Organizers of the lecture and music event TEDxPortland angered some audience members by giving independent candidate for governor Betsy Johnson, who in the past earned an A rating from the National Rifle Association, an unannounced spot in its event lineup Saturday.
The group also appeared to have run afoul of IRS rules that prohibit tax-exempt non-profits from giving any political candidate preferential treatment.
The federal agency is clear that 501(c)3 nonprofits such as TEDxPortland must offer candidates equal time, writing, “If a candidate is invited to speak at an organization event in his or her capacity as a political candidate, the organization must take steps to ensure that it provides an equal opportunity to participate to all political candidates seeking the same office.”
Event organizers introduced her as a candidate for governor, and pollsters, journalists, wealthy contributors and voters have treated her as such since late 2021, when she announced she was running. But the Portland-based non-profit may have some wiggle room, because the state has not formally approved Johnson to be a candidate.
Johnson, who voted against gun safety bills as a Democrat in the Oregon Senate and mentioned being a gun owner during her TEDxPortland talk at the Moda Center Saturday afternoon, drew jeers, boos and shouted demands for gun control during her time on stage.
KGW reporter Evan Watson and others at the event noted on social media how tense the crowd was during Johnson’s surprise appearance.
In videos that Watson recorded and shared online, David Rae, the event’s organizer and emcee and the president of the nonproft that puts on the event, told the audience that he and others decided to include Johnson just “two weeks ago” and indicated he admires and chose her for her “courage” and outspokenness.
He seemed not to realize the inherent political favor-playing of giving only one of the three major candidates for Oregon governor a platform. “It’s not a campaign” he said of Johnson’s speech during a time when she is spending millions on her campaign for governor.
She is not officially a candidate, however. To get on the general election ballot as an independent candidate, Johnson will need to gather 23,743 valid voter signatures — something no one doubts an established officeholder with her financial backing will accomplish. She has just recently launched “Betsy brigades” across Oregon to gather them.
The ticketed event featured, as promised in advance, a lineup of intriguing, high-achieving speakers, at least half of them people of color, and eight musical acts or performers, including Pink Martini.
Rae defended the choice to add Johnson at the last minute, indicating it took courage on his team’s part. “Look, we get asked all of the time on our TedxPortand team, ‘Why don’t you get involved in public service?’ We are so scared, because you get eviscerated in public.”
By inviting the career politician with nearly $9 million in backing from Oregon powerbrokers including Nike co-founder Phil Knight and a host of timber millionaires, he said, “We are just trying to offer an intimate conversation in front of 7,000 people with a courageous woman, right?”
In the days since a shooter used an assault weapon to brutally kill 19 children and two teachers at a Texas elementary school, much of the national conversation has revolved around gun safety legislation, which made the timing of Johnson’s appearance at the non-political event particularly fraught.
Rae indicated he would be willing to talk to “Tina,” a reference to Democratic nominee Tina Kotek. He did not seem to realize that Christine Drazan, the Republican nominee, is also in the running. The Democrat-heavy Portland crowd didn’t audibly call for her to appear.
In 2014, the last time the NRA publicly weighed in on Johnson as a state Senate candidate, they endorsed her and gave her an A grade. She and Arnie Roblan, a former state Senator from Coos Bay, were the only Democrats who earned that accolade that year from the gun rights advocacy group.
In one of her most recent votes on gun safety legislation, in May 2021, Johnson joined six Republicans to vote no on a bill that, among other things, requires guns to be safely stored, either by placing them in a locked container or by using a trigger lock, and allows school boards to ban guns from school buildings and campuses.
Both chambers passed the bill on narrow votes and Gov. Kate Brown signed it. Until then, it was legal for holders of concealed carry permits to bring guns into all Oregon public school classrooms, gyms and stadiums.
Other Oregon gun laws Johnson voted “no” on included a 2015 expansion of background checks to cover private firearm transfers and a 2017 red flag law that allows judges to issue “extreme risk protection orders” to require a person to surrender their guns temporarily if they are a risk to themselves or people with whom they live. That law was sponsored by a Republican senator.
The comment she made Saturday that prompted the biggest negative reaction related to discussions underway in Oregon and elsewhere about banning assault-style weapons. “The style of the gun does not dictate the lethality,” she said, drawing boos.
Johnson got a positive reception for her calls for improved mental health care in Oregon, something she said current leaders have only given “lip service.” Johnson was one of the Legislature’s three influential budget committee co-chairs during the 2019, 2020 and 2021 sessions.
Rae made it clear to his TEDx audience that he is a fan of Johnson. Sitting next to her on stage, he told her he has found her “amazing … Your character, your backbone. You are candid, it is ‘What you see is what you get.’”
Watson reported that the speaker who came after Johnson, entertainment production company co-founder Vince Kadlubek, said, “I’ve just got to say…no 18-year-old should be able to buy an AR.” Kadlubek also asked the crowd, “Can we just get some background checks?” He received one of the biggest cheers of the event, Watson wrote on Twitter.
Johnson downplayed how much opposition she encountered at the event. In a statement to The Oregonian/OregonLive, she said, “A few folks tried to shut down productive dialogue. That’s unfortunate, but I remain undaunted.”
— Betsy Hammond; firstname.lastname@example.org