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Eugene Weekly : 09.21.06


Pro-Bush, anti-abortion Republican takes on state senator.

By Alan Pittman

The race between incumbent Democrat Vicki Walker and Republican challenger Jim Torrey for state Senate District 7 will be one of the fiercest fought in Oregon, political watchers predict.

Already Torrey, the former mayor of Eugene, has raised a war chest of more than $110,000, largely from his developer, logging and big business backers. Walker has reported raising $150,000, and is backed by labor and environmental groups.

Besides money, the biggest deciding issue in the race for the north Eugene seat could be political party. Running in a district with a substantial Democratic edge in party affiliation, Torrey portrays himself as nonpartisan, even though he's a staunch supporter of George Bush and an opponent of abortion rights.

Other big issues are the candidates' records, school finance and corporate welfare.



Torrey, a retired billboard advertising executive, reported $110,679 in contributions through June 14.

Eugene timber baron and land speculator Aaron Jones is Torrey's biggest backer with a $15,000 contribution. Jones is one of the state and national Republican Party's biggest money men, having given tens of thousands of dollars over the years. Jones has also given big money to anti-environmental causes. He gave about a third of the money, $243,000, that was used to pass Measure 37, which forces taxpayers to pay developers or waive regulations.

Other big Torrey donors include Associated Oregon Loggers ($10,000), Associated Oregon Industries ($8,600), the Oregon Republican Party ($5,000), Oregon Senate Republican leader and timber lobbyist Ted Ferrioli ($5,000) and Freres Lumber Company ($2,500). More big money comes in three $1,000 checks from local gravel pit companies.

Walker, a court stenographer, reported raising $149,774 for her re-election campaign. The Senate Democratic Leadership Fund gave Walker $22,207, the Oregon Trial Lawyers Association $17,350, the Oregon Education Association $16,284 and the Oregon Public Employees Union $14,473.

Both Torrey and Walker are expected to report much higher contributions in later filings, with some predicting record-breaking campaign spending.

Torrey was elected mayor with record-breaking contributions from development, land speculator, and anti-environmental special interests, many of whom are backing his current campaign. When he considered a write-in campaign for mayor in 2004 after the candidate he backed lost, Torrey said he could raise up to a quarter million dollars from his backers in 10 weeks.



Senate District 7, stretching north and west from 11th Avenue to include Bethel, River Road/Santa Clara, Junction City and Harrisburg, has a significant edge in Democratic voters.

With that demographic, Torrey isn't advertising his Republican party identification in his campaign materials.

"Unlike my opponent, I'm not afraid of my political party," Walker said at a recent candidate forum. "I'm in the Democratic Party because I support those core values."

At the forum, Torrey tried to distance himself from Republican Party platform positions against Head Start and preschool funding for children, and for eliminating the U.S. and Oregon Departments of Education.

But Torrey is a strong backer of President Bush, contributing $2,000 to his 2004 re-election campaign, the maximum donation allowed. Torrey praised Bush's recent State of the Union address and pledged support for Bush's Iraq War.

One of Torrey's many TV ads attacks Walker for excessive partisanship. The cartoon ad depicts Walker as a frowning frumpy woman stuck in a "partisan box," while Torrey, depicted as a smiling, slim young man with wavy hair, "leaves party politics at the door."



But as the controversial mayor of Eugene, Torrey was a fierce partisan in support of pro-development, anti-environmental interests.

Just before an election in 2000, Torrey was talking more about train wrecks than bridge building. Torrey lashed out on the front page of The Register-Guard at the possibility of a progressive majority on the City Council. He said he and other pro-developer councilors would clash with environmental councilors in a "train wreck" that would make it "practically impossible for any meaningful discussion."

As mayor Torrey used his tie-breaking vote to support gerrymandering council ward boundaries to give conservatives a majority and to prevent discussion of items of interest to the progressive council minority. When progressive councilors opposed Torrey's appointment to the Planning Commission of a gravel mining executive over a UO planning professor, Torrey lashed out again. That prompted council moderate David Kelly to caution the mayor not to engage in "character assassination," the R-G reported.

When a local developer secretly bankrolled "Gang of 9" attack ads against moderate and progressive councilors, Torrey went on local conservative talk radio to join the attacks.

Torrey had a consistent partisan conservative and pro-developer voting record on the council, according to an EW review of votes. In five years, Torrey broke tie council votes 13 times, always siding with big business and developers against the environment, livable planning and efforts to reform corporate welfare and increase government accountability.

The Oregon League of Conservation Voters (OLCV) has described Torrey's mayoral environmental record, which included strong support for destroying wetlands, as "dismal."

Walker criticized Torrey for opposing the city's Toxics Right To Know Law. "You stood with polluters," she said.

While serving largely to thwart progressive councilors, Torrey was faulted for showing little actual vision or leadership for the city. Torrey sat in his car and did not question the police pepper spraying and gassing of tree sitters on June 1, 1997. In the ensuing citizen uproar, he praised police for the attack on protesters, and opposed police accountability reform.

Some of that reform could have helped Eugene avoid the Roger Magaña/Juan Lara police sex abuse scandals, which occurred under Torrey's watch as mayor. A consultant who reviewed the scandal faulted city leadership for failing to oversee the police department. Torrey played a role by pushing to delay the appointment of a new permanent police chief for a year, according to city documents.

