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Gun control debate stokes tension during Betsy Johnson's surprise appearance at TEDxPortland

Johnson, a former Democratic state lawmaker, received shouts from the audience about her stances on gun rights.

PORTLAND, Ore. — The long-delayed return of TEDxPortland debuted at the Moda Center on Saturday, the 10th year of the event and the first time it's been held since 2019. But the audience became vocally involved when host David Rae introduced a surprise guest, unaffiliated candidate for Oregon governor Betsy Johnson.

The event, which KGW was a media partner for, was advertised to include 15 speakers and six performers. Johnson was not among the previously announced participants.

After the first few questions from Rae, several members of the audience began calling out for her to address her stances on guns. In the audience was KGW reporter Evan Watson, who began taking video as the clamoring grew.

Johnson, a former Democratic state lawmaker, described her views on gun control in detail when KGW spoke to her, Democratic candidate Tina Kotek and Republican candidate Christine Drazan on Thursday in the wake of the Uvalde, Texas shooting.

RELATED: Oregon candidates for governor weigh in on gun control

Unlike many of her former Democratic colleagues, Johnson has largely opposed additional gun control measures in Oregon, and she received an A rating from the NRA in 2018.

As audience shouts continued during the TEDx interview, Rae stopped and gave Johnson the floor to deliver a reply. She reiterated many of the same points that she has outlined previously, describing the gun debate as an ideological morass, before pivoting to the topic of mental health.

"I think 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**ty mental health system."

Johnson was met by cheers and applause after that statement. But members of the audience almost immediately became restless again when Johnson went on to say that local parents and communities should decide how to make schools safe for children, as opposed to the legislature. She returned to the topic of mental health amid a smattering of applause and cheers, but her subsequent comments on guns brought a chorus of boos from parts of the audience.

"People in this country are going to own guns," Johnson continued. "The style of the gun doesn't dictate the lethality."

RELATED: Guns were the leading cause of death for U.S. children and teens in 2020

Rae broke in to settle the topic by saying that he did not understand the U.S. gun problem by virtue of being Canadian, but offered praises of Johnson's character. At that point, someone in the audience yelled, "don't take sides."

"It's not a campaign," Rae replied. "Look, we get asked all the time at TEDxPortland, why don't you get involved in public service? We are so scared, because you get eviscerated in public. I'm happy to talk to Tina, happy to talk to Tobias — we don't have two hours to do a debate, and this isn't KGW."

Rae said that he knew Tobias Read, who lost the Democratic nomination to Kotek, from his days at Nike.

RELATED: A timeline of mass shootings and gun laws in Oregon

Despite running without party backing, Johnson has amassed millions of dollars in her campaign war chest. Her latest cash balance of more than $5 million dwarfs those of Kotek and Drazan, both of whom are at a relative low point after winning their respective primaries. Nike co-founder Phil Knight has been one major financial backer of Johnson's campaign.

After a request for comment, Johnson's campaign issued a statement to KGW, which read in part:

"While the vast majority of people were supportive, a few folks tried to shut down productive dialogue. That’s unfortunate, but I remain undaunted. To keep this country from coming apart at the seams, we must seek to understand those we disagree with. Forcing your views on others destroys trust and any sense of community.”

A TEDxPortland spokesperson also released a statement, apologizing for the decision to have Johnson appear as a surprise guest:

“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.

"Our mission is to provide a forum for thoughtful conversation, welcoming people from every discipline and culture. Every guest on our stage has a unique perspective and our intention for the day was to encourage discussion on a wide range of topics and current issues that matter to the City of Portland and beyond.

"We remain committed to this mission and have learned from this mistake today.”

After the tension of Johnson's appearance on Saturday, the TEDxPortland event soon moved on to speaker Vince Kadlubek of Meowulf, who briefly mentioned the gun debate to a more positive response before beginning his presentation.

This week, KGW spoke to Rukaiyah Adams, the chief investment officer at Meyer Memorial Trust who was a scheduled speaker at TEDxPortland. She described her talk as a combination call-to-action and love letter to Portland. Brenda Braxton also carpooled with stripper, musician, mom, cancer survivor and TEDx speaker Viva Las Vegas.

The University of Oregon was the presenting sponsor of TEDxPortland this year. Platinum sponsors of the event include Nike, Enjoy the Weather, Lane Powell, the Oregon Community Foundation, Premier, Victory, Umpqua Bank, MeyerPro and RoseQuarter.

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