly to challenge U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., in 2008.

"There are all sorts of rumors going around,," said state Rep. Gene Whisnant, R-Sunriver. "I didn't think he would do this and I'm obviously disappointed, and I think the people of Senate District 27 elected him as a Republican and they are going to be disappointed, too."

With the shift, Westlund will become the only Democratic legislator on the east side of the Cascades.

In a written statement, U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, R-Ore., welcomed Westlund to the Demo-cratic Party.

"For too long, Oregon Democrats have been denied the ideas and sensibilities of the dry part of the state," Wyden said. "From small business issues to rural health care and natural resources, I know you're going to bring a fresh perspective to Democrats on a host of critical issues."

Westlund, an agribusinessman who made a small fortune selling bull semen, was first elected to the Oregon House in 1996. He was the powerful House budget chief in the 2001 session, but he was viewed with suspicion by some Republicans - who gave him the tag of "Republican in Name Only," or RINO.

He won appointment to the Senate in 2003, when he was tapped by Republicans to succeed former Sen. Bev Clarno, R-Redmond. Clarno resigned to take an appointment in the Bush administration.

He was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2003, but underwent aggressive chemotherapy and has received a clean bill of health.

He was elected to his Senate seat in 2004.

Steve Doell, the director of Crime Victims United of Oregon, who helped Westlund win his 2003 Senate appointment, said Monday that "deep down I always felt Ben was basically a liberal."

Still, he expects Westlund will continue to support principles such as gun rights.

"I'm disappointed but I hate to be partisan about crime because it shouldn't be a partisan issue," he said. "Ben was a man without a country and he wants to be player, and needs to be in a caucus to do that."

State Rep. Chuck Burley, R-Bend, said he does not anticipate Westlund's work ethic or priorities will change.

"My observation of Ben is that he works as hard as he can for his district and it's regardless of the (political) letter," Burley said.

"We are going to work together and do the best we can in the next session coming up."

Central Oregon Democrats - whose members have been unable to win election at the polls - welcomed the news Monday.

"I have a lot of respect for Ben and the way he tried to work hard within his party to try and moderate some of the extreme elements," said Judy Stiegler, who narrowly lost to Burley in 2004.

"I see Ben as an Oregon Republican of the Tom McCall and Mark Hatfield era - that's the Republican Party I grew up with and the party moved a long way from that."

Phil Philiben, chairman of the Deschutes County Democrats, said Westlund's switch will help Central Oregon now that the statehouse is in Democrat control.

"It's to all of our advantage to have Ben as a Democrat," he said.

Westlund was the subject of recall rumors in 2005 among Republicans because of his support for civil unions and tax increases.

Deschutes County Commissioner Dennis Luke, a Republican and former legislator, said Westlund probably needed to make a switch to have any shot at getting re-elected in 2008, when his current term ends.

"He needs to do what he needs to do," he said.

Luke said Westlund faced the reality that it would be "difficult but not impossible" to win re-election as an independent. "He may have a chance running as a Democrat," he said.

Westlund disagreed that the shift is about winning re-election. He won election in 2004 with 82 percent of the vote, although he wasn't challenged by a Democrat in that race.

"I think most people voted for me because of who I am and how I represent the district, not because of party affiliation," he said.

Lee Smith, the chairman of the county's Republicans, said a Westlund switch was widely anticipated and the party is discussing who to recruit to challenge him.

But until then, Westlund is the county's representative in the Senate, and Lee expects to work with him to advance the region's interests in Salem, he said.

Despite gathering the necessary signatures this summer, Westlund opted to not file for governor as an independent, saying he would be a spoiler. He was also in debt, and his campaign remains $182,640 in the red, according to filings this month.

Westlund's withdrawal is widely credited with helping Kulongoski win re-election.

After dropping his independent bid, Westlund worked to defeat measures 41 and 48 - and both lost. He also endorsed Kulongoski in the waning days of the campaign.

On Monday, Westlund said there was no deal cut with Senate leaders to get a committee chairmanship, and he also downplayed any speculation that he is planning for a statewide campaign.

"Some people mentioned that to me as a possibility and I'm flattered, but I really haven't given it any thought and it certainly is not part or parcel to this decision," he said.

"Right now, it's time for the campaigning to stop. It's time to get in session and do the fun part of this avocation, which is solving real problems for real Oregonians."

Wow. Discuss.

  • (Show?)

