Democrats learn to wave at the log trucks in rural Yamhill County

He’s running for office too, but Casey Kulla is giving other candidates a dose of rural reality with homespun tours

April 15, 2022 5:30 am

Casey Kulla, a Yamhill County farmer, dropped his gubernatorial bid on Wednesday to run for labor commissioner. (Casey Kulla)

Six of the leading Democratic primary candidates in Oregon’s new Congressional district have more in common than their largely indistinguishable policy agendas. Each of them has spent at least half a day, some a full nine hours, touring Yamhill County and driving old logging roads with the county’s only Democratic commissioner, Casey Kulla.

Yamhill County, a mostly red redoubt in an otherwise blue landscape, represents only 15% of the electorate in the 6th Congressional District. But every vote will count in a district that could generate the highest spending Democratic primary in the nation and help to decide control of the U.S. House in November.

Kulla, who briefly attempted a run for the Democratic nomination for governor and is now one of three candidates for the nonpartisan office of labor commissioner, wants to make sure that Democrats don’t write off rural counties like Yamhill in elections for Congress and statewide offices.

But he’s not a party boss who can summon candidates to his compound. Nor does he have the financial pull of big money donors or lobbyists. He’s a newcomer to politics, a one-term county commissioner, whose visitors are advised to bring boots to his Grand Island farm.

I wanted them to have real connections to real people in rural Oregon.

– Casey Kulla, Yamhill County commissioner

Instead of a Rolodex, Kulla has a select Twitter following, which he built during his early run for governor last year. And it took just one tweet to get six of the candidates on his schedule.

Andrea Salinas, Kathleen Harder, Cody Reynolds and Loretta Smith signed up for visits within days. So did Carrick Flynn, the beneficiary of more than $7 million in PAC funding so far, whom one of his competitors has called the “phantom candidate.”

“You ARE a real person,” Kulla joked, when Flynn showed up.

Then Matt West followed, apologizing for not paying attention to his Twitter account and belatedly adding his name to the schedule. Finally, just this week, Teresa Alonso Leon scheduled a visit with Kulla as well.

In the first few months of this year, Yamhill County has become a go-to location for Democrats.

Riding with Kulla in his 1998 Chevy pickup, two of the candidates learned an important local lesson when encountering a logging truck on a forest road in the Coast Range: You don’t just pull over, you roll down your window and wave.

Learning the ways of a local culture is just as important as learning about its issues, Kulla told me, and hearing about local successes and new projects underway is better than being besieged with demands to address unmet needs.

Checking the boxes of Kulla’s on-the-go tutorials meant visiting a cell tower rising on a hilltop owned by Iranian immigrant winemakers in an effort to expand rural broadband, hearing about lessons learned from affordable home building initiatives in the city of Willamina and observing the cleanup of an old mill site on the Willamette River in Newberg.

There is nothing unusual about local tours and listening sessions. They’re part of every campaign. But these activities of late have often become sponsored and scripted affairs. A labor union will take its endorsed candidate to visit a job site. A business association will convene a meeting in its boardroom with salmon and prime rib on the buffet.

Kulla’s tours were different. There were no endorsements expected or committed, no promises asked or made, nothing fancier than warm coffee and tacos on the menu.

“These candidates needed a story, a smell, a shiver in the cold of morning, to remind them of a specific place and unique people that they were affecting, helping, or harming,” Kulla told me. “I wanted them to have real connections to real people in rural Oregon.”

The Democratic primary in this Congressional district is a contest in which many of the leading contenders are either current or former elected officials with long lists of organizational endorsers or newcomers with outsider resumes and sizable campaign war chests. Their outreach to voters has come mainly from mailers, social media spots and TV ads – more grass tops than grass roots.

But the candidates who responded to Kulla’s invitation have managed, at least briefly, to visit some less-traveled portions of the campaign trail too often ignored by Oregon Democrats. Kulla’s county tours may not help these candidates win votes in the primary. But they’ll make whoever prevails a better candidate in the general election. And they may help to make Democrats a little more likely to wave at the log trucks they encounter beyond their urban enclaves.

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Tim Nesbitt

Tim Nesbitt, a former union leader in Oregon, served as an adviser to Governors Ted Kulongoski and John Kitzhaber and later helped to design Measure 98 in 2016, which provided extra, targeted funding for Oregon’s high schools.