Sparks fly in Ore. treasurer's race

Sparks fly in Ore. treasurer's race

SALEM, Ore. (AP) _ Election races for the Oregon state treasurer's job are usually staid, pinstriped affairs focusing largely on the esoterica of state investments.

Not this year.

Democratic state Sen. Ben Westlund and Republican businessman Allen Alley are trading accusations about their records — particularly over Alley's management of a struggling high-tech company that has shipped Oregon jobs overseas.

Alley has indicated he might try to win votes in the treasurer's race by calling attention to Westlund's inappropriate conduct toward a legislative aide that occurred in 1997.

At this point, political analyst Jim Moore said Westlund still has to be viewed as the front-runner in terms of fundraising, endorsements, continuing gains in Democratic voter registration and name recognition.

"The central issue of this race is that Ben Westlund is known throughout the state, and Allen Alley is not," said Moore, who teaches political science at Pacific University in Forest Grove.

Whoever is elected Oregon's next treasurer will be the chief financial officer for the state, managing a $75 billion investment portfolio. The treasurer oversees the professional financial managers who invest the money in Oregon's pension fund and is responsible for coordinating and selling state bonds.

But the position is a political one as well. Six of past seven treasurers served in Legislature before being elected treasurer.

And this year, the race has taken on a highly political tone with the two contenders not only staking out the issues but also going after each other.

This is Westlund's second try for a statewide office. The Bend lawmaker first ran successfully for the Legislature, as a Republican, in 1996. After waging an independent campaign for governor in 2006, he switched parties to become a Democrat.

Alley is an engineer by training, designing air bag systems for Ford Motor Co., before becoming a venture capitalist who co-founded Tualatin-based Pixelworks in 1997, a high-tech company that designs computer chips for flat-panel television monitors.

The financial decline of Pixelworks has become one of the chief issues that Westlund and the Democrats are raising against Alley.

They point to the company's declining stock value, and the fact that many of the company's jobs have been shipped overseas.

Westlund said Alley is responsible for poor management decisions that led to Pixelworks' decline in which 200 engineers and other technology experts were shown the door.

"I think Oregon voters should be concerned that company that was founded in Oregon eventually ended up exporting the bulk of their jobs overseas, and remains only as a skeleton headquarters here in Oregon," Westlund said. "These were quality jobs. It destroyed the culture of the company."

Alley, for his part, said market conditions created the need to restructure the business. He rejected Democrats' assertion that Pixelworks is a failed company.

"We sold $1 billion worth of products. We paid $150 million worth of Oregon salaries during that time," he said. "To characterize that as anything but a success is kind of unimaginable."

In an interview, Alley also said he thinks it's a "germane" campaign issue to question whether Westlund was forthcoming about the sexual harassment allegation against him.

Westlund admitted to giving a legislative staffer an unwanted hug when rumors cropped up two years ago of an inappropriate act in his past.

However, a confidential letter obtained by The Associated Press details three incidents involving Westlund making unwanted physical contact in 1997 with then-legislative aide Deborah Boone, who's now a Democratic state representative from Cannon Beach. The contact involved Westlund touching Boone's hip and leg, according to the letter.

"I certainly don't think that's behavior that you should exhibit in any leadership position," Alley said in response to a question about Westlund's conduct.

Boone has said she's long since forgiven Westlund and that the two of them have become close friends since the incident.

Westlund, for his part, said he doesn't think inappropriate behavior years ago should be an issue in the treasurer's race

"That's an incident that happened a decade ago. Debbie and I have put that behind us," the Bend lawmaker said. "We are great friends today."

Moore, the political analyst, said he hasn't seen any evidence that the incident has made any dent with voters since it first came up in late July.

"Since the story broke, there hasn't been any word about that issue in the campaign. It has receded from the public's mind," Moore said.

At this stage, Alley could try to make it an issue in TV ads, but the Republican contender's anemic fundraising doesn't make that seem like a strong possibility, he said.

"He would have to spend a great deal of money to get that message out. He would have to show a much more well-financed campaign than he has up to this point," Moore said.

Alley has raised about $225,000 to date and has only $45,000 cash on hand at this point. Westlund has raised nearly twice that amount and has more than $200,000 in the bank.