PORTLAND, Ore. — Over the years, when people would encourage then-Oregon state Sen. Betsy Johnson of Scappoose to run for governor, she says her comeback line was always, "I'd rather throw myself in a wood chipper."
It's not the wood chipper, but Johnson has thrown herself into the ring in the three-way race for Oregon governor. She said at this moment, there is an opening she's ready to take and is running as a non-affiliated candidate.
"People are eager for a change in our divisive, partisan, hyper-partisan politics. So we are very enthusiastic," Johnson said.
Johnson was a guest on this week's episode of "Straight Talk" to discuss why she's running for governor and her position on issues important to Oregonians, including gun safety measures.
'Betsy Brigades' collecting signatures
Although Johnson's campaign has been running ads for months, she's not yet fully qualified to be on the ballot. After decades as a Democrat, she left the party to run without any party affiliation. That meant she didn't go through the primary process; instead, her campaign must collect close to 24,000 signatures by the end of August to get on the November ballot. The signature gathering started June 1.
"We are in the process of setting up what we call Betsy Brigades all over the state. We've got boots on the ground. We've got events. We've got petitions out in people's hands right now. The response has been overwhelmingly enthusiastic and validates the whole point of this campaign," she said.
Why she is running unaffiliated
Johnson grew up in a Republican family in rural Oregon and started out as a member of the Republican party. She left the party when she said they went too far to the right on issues like abortion rights and LGBTQ issues. She joined the Democratic party but last year left that, too, when she said they went too far to the left on crime, defunding the police and disrespecting job creation.
"I just couldn't do it anymore. I believe right now Oregonians are hungry for a different way of doing business. They want to find that Oregon mojo that I hope to bring back," she said.
She's collected bipartisan endorsements from former U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith, a Republican, and former Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski, a Democrat. This week she also picked up an endorsement from former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang.
Campaign hits turbulence at TEDxPortland
Johnson's campaign hasn't been all smooth sailing. It hit some turbulence in late May when she was invited as a surprise guest at the 10 year anniversary of TEDxPortland.
Organizers gave Johnson an unannounced spot in the lineup, days after the mass shootings in Buffalo, New York and at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas where 19 school children and two teachers were gunned down.
Johnson is a gun owner and vocal gun rights advocate. In the past, the National Rifle Association gave her an "A" rating. The audience pressed her to address her stance on guns and at one point, Johnson said, "The style of gun doesn't dictate the lethality," which was met with booing from the crowd.
When asked on Straight Talk if she really believed an AR-15 style rifle is no more lethal than a hand gun, Johnson said she shouldn't have made the comment.
"I was trying to make a point and I did it stupidly. I will just say that. That was stupid," she said.
While Johnson has voted against every gun safety measure while serving in the legislature, including expanding background checks in 2015, a red flag law in 2017, and a safe gun storage bill in 2021, she is now changing her position. She said she would support raising the age to purchase certain firearms from 18 to 21, and support and enforce stronger background checks for gun purchases.
"I think we are hearing nationally and here in Oregon, we need to keep guns out of the wrong hands of irresponsible young people and people not mentally capable of handling weapons," she said.
Johnson rejected the idea that she's flip-flopped on her position following backlash from her TEDxPortland appearance.
"It wasn't TEDx. It was Uvalde. And the ten shootings over the Memorial Day weekend. And Tulsa. I believe the mood of the country is changing," she said.
Leading the conversation on gun safety measures
Johnson wouldn't commit to supporting a ban on semi-automatic weapons or a ban on high capacity magazines, but said she was open to having a discussion. As a life-long gun owner and gun rights advocate, she believes she is uniquely suited to bring people together to find compromise and practical solutions without having a polarized conversation.
"I think I am offering at least a middle place to talk about it. And given my track record that I have the bona fides to draw people together to have the conversation," Johnson said.
When asked what grade the NRA might give her now with her new positions on gun control, Johnson said she doesn't care.
Owns a machine gun
Johnson and her husband are gun collectors and own a machine gun, an automatic firearm. She said it's a historical Cold War artifact and is permitted, and in safe storage.
"It hasn't been out of a safe in 20 to 25 years. All the taxes are paid on it. It's all legally licensed. It's in the safest of safe storage," she said.
Improving Oregon's mental health care
If elected governor, Johnson said she would make improving the state's mental health care a top priority. She said what's offered in Oregon shouldn't be called a mental health care system.
"Let's not call it a system. We don't have a system. I reject that characterization. And it's especially obvious we don't have a system in rural Oregon," she said.
She said she'd prioritize measurable outcomes, accountability and a trauma-informed, data driven system.
"That would be a very, very high priority," she said.
Johnson also discussed Roe v. Wade, and her ideas for tackling homelessness and the climate crisis, and how to improve Oregon schools.
Johnson's message to voters
Johnson said there's a reason she's received endorsements from both sides of the aisle. She said they all want to get rid of the extremes in politics.
"Let's find the middle again. Get Oregon's maverick spirit back. They believe I'm the guy to carry the message and Oregonians are hungry to hear it," she said.
Straight Talk airs Friday at 7 p.m., Saturday at 6 p.m. and Sunday at 6:30 p.m.