PORTLAND, Ore. — TEDxPortland is facing criticism after presenting an unannounced interview with Oregon gubernatorial candidate Betsy Johnson at its event at the Moda Center on Saturday.
Some audience members shouted for Johnson to address gun laws and gun reform, in light of recent mass shootings across the country.
The initial reluctance to address the topic, followed by some of Johnson's answers and TEDxPortland host David Rae's praise of Johnson, all received vocal reactions from audience members.
Johnson, a non-affiliated candidate running for Governor with help from some bipartisan endorsements and some wealthy donors, was not part of the listed speaker lineup and Rae said TEDxPortland decided to add her as a surprise addition two weeks ago.
Now, the nonprofit organization could face trouble for giving a political candidate preferential treatment.
Rae started the unexpected session by introducing Johnson as a gubernatorial candidate and saying TEDxPortland intended to have a 'state of the state' type of conversation with her.
He then started the discussion by asking Johnson to recount her time as a helicopter pilot.
After a few minutes, some of the thousands of attendees started shouting for Johnson to address gun control. One person yelled: "Ask about guns!" Another shouted: "It's the elephant in the room."
In response, Rae replied: “Okay, okay, we wanted this, we wanted energy. The theme of today is audacious.”
He then said that gun control is "not going to be solved in four minutes on this stage," before listening to the shouts of another audience member and repeating their phrase that "some is better than none."
Rae asked Johnson to help him control the room by discussing gun laws.
"We all have opinions, I have mine and you have yours," Johnson began, explaining she is a gun owner. "I represented for a long time a very rural district."
She then pivoted to discuss how the mental health crisis needs to be better addressed.
"I think that we have so divided this debate on gun/no gun that we’re losing track of some of that stuff in the middle ground," Johnson said. "And that stuff in the middle ground is we have by any definition a sh**** mental health system."
That comment on mental health crisis needs received many cheers of support, but one of her ensuing comments received significant jeers from the audience.
"The style of gun doesn't dictate the lethality," Johnson said, in response to shouted crowd comments that she was avoiding the topic of gun control.
Rae then worked to wrap up the session by praising Johnson's work ethic, which frustrated more people who shouted "don't take sides" and "it's not a campaign, it's a TED talk."
Rae added that the discussion was "not an interview, this is not KGW" before moving on to the next TEDxPortland speaker.
That speaker, former Meow Wulf CEO Vince Kaldudek, started his presentation by calling for gun reform, to large cheers from many audience members.
"Can we just have some background checks, can we not sell assault rifles to 18-year-olds," Kaldudek said.
TEDxPortland apologized after the event, saying: "Having a potential political candidate for public office on our stage this morning was not the right decision. We apologize for the error in judgment and the distraction this moment created in what was otherwise an engaging and celebratory day for ten years of TEDxPortland."
The organization could be in violation of federal rules that say nonprofits must give equal opportunity for all political candidates to speak if one is invited to talk at an event.
However, there could be a caveat.
Even though Rae introduced Johnson as a candidate for governor and she’s been openly running as a candidate since last fall, she is not formally confirmed as a candidate on the ballot, as she's a non-affiliated candidate collecting voter signatures.
In a statement, Johnson said: “While the vast majority of people were supportive, a few folks tried to shut down productive dialogue. That’s unfortunate.”
Democratic candidate for Governor Tina Kotek said she wasn’t invited to speak, adding: “I’m disgusted by the way Senator Betsy Johnson dismissed concerns about deadly firearms.”
Republican candidate Christine Drazan didn’t answer a request for comment.