Tuesday :: May 6, 2008

OR-Secretary of State: Meet Vicki Walker


by Turkana

(This is my personal opinion, and does not necessarily reflect that of TLC or TLC's other writers)

We tend to pay less attention to down-ballot state races, as if their only real importance lies in the creation of strong political benches, a sort of stockpiling of talent for the future. Even so, just reading the names Katherine Harris and Kenneth Blackwell reveals that we do actually understand that Secretary of State is among the most important political jobs in the country. From the opposite end of the spectrum, Californians proved it, yet again, when Debra Bowen was elected, last year. Now, it's Oregon's turn.

A few years ago, it came to the attention of some Portland activists that Portland General Electric (or PGE- and not to be confused with California's PG & E- Pacific Gas & Electric) had been charging rate-payers for its federal and state tax liabilities, even though it wasn't actually paying the taxes. The Public Utilities Commission had given PGE a waiver. So, PGE was using false pretenses to over-bill its customers. In the amount of $150,000,000 a year! The total came to over $1,000,000,000! These activists thought it might be a good thing to stop this outrageous practice; so, they approached a prominent state legislator with the idea of passing a law that would forbid it, and that would require utilities to refund to ratepayers the money they were charged for taxes that the utilities did not pay- plus interest. The legislator didn't want to do it. PGE is enormously wealthy and politically powerful. So powerful, in fact, that it had never suffered a legislative defeat! The activists approached a second legislator. A third. A fourth. A fifth. None had the political courage. The sixth legislator they approached was Vicki Walker, a state senator from a mostly rural Willamette Valley district that also includes Oregon's second largest city, the university town of Eugene. Walker said she'd do it.

Oregon's Democratic Governor, Ted Kulongoski, refused to take a stand on Walker's effort. Even he lacked the guts to confront PGE. But Walker ushered the legislation through both the Senate and the House, and Kulongoski signed it into law. It was one of those extremely rare examples of a government standing up to a powerful special interest, on behalf of the people. And it was the first time PGE had ever been defeated in Oregon's legislature! And Vicki Walker was singularly responsible for making it happen. And Oregon's utilities tried to make her pay for it. Eugene's popular mayor ran against her, in the next election. Eugene's mayoral candidates need not declare party affiliation, so until this mayor challenged Walker, many of his constituents probably didn't even know he was a Republican. So, he could run as a liberal Republican, a species with which Oregon actually has a long, and often happy, history. And needless to say, he was very well-funded. He was actually favored to win. And then they had their debate, and Walker was so much smarter, and so much better versed on the issues, that all the local media agreed she had soundly defeated him. And that turned the election, and led to her victory. Now, Oregon has the opportunity to bring her intelligence, integrity, and courage to state office.

The Oregon primary has several strong Democratic candidates, and one of Walker's main opponents is one of the state senators who refused to even co-sponsor Walker's bill that protected ratepayers from being bilked by the utilities. The choice could not be more clear. Walker has been endorsed by Portland's Pulitzer Prize-winning alternative newspaper, Willamette Week:

Either Brown or Metsger could be a fine secretary of state, although neither has advanced many specific ideas about how to make the office perform better. And neither possesses the fiery energy of Sen. Vicki Walker. The Eugene Democrat has produced a 16-page booklet of ideas about how to remake the office. That thoroughness is no surprise.

Since entering the Legislature in 1999, Walker, a mild-mannered court reporter by day, has been a whirling dervish of activity, much of it directed at annihilating the status quo. Walker crusaded against mismanagement at the publicly owned workers’ compensation insurer, SAIF Corp. In that battle, she did what was then unthinkable for a Democrat: blasting former Gov. Neil Goldschmidt, whom SAIF was then paying $40,000 to lobby the Legislature. (Walker later tipped WW to Goldschmidt’s sexual abuse of a 14-year-old girl in the 1970s, leading to an exposé, “The 30-Year Secret, WW, May 12, 2004).

But Walker has done far more than challenge Goldschmidt: Along with Metsger, she authored Senate Bill 408 in 2005, a bill that plugged a billion-dollar tax loophole for utilities. She passed a bill that ended golden parachutes for school administrators and another that prohibits the state from entering into secret settlement agreements. Under her guidance, the state’s 75 auditors would crank up government accountability, and the hucksters and fast-buck artists who make a living from the initiative system would face a very determined elections cop.

And by the Eugene Register-Guard:

During the 2007 legislative session Walker was chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, and can claim a share of the credit for Oregon’s progress toward restoring state funding for public schools. Through most of her legislative career, she has focused on narrower themes relating to consumer protection, workers’ rights and government accountability.

During her 10 years in Salem, Walker has not enlisted to march in anyone’s partisan army. Occasionally she proved her fearlessness, as when she opposed Neil Goldschmidt’s appointment to the state Board of Higher Education at a time when the former governor was still a Democratic kingpin. Walker would kiss no one’s ring — she objected to Goldschmidt’s embarrassingly lucrative lobbying work for the State Accident Insurance Fund, and later played a role in exposing his sexual abuse of a minor.

This independence would serve Walker well in statewide office. It’s likely that the next secretary of state will be given the task of redrawing legislative districts after the U.S. Census of 2010, a job that will require an immunity to the temptations of partisanship.

Walker has plans to improve the fairness of the initiative process, is eager to launch audits of state agencies, hopes to review the effectiveness of tax breaks and wants to increase the flow of revenues from state lands into the Common School Fund. In exercising each of the varied functions of the office, a willingness to buck powerful interests, including her party, would help Walker achieve her goals.

Vicki Walker is exactly the type of politician we all dream about having the chance to support. Now, we have that chance. Learn more about her here. And please donate! Mail-in ballots mean the vote has already begun!

(Full disclosure: one of the Portland activists who took up the cause against PGE is a member of my family)

Turkana :: 11:08 AM :: Comments (6) :: Digg It!