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A progressive mayor takes on a Blue Dog in Oregon’s 5th district

Mark Gamba’s efforts to oust Rep. Kurt Schrader mark the longtime congressman’s first serious primary challenge

Mark Gamba

For more than a decade, Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-OR) has represented Oregon’s central coast and the suburbs of Portland, cruising to victory by comfortable margins every two years. As part of the Blue Dog Caucus, Schrader is seen as one of the more moderate members of the 116th Congress — which is precisely why progressive Mark Gamba is aiming to unseat the six-term Democrat in today’s primary.

Gamba, the mayor of Milwaukie, Oregon, told Jewish Insider that his congressional run — and his entire political career — has been driven by deep concerns about climate change. “Rep. Schrader has never been a climate champion and, as often as not, votes with the Republican Party on critical bills,” Gamba said in an email. “He needed to be replaced, and after looking for someone to do it for a year and often being told that I should do it, I decided they were right.”

Gamba has the backing of a number of local politicians, officials and progressive groups, as well as former presidential candidate and self-help author Marianne Williamson. “It’s interesting and unusual to have elected Democratic officials support someone who’s challenging an incumbent,” Richard Clucas, a political scientist at Portland State University, told JI. These endorsements, he said, reflect a desire from some in the district and the state to see Schrader move further left. A third candidate, Blair Reynolds, has not managed to gain traction in the race in Oregon’s 5th congressional district.

Gamba was also endorsed by Brand New Congress, the PAC formed by former Bernie Sanders staffers and supporters that has backed progressive candidates across the country, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY).

Much of the Milwaukie mayor’s platform aligns with the progressive wing of the Democratic Party and reflects his own concerns about climate change. Gamba’s foreign policy platform calls for the military to be the country’s “first line of defense against climate chaos,” as well as to reduce military spending and U.S. military activities abroad, in part to decrease the nation’s carbon footprint.

Gamba criticized the amount of aid the U.S. provides to Israel, telling JI that it “buttresses a system of oppression that denies equal rights to Palestinian citizens of Israel… [and] supports illegal settlements in the West Bank and an illegal blockade of Gaza.” 

In addition to providing his position paper on Israel, Gamba told JI that he supports a two-state solution, but that “the politicization of [Israel policy] only serves to prohibit the possibility of lasting peace.” As long as the current state of affairs persists, he said, U.S. aid to Israel should be conditioned, with some of the resources diverted to Gaza. He also called for the restoration of aid to the Palestinian Authority.

Gamba compared the terms of the Trump administration’s peace proposal, unveiled earlier this year, to “the apartheid South African government’s effort to prevent majority rule by isolating black South Africans in tiny enclaves.” He added that “I am critical of Netanyahu, but support the Israeli people. I am also pro-Palestine.” 

Schrader — who did not respond to multiple requests for comment — has taken a more mainstream stance on Israel during his tenure in office.

Schrader was a co-sponsor of Rep. Alan Lowenthal’s 2019 bill reaffirming support for a negotiated two-state solution and discouraging Israel’s unilateral annexation of parts of the West Bank.

Earlier in 2019, Schrader signed on to legislation opposing the BDS movement. While Gamba doesn’t support BDS, he told JI that he believes attempts to legislate on the issue violate the First Amendment.

Following the targeted assassination earlier this year of Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani, Schrader broke with other congressional Oregon Democrats and praised the move.

Both men supported the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, although Gamba takes a harder line on current U.S. policy. He told JI the U.S. should “[renounce] any hostile or aggressive intent or actions toward Iran” and condemned U.S. sanctions as “a form of collective punishment that are so broad they harshly impact the Iranian people, not just the government of Iran.” 

Clucas said Gamba’s long-shot campaign — despite the boost from elements in the progressive wing of the party — is unlikely to garner enough support in the district to best Schrader in the primary. “I don’t think he’s too serious of a threat,” Clucas said. “Schrader is popular across the entire district.”

Gamba trails in fundraising — he’s raised approximately $223,000 compared to Schrader’s nearly $1.3 million — and has struggled to reach voters amid the pandemic that has prevented his team from in-person campaigning.

A Gamba win on Tuesday could make the race tougher for Democrats come November in a district Schrader won by 13 percentage points in 2018. “It’s not an automatic win for the Republican Party, but it would be considerably closer than if Schrader would be renominated,” Clucas said.

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