Torrey has tried to take credit for a number of city successes, including the new library, fire, parks and schools measures. But Torrey was not the leader and initiator of any of these campaigns, and they passed thanks to harder work done by many other councilors and citizens.

On his campaign website Torrey claims that while he was mayor, new employers were recruited "creating 8,300 new jobs." But the local jobless rate increased while Torrey was in office, not decreased. Torrey also opposed a living wage ordinance for local workers.



Vicki Walker has touted her Democratic affiliation, but she's perhaps best known as a party maverick.

Walker has been one of Democratic Gov. Ted Kulongoski's thorniest critics for the governor's failure to fund schools and health care. Walker publicly considered running against Kulongoski in the primary before deciding the Senate re-election fight was more important. In a move The Oregonian questioned as "political payback," Kulongoski's former chief of staff and re-election operative organized a Portland fundraiser of big business interests for Torrey.

Vicki Walker (far right) was joined by the state's leading Democrats, including Congressman Peter DeFazio, Gov. Ted Kulongoski and U.S. Sen. Ron Wydenin door-to-door canvassing last month.

In the state Legislature since 1998, Walker has earned a reputation as a crusader for consumer rights and against what she calls the "good ol' boy" network in state government. Walker, herself abused as a child, was the original source for Willamette Week's revelation that former Gov. Neil Goldschmidt, then one of the state's leading corporate lobbyists, sexually abused a 14-year-old girl. The story rocked the state's political establishment, including Goldschmidt's friend and political ally, Kulongoski.

Walker also rocked state politics by calling for, and getting some, reform of the state lottery, SAIF (state workers' compensation insurance), Portland General Electric, and the Oregon Investment Council. The R-G described her as a "blunt-talking politician who relishes taking on powerful institutions."

Walker is one of the more active members of the Legislature, crafting, backing and often passing dozens of bills on everything from crib safety to removing OHSU's immunity from malpractice lawsuits. She worked especially hard to ban the use of dangerous wired glass in schools.

But Walker has also appeared allied with big business at times. She backed Liberty Mutual's failed ballot measure to eliminate SAIF, the corporation's chief competitor for worker's compensation insurance. Almost all the state's newspapers opposed the measure. Walker recently praised SAIF for reforming its use of public money for lobbyists and for becoming more open and accountable.

Walker has perfect voting records with NARAL Pro-Choice Oregon and Planned Parenthood, but the Christian Coalition and the National Rifle Association gave her low ratings. Walker has received high ratings and endorsements from most of the state's largest labor unions and from the ACLU. But business interest lobbyists for AOI and developers have given her low ratings. The Oregon League of Conservation Voters gave Walker a 92 percent voting record.

Torrey doesn't have a legislative voting record with these groups and is more of a political blank slate, dodging position questions at his debate with Walker and refusing to answer a questionnaire from the non-partisan Project Vote Smart.



Both candidates have smothered themselves in children in campaign ads and claim to be the pro-kids and education candidate.

Walker has a record of fighting for more school funding in the Legislature, where she said Torrey's fellow Republicans have blocked many funding measures. She has been given top ratings from the state's leading groups pushing for better school funding — Oregon Stand for Children, the Oregon Education Association and Oregon Federation of Teachers.

Torrey has called for all-day kindergartens and yearly state standardized tests of children. But when asked at the forum how he will pay for that, he offers no new money. Torrey said he would "prioritize the money we currently have in the education budget" for his testing and kindergarten proposals, but hasn't said which existing education programs he would cut to fund his ideas.

One thing Torrey refused to cut to fund education is corporate tax breaks. As mayor of Eugene, Torrey was a leading advocate of tax breaks and taxpayer subsidies for Hynix and developers. Such enterprise zone tax breaks and subsidies through urban renewal have cost state school funding millions of dollars, critics charge. Torrey successfully backed additional tax breaks for Hynix, which received $50 million in tax breaks, even when the corporation was creating no new jobs.

Torrey's strong support for Hynix (then called Hyundai) stretches back to his first years in the mayor's office. In 1997, Citizens for Public Accountability accused Torrey of ethics and meetings law violations for voting for Hynix tax breaks and giveaways while profiting from a land sale near the corporation, and for meeting in secret with Hynix executives to discuss tax breaks. Torrey denied any wrongdoing, and a recall effort failed.

Walker said she has worked to increase the efficiency of educational spending and gave the example of her support of a bill to redirect more money from educational service districts into the classroom. She said she would also support repealing the corporate kicker tax break to increase school funding. "We give away a lot of money in tax breaks," she said.

If Torrey wins, many believe he will use the Senate seat as a stepping stone for higher office. He recently toured all 36 Oregon counties while considering a run for secretary of state or governor before instead choosing the Senate race.

The race appears up for grabs now. Walker has the advantage of more Democrats in the district, but north Eugene was a stronghold for Torrey when he was mayor and a north Eugene councilor. Walker has strong backing from unions, but Torrey has enjoyed the strong backing of The Register-Guard, which showered the pro-developer mayor with glowing coverage and endorsements for two terms.

But Torrey, first elected mayor when he outspent his challenger 5-1 with developer donations, has never faced a race as tough as this one. Walker has a reputation as a strong campaigner. In 2000 she faced another former Eugene mayor, Republican Jeff Miller, who had similar big backing from developer and timber interests and claims to non-partisanship. She beat him.  

The City Club of Eugene is hosting a debate between Walker and Torrey at 11:50 am on Friday, Sept. 29 at the Eugene Hilton.