This piece is adapted from articles published by The Baker City Herald and the Elkhorn Media Group that appeared online and/or in print on 29 and 30 June 2021, under the by-lines of Jayson Jacoby and Shannon McKone, respectively
You have to go back nearly 70 years to find the last person from east of the Cascades to occupy the governor's office. The sudden death of Governor Paul Patterson in January 1956, catapulted Senate President Elmo Smith from Ontario to fulfill the first half of the late governor's term. He narrowly lost the special election held that November to determine who would complete the term. Baker City Mayor Kerry McQuisten aims to rectify that slight and restore both political and regional balance to the Capitol.
The political imbalance, while just over half as long, looks ripe for change. Since 1987, when Gov. Vic Atiyeh left the office after two terms, Democrats, despite obvious corruption and blatant mishandling of the office by more than one, have tightly held on to the reins of power. This dominance partly stems from a nearly 300,000 registered voter advantage — centered primarily in Portland and Eugene — enjoyed by Democrats. But the rising tide of non-affiliated voters reveals cracks. Democrats, too, are shedding voters.
While Republicans obviously resist Democrat dominance, McQuisten sees dissatisfaction with Gov. Brown's executive orders that imposed some of the most stringent restrictions on businesses of any state during the declared emergency spreading even to stalwart Democrats. "Change is in the air," she said. "After the past two years, if voters in Oregon aren't willing to make big changes, they probably never will." In conversations she's had over the past few months with residents across the state, she sees indications of a shift that give Republicans a unique opportunity in 2022. "Some have told me they voted for Kate Brown but would never do so again," she said.
Yet McQuisten, a seventh-generation Baker County resident who was raised on a cattle ranch in the Burnt River area near Bridgeport in the southern portion of the county, recognizes how daunting the challenge is. Her political résumé is as short as it is long. Her mother, Suzan Ellis Jones, has chaired the Baker County Republican Party for several years and Kerry, naturally a life-long Republican, became a precinct committee person (PCP) almost as soon as she turned 18; still the county GOP record for youngest PCP, as she related to the September meeting of the Marion County GOP Central Committee. But, she said, "A year ago I had no interest in running for any political office."
Small wonder. Her life was wrapped up in her successful publishing business. She was named "Entrepreneur of the Year" by the NE Oregon Economic Development District (NEOEDD). To set up shop in the town of her upbringing, she left behind a career that had taken her literally around the world. "I was a Corporate Executive in the architecture, engineering and construction business for quite some time up in Seattle area. I was handling Business Development, Communications, Public Relations and Marketing." She even lived overseas on assignments in Spain and Japan.
Then, concerned about increasing crime in the city and how the city was pursuing economic development, she joined the contest for an open seat on the Baker City city council with twelve others last year. She received the most votes. Upon being sworn into office at the first council meeting in January, the first action of the council was to elect her Mayor.
But Governor? Really? Aside from the presence of others with experience as mayor seeking higher office this cycle, Kerry defends her run by pointing to the overwhelming outpouring of support for Resolution 3881, adopted by the Baker City council in March. When then-Portland-based writer Jeff Reynolds wrote a piece for the online magazine PJ Media in April, the dam burst. Interest in the resolution became "nonstop" after that, she said, to the point that City Hall staff had to silence the phones and direct all calls to voice mail in order to get anything done for city residents.
She was interviewed on Fox News' Primetime news program on 3 May and elected officials from several other Oregon cities contacted her for advice about pursuing a similar resolution in their communities. Beyond advice, there were people urging her to run for governor. "I started hearing from people, not just across the state, but across the United States," she recounted to Shannon McKone. "I heard from elected officials at Federal levels, State levels, at local levels, all corners of Oregon, citizens from every county in the state, all asking me if I would do this and after a while, I started listening, I think." She noted that she was hardly surprised that her fellow Republicans were incensed by Brown's actions. But she said that hearing similar complaints from longtime Democrats was compelling. "People are looking for someone who's completely willing to fight for Oregon," she said.
On a more personal note, Kerry points to how she felt upon returning from a recent vacation trip. "I took a trip around the western half of the United States, I took a road trip and as soon as we got across the state line, there was Freedom. I started going through these states and they felt like things felt in Oregon when I was a kid growing up here and I started realizing how much, how much things have changed here and how oppressive it felt the minute I came back home and it's not, right." Acknowledging the limits of her new status, she said, "I knew I couldn't do anything else, probably, in my capacity, as mayor; you know, I am handling City business, but I can't handle anything at a state level. Instead, city council and mayor were just reacting to all these things that are coming down from Salem." She declared her intention to seek the Republican nomination for Oregon Governor on 29 June.