    Here's the statement from Ben Westlund:

    In every political decision I have made, I have followed my heart. I knew in my heart when I left the Republican Party last February that they were taking us in the wrong direction, both in the state and nationally. The November election confirmed that belief as Oregonians and Americans also rejected their brand of leadership. These last 10 months as an Independent have been exhilarating, yet somewhat lonely. But I don’t think I am alone when I say that the election was more a rejection of Republicans than an affirmation of Democrats. The people have sent the message that they are ready for a new direction and the Democrats have been given an opportunity to make progress on the big issues that will move our state and nation forward. As I said when I entered the race for Governor, it’s time for us to solve real problems for real Oregonians. I promised then I would work to reduce the cost of health care and cover everyone, to make our tax structure more stable and fair, to create renewable energy jobs and reduce our dependency on foreign oil. After leaving the race for Governor, I was moved to support Governor Kulongoski’s re-election because I felt his platform was closest to my own and his vision was best for Oregon. Since the election I have been inspired by the message sent by the people and I think Democrats value the help of Independents to get us back on track. I have said that being an Independent doesn’t mean standing alone, it means choosing who you stand with. This past month, I have found myself rooting for the Democrats’ success on healthcare, on education funding, on expanding renewable energy. And I think it’s time I get off the sidelines and stand with them. As I said, I follow my heart when it comes to these decisions and my heart is a Democrat. But, my spirit will always remain Independent and I think the Democrats will be ok with that because as Will Rogers said, “I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.”
  • THE WOLFE (unverified)

    Senator Westlund,

    Welcome to the party!

    P.S. It's B.Y.O.B.

  • JB Eads (unverified)

    P.S. It's B.Y.O.B. Bring your own biofuels?

    Senator Westlund will be a great addition to the party of quality schools, energy independence, and health security. The work Ben did against ballot measures 41 and 48 helped keep our state off a terribly damaging course, and with this decision, we'll have a stronger party with a greater diversity of voices at the table.

    Welcome, Ben!

  • (Show?)

    Is the ghost of Tom McCall or Wayne Morse in the house?

  • (Show?)

    Interesting. I still think the notion of a regressive tax like a sales tax is really bad policy, but glad that Westlund sees the values of the Democratic party are core values which at one time were also held by the moderate GOP of yore, equality under the law, fiscal responsibility, and the value to business and the market of universal health coverage. As a fellow former GOPer (moved away from the GOP back with the rise of the theocratic whack-a-doodles where on the march, finally making the switch when Bush I was in office) ...welcome to the party.

  • Dave Porter (unverified)

    Welcome Senator Westland,

    Before I get too excited about your possible run for higher office, let me point out an issue, China, that you may have overlooked and which will determine my vote. Tom Friedman thinks issues relating to China will divide Democrats national, generally protectionist vs free-traders. I think China is an important state level issue that could provide some common ground. It is at the state level through our educational system that we can engage China contructively and peacefully. We can teach more of our students Mandarin and send them to China to study. We do very little of this now. We need to do much, much more.

    While engaging China contructively is important for our economic and national security futures. Working to avoid war with China is the most significant. All the progress we could make on education, energy, the environment and health care would be lost if we go to war with China. To avoid war with China, we in Oregon need to educate a generation of students who know China well. There will be many China scare stories (like the Iraq weapons of mass destruction stories) put out by China hawks (those who see China as our enemy) so we need many adults who know China well enough to spot the real threat from all the phony threats.

    For a current China scare story example, Jeb Babbin, author of Showdown: Why China Wants War with the U.S., in a Human Events interview says “China—as we illustrate in the last fictional scenario in “Showdown”—is rapidly building the most advanced offensive computer war capability in the world. If they decided to use it, they could—unless we counter it with our own massive buildup of defensive and offensive cyberwar capability—conquer America without firing a shot. They could do everything from disabling satellite networks to taking down the stock market and banking networks. America could be reduced to a 1940s existence in a matter of minutes. I don’t believe they have the ability to do this yet, but they will very soon.”

    This is a comment from someone on the conservative right. The conservative right has been preoccupied with the Middle East, but when events calm down there, more on the conservative right and other China hawks will return to China as enemy number one. There will be many more such threats. How can we counter the anxieties they can raise about China? I think we have a profound responsibility to raise a generation with the skills and knowledge to both deal with China and to deal with those who would inflate China’s threat. It is the big issue of the 21st century. We need to give many more of our students the skill of speaking Mandarin and the knowledge that come from having spent time in China. They need to be able to distinguish a phony threat from a real threat.

    I'll look for action on this should you run for higher office. Good luck!!

  • Anon (unverified)

    I agree: we need to avoid war with China.

    As I understand it, their soldiers have unreal sword-fighting skills and are able to pretty much fly around in the air of their own free will.

    (And thusly, the comments were drawn off topic...)

