SEASIDE — In a rallying speech to district attorneys from across Oregon, state Sen. Betsy Johnson on Wednesday chastised House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson and other progressives for their support of recently passed criminal justice bills.
One bill — part of a larger effort to limit racial profiling by police and the justice system — will classify first-time, low-level possession of illegal drugs such as heroin and methamphetamine as misdemeanors. Another — intended to help curb an upward trend of prison use among women — will lower presumptive prison sentences for theft and identity theft by nearly a third. Both bills await the signature of Gov. Kate Brown, who already has voiced her support.
Johnson spoke at the Seaside Civic and Convention Center to prosecutors gathered for a dinner reception, part of the Oregon District Attorneys Association’s three-day summer conference.
“If the safety and justice crowd keeps winning, there will be no safety, and there will be no justice — especially for the poorer classes who are often preyed upon by criminals,” Johnson said. “To progressives, a victim and a criminal are moral equals.”
Johnson, D-Scappoose, was the sole Senate Democrat to vote against the racial profiling bill and one of two to vote against the bill addressing women in prison.
“We’re looking the other way when drug addicts commit first-degree theft and identity theft,” she said. “And the victims? They’re paying for these treatment programs and wraparound services.”
While most Democrats and some Republicans across the country have conceded the war on drugs has failed, Johnson offered an alternative theory.
“Actually, it’s been quite successful in the hands of the progressives,” she said. “They have used it to create one campaign after another to push their agenda.”
Poke at House leadership
Johnson also excoriated Williamson, D-Portland, on several occasions during her nearly 20-minute speech for staunchly supporting both bills.
Johnson said her support for the bills was politically motivated and that, as a former defense attorney, the majority leader is not motivated to fight for crime victims.
Johnson, known for being more practical than idealogical, has a lengthy history of being thorny to fellow Democrats. She has blocked a number of bills by siding with Republicans and even considered switching to the Independent Party of Oregon in 2015.
She also has backed prosecutors throughout her time in the Legislature. In her speech, she praised Kevin Neely, a lobbyist for district attorneys who fought against the drug bills.
Prior to her speech Wednesday night, the district attorney’s association surprised her with its Policymaker of the Year award.
“She is the Oregon Legislature’s most vocal and supportive advocate of prosecutors,” said Rick Wesenberg, the Douglas County district attorney and the association’s president.
Johnson challenged prosecutors to organize and fight back against progressives, who she says have put them “on the ropes.” She suggested sending out press releases to local constituents when they believe certain bills passed in the Legislature may make it more difficult to punish crimes.
“What kind of world are we headed for when district attorneys are expected to act like defense attorneys?” Johnson said. “Who will stand up for victims? Not Jennifer Williamson and the Oregon Legislature.”