Political Notes: Gay Oregonian Easton revives US House bid in new district

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Friday May 19, 2023
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Kevin Easton is running for an Oregon congressional seat in the 2024 election; he briefly ran in 2022 before withdrawing. Photo: Courtesy Easton campaign
Kevin Easton is running for an Oregon congressional seat in the 2024 election; he briefly ran in 2022 before withdrawing. Photo: Courtesy Easton campaign

Former San Francisco resident Kevin Easton, who had been the first openly gay man to run for Congress in Oregon, suspended his 2022 campaign in January of that year after being drawn into the Beaver State's new 6th Congressional District. It had gained the seat due to the decennial census count.

With a number of Democrats in the race for the open seat, Easton decided to withdraw. Instead, he focused on his new job as a state investigator working on claimant fraud and misrepresentation in state and federal unemployment insurance programs. Another Democrat with Bay Area ties, Andrea Rose Salinas, who grew up in Pleasant Hill, went on to win the House seat.

In Oregon's adjacent 5th Congressional District, lesbian former Santa Clara city councilmember Jamie McLeod-Skinner defeated Congressmember Kurt Schrader (D-Canby) in their party primary. But she lost last November to Republican Lori Chavez-DeRemer.

With the GOP congressmember from Happy Valley up for reelection in 2024, and not wanting to run against Salinas, Easton is throwing his hat in the ring for the 5th Congressional District seat. He will officially announce his candidacy Sunday, May 21, though he has already been fundraising for weeks and has gone live with his campaign website.

"I got out of the race to make sure a Democrat won D6, and I didn't think I had enough time to do the campaign I really wanted to do in D6," Easton told the Bay Area Reporter during his first media interview about his 2024 candidacy. "I also didn't have that hometown connection I do with D6 as I do with D5."

Speaking by phone this month, Easton noted that he grew up in Bend, Oregon, which is in the southeastern portion of the sprawling 5th Congressional District. It includes parts of Portland and runs south through the Cascade Mountains and east into the Willamette Valley.

Easton, 48, and his husband, Jeremy Garrison-Easton, currently live less than two miles outside of the district in Salem, Oregon, along its western border with the 6th Congressional District. But the couple often drive into the 5th district to shop and are looking to move into it at some point, said Easton, though the high cost for housing in the area is a challenge.

"When I go for a run, I am in the district," noted Easton. "I am in the district everyday."

Members of the House do not need to live in the district they represent. Easton noted that Salinas lives in Lake Oswego, which is part of the 5th Congressional District, though she represents the 6th district.

"We would represent each other's districts," noted Easton, if they both win their elections next year.

Hoping to add to out House members

Along the West Coast there are currently only two gay congressmembers, Mark Takano and Robert Garcia, both Democrats from Southern California. Easton would be the first LGBTQ congressional caucus member from the Pacific Northwest states of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho.

As of now, Easton said he isn't aware of any other out 2024 U.S. House candidates running in the trio of states. He hopes to rally LGBTQ voters in his district behind his candidacy and has made equality a priority issue among his campaign platform.

"I am going to have a big target on me as being an out, gay man and the first to run for Congress in Oregon. I have to be prepared for a $5 or $6 million ad campaign against me," said Easton, which is why he starting raising money more than a year out from his state's May 21 primary. "It will just be vicious and nasty, no matter if it is me or someone else. That is a gut check for any one who wants to get into this race."

Nonetheless, Easton told the B.A.R. the district "is winnable" for a Democrat. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in April named it one of its "Districts In Play" for the 2024 election cycle. He is already painting Chavez-DeRemer as a "MAGA Republican" supportive of former President Donald Trump and extremely anti-choice.

"I am solidly pro-choice. I do believe abortion is health care," said Easton. "Abortion rights and gay rights are both reliant on rights of privacy. What we do with our body privately and reproductively is our business."

Oregon's 5th district is seen as a toss up that trends moderate, he noted, so if Democrats, moderate Republicans, and independent women unite behind his candidacy, Easton believes he has a strong chance to flip the seat blue.

"It is going to be a tough fight, but I have the stomach for it," said Easton. "I hope to have the money for it."

He is looking to come down to the Bay Area to fundraise later this summer or in early fall. Easton had lived in San Francisco's LGBTQ Castro district in the early 2000s and worked on the campaigns of Rebecca Prozan, a lesbian who fell short in her bid for the city's District 8 supervisor seat, and former city attorney Dennis Herrera's unsuccessful bid for mayor in 2011.

Easton went on to serve as Herrera's community relations coordinator in the city attorney's office, which Herrera vacated in 2021 when he became general manager of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. In 2016, Easton relocated back to his native state to be with Garrison-Easton and have access to health care to treat a traumatic brain injury he suffered from a surfing accident.

He has never sought public office before other than his brief stint as a House candidate in late 2021. As he officially launches his 2024 bid, Easton told the B.A.R., "I am really excited. I am really jazzed."

Due to the Memorial Day holiday the Political Notes column will return Monday, June 5.

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Got a tip on LGBTQ politics? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 829-8836 or e-mail [email protected]

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