  • TomCat (unverified)

    I visited Ben's website,read his literature, and flirted with the idea of voting for him for Governor. I opted not to do so, because I decided a vote against Ted was a vote for the GOP. Welcome Ben!!

  • fournier (unverified)

    now let's see if he repudiates his past relationship with Oregon Forced Pregnancies (aka Oregon Right to Life). while i'm all for a "big tent" party, he's got a ways to go on abortion access, before i'm willing to embrace him as "true" Democrat.

    i would also like to see him rethink his support for a sales tax, in favor of (maybe) a luxury tax.

    the bump to the Senate numbers is nice though.

  • Gabe (unverified)

    Can we now see Ben for what he really is ? He is simply a political hack. Oh and by the way, to set the record straight "his small fortune" did not come from selling bull semen, it came from Mommy and Daddy via inheritance. Nothing wrong with it, but lets get the facts straight

  • (Show?)

    There are plenty of Democrats who are pro-life. While it may not be the majority of Democrats, there are a good number of them. And while I may disagree with them on that issue, I still see them as being Democrats. There are a number of people who left the Republican Party who would be willing to become Democrats, except too many in our party chase them off because they are pro-life.

    I do hope, though, that as an elected official that Westlund will do more to protect a woman's right to choose. It is a right given to us by the Supreme Court (a ruling, by the way, which stated a woman had rights outside of those of her husband), and it is slowly being eroded.

    I liked Westlund when I met him last January at the bus conference. I'm glad to see he's come over to our party. I just couldn't see from the issues he spoke on how he could be a Republican.

  • LT (unverified)

    Fournier, have you read SB 382 from the 2005 session? Not the fault of the sponsors that there was so little public discussion of that bill.

    We need more independent thinkers like Ben in politics who are willing to carry on conversations with ordinary folks and who are not easy to label.

  • Aaron (unverified)

    Oh my oh my....this session will be quiet interesting and 2008 cycle is going to have some serious fireworks.

    Senator Westlund get to work on what you ran for the Governorship.

  • anonymous tipster (unverified)

    hey, before you make the BYOB comments, please note that Ben Westlund is an absolute tea-totaller for health reasons after recoving from cancer. I am sure you meant no offense, but you should be aware of things like this so you don't accidentally say something that is hurtful.

  • LT (unverified)

    Anon. tipster: Thanks for the concern, but as someone who has always noted the quality of a party by the quality of the nonalcoholic beverages (do they just have water and coffee, or something else available?), I have long regarded BYOB as Bring Your Own Beverage.

  • A political opportunist by any other name (unverified)

    Ben realized his political star would shine brighter as a Democrat in the deep blue of spaced out Oregon. And this proves he is a man of deep conviction?

    As Ricky Ricardo might say, "You have some 'splaining to do, Bennie"

  • Garrett (unverified)

    Welcome Ben!!!

    Good on you.

    Now lets show Ben we're not a bunch of thumb sucking pansies now that we've won and get to work on 2008.

  • (Show?)

    Dave Porter: If you'd like to submit a guest column on China, go right ahead. Until then, give it a rest for a while. BlueOregon's comment threads aren't the venue for riding your personal hobby-horse.

  • (Show?)

    Two errors to clarify: 1) Ben did make his own money, first with a kitty litter business, Kitty Diggins, right out of college that they soon sold to a bigger company. Later, he started an international bovine genetics company- the famous sperm.
    2) Ben got sober was before cancer, about 20 years before. But he doesn't mind BYOB - he drinks Shirley Temples ;~)

  • fournier (unverified)


    i'm more than happy to chase any "pro-life" Democrats "out" of the party. My idea of the "D tent" isn't that big. i've written about it ad nauseum on my own blog, feel free to look it up.


    i wasn't impressed with SB 382. Too many loopholes in it.

    What i'm more concerned with were HB 2020, the so-called “Unborn Victims of Violence” bill, HB 2532 – the “Women’s Right to Know” bill, and HB 2605 – “Parental Notice.” All of which Westlund co-sponsored and were pushed by Oregon RFP (RTL). He publicly cuts all ties with that organization and apologizes for sponsoring those bills, and i'll grow towards trusting his "conversion."

    until then, Ben's switch seems more like political opportunism at its (almost) worst. (See Gordon Smith for a worse example. Lucky Ben.)

  • LT (unverified)

    fournier, your comment seems to imply you aren't glad Bob Casey defeated Santorum, you weren't sorry Chuck Lee lost to Kim Thatcher, and years ago you wouldn't have supported Sen. Dukes.

    I'm for a party where people of all beliefs can feel comfortable rather than having to swear allegiance to rigid ideology. If we all have to sign up to support the exact wording of the platform of Team R or Team D, why not register Indep.?

