Who will replace Swenson as nominee?

Rep. Teresa Alonso Leon, left, lost her congressional race but may have a chance of returning to the Legislature after Senate nominee Eric Swenson dropped out. (Photo by RON COOPER/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

Note: 6/23/22: 2 p.m. — This article has been updated. A quote was misattributed to Sen. Peter Courtney and has been corrected.

It may not be the voters who pick the Democratic nominee in the upcoming Senate District 11 race against Republican Kim Thatcher, but rather a few dozen members of the local party precinct committee. To make matters worse for Marion County Democrats, rumors are circulating about a possible intentional plot to use the SD11 nomination as a placeholder.

Woodburn Mayor Eric Swenson was up against two candidates from the Keizer area in the May primary election for Senate District 11, local attorney Richard Walsh and educator Anthony Rosilez, when he won roughly 44% of the Democrat’s support. Walsh got 34% and Rosilez received 21%.

However, Swenson announced last week he would decline the honor and instead seek another term leading the city of Woodburn. Shortly after this, he publicly recommended former Woodburn city council member and three-term state representative Teresa Alonso Leon take his place on the November ballot.

“Senate District 11 is the most diverse district in Oregon, and there are currently no Latino/a members of the Oregon Senate. In a representative democracy, representation matters,” said Swenson in a Facebook post on June 17. “It will be up to the Democratic precinct committee persons of Marion County to select our next nominee.”

Leon ran for the 6th Congressional District seat in May, finishing seventh in a nine-way race, but state law permits her to replace Swenson on the November ballot since she didn’t run in Swenson’s race or against any of his opponents. 

Both Walsh and Rosilez told the Oregon Capital Chronicle on June 17 they objected to Swenson’s plan for this exact reason and they expect to be considered for the nomination ahead of any candidate who had not participated in the primary.

Brian Clem, a Democrat and former Oregon State Representative who served from 2007 to 2021, and who worked as an advisor for the Walsh campaign, said he has heard more than four different stories about why Swenson declined the party’s nomination including one first-hand account from Swenson himself. He doesn’t find the official reason Swenson has given as plausible, and he said he joins many other Democrats in frustration over his actions.

“If [he] did it because he’s trying to be an ally to the Latino and Latina community, I can understand that,” said Clem. “If that’s why, I think it’s understandable but misguided.”

Clem said Swenson reached out to him personally last week before he made the news public. He said he tried to encourage Swenson to change his mind.

“I told him he should run for the office,” said Clem. “A lot of work and money went into getting him nominated during the primary campaign. I worked for Rich [Walsh], but after the primary results I was ready to help get [Swenson] elected. He had a lot of support and Kim Thatcher is beatable.”

“Keizer is the key to winning this election,” Walsh told the Oregon Capital Chronicle. “Keizer is the base of Kim Thatcher, and whoever cuts into her base the most is going to have the best chance of beating her.”

Clem agrees with Walsh and Rosilez and warned Democrats about the perception of a “bait and switch” which could negatively impact the Democratic nominee in November.

Clem said the whole affair couldn’t have come at a worse time for Senate President Peter Courtney, who has enjoyed a long career in Oregon Democratic politics and is set to retire.

Courtney expressed dismay over Swenson’s decision and said he had not yet been in contact with him.

“It’s just really unfortunate for Peter,” said Clem. He said he hopes the issue won’t obscure what should be time spent honoring his long and successful career.

Carina Perez Europa, Marion County Democrat Party chair, told OPB a decision would be reached by the state party soon, with the goal of having a nominee chosen by the end of June.