  • Realist (unverified)

    Behold the Amazing Armchair Activist.

    "Too many loopholes," eh? Not so much loopholes as incentives to actually get people on board the bill who are going to have to be aboard if it's to pass. Is it easy to toss zingers when coming up with your Online Fantasy Legislation Team? Meanwhile, SB 382 was actually viable, because it wasn't one-sided.

    And get real on choice -- What "ties" do you think Westlund has to RTL? This is the same guy that sponsored Plan B access and contraception parity in health insurance, not to mention garnered 100% ratings from Planned Parenthood and NARAL both.

    Plenty of Democratic leaders have apparently welcomed Westlund into the party with open arms and are ready to start work on the big issues like universal health care. Westlund and the rest of the Democrats will have my full support.

  • fournier (unverified)


    your comment seems to imply you aren't glad Bob Casey defeated Santorum, you weren't sorry Chuck Lee lost to Kim Thatcher, and years ago you wouldn't have supported Sen. Dukes. I'm for a party where people of all beliefs can feel comfortable rather than having to swear allegiance to rigid ideology. If we all have to sign up to support the exact wording of the platform of Team R or Team D, why not register Indep.?

    i'm actually quite ambivilent about Casey's defeat of Santorum. If the Dems have to sell out any group to win (in this case, women), then i'm not going to be particularly excited about their victory. sure it helps in terms of the raw numbers and the

    power of the party, but if that party has moved so far away from the values that i hold, then i'm not going to be celebrating. It's not so bad as the wolf/fox comparison, on most issues, but the analogy seems to fit a lot of the time. This post, and the ones it links to, does a pretty good job of explaining some of my discomfort with the selling out of abortion rights by the Dems.

    FYI, i registered D (from Green) so that i could work for candidates (and vote for them in the primary) that i do support ideologically and try and move the party (kicking and screaming if necessary), back to the "left" and away from this mysterious "center" that seems so appealing. Nancy Pelosi, only recently selected as Speaker, is already doing this dance. Call me naive, but i think one should govern as the candidate that one ran as.


    Look up those bills that i mentioned in my comment. They were backed by OFP and co-sponsored by Westlund. Those PP and NARAL "100%" ratings are BS since the really important bills, the ones that Westlund co-sponsored, never came up for votes. Ratings from groups like PP and NARAL are based off of votes cast, not bills sponsored. The ratings would be quite different if the bills hadn't been (thankfully) killed in committee. PP and NARAL both endorsed The Kulo, btw, while Westlund was still in the running for the Governorship. Westlund supported parental notification for minors, while most Oregonians voted against it (in theory, as well as particular pieces of legislation).

    Btw, universal healthcare can't be accomplished on the state level. Not in any meaningful way, anyway. Last i looked, Westlund was a Senator from Bend, and not a Senator in the US Senate. i don't think he's going to have much of an impact on that particular issue. Westlund can go back to being an R for all i care. The D's have a majority and i'm guessing that he'd like to get some legislation passed, and being in the majority party makes it a hell of a lot easier to do that, regardless of your position on various issues.

  • cAptaiN dANDY (unverified)

    Hopefully Ben will bring some courage (to do and say the right things in the face of ridicule and/or scorn), some muscle (strong enough to take it on the chin when called for), and some integrity (to bring this party back to its' roots of making sure ALL citizens are heard and cared for).

  • Realist (unverified)

    Thinking that these healthcare issues are seeking federal solutions (and ignoring the groundbreaking progress Oregon has made with federal waivers) highlights a cursory and talking-point-level understanding of the issue.

    And yes, PP and NARAL only score bills that come up for a vote. So do all the scorecards, like OLCV. But I didn't see enviros rushing to Westlund's defense during his campaign, pointing out that he sponsored bills such as an auto emissions standards precursor in 2003 that never came up for a vote.

    Are you also going to give Westlund credit for the good bills that he sponsored and never came to a vote?

  • (Show?)

    LT - you might want to have a look at this piece that I posted to my blog last night regarding the 2006 election and what it means for progressives. About half way down (after the post-mortem on my own campaign), I post a wonderful analysis by George Lakoff on what the midterms mean for progressives.

  • Jeff (unverified)
    <h2>Let's hope that Westlund wasn't under the influence of nasty opinion-altering cold medications when he issued notice of his change in affiliation (or ones similar that caused him to make such a strong statement of support for the discriminatory Constitutional Amendment 36 back in '04 -- ). Perhaps we should take his recent decision with a grain of salt -- it is flu season, after all.</h2>
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