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The Long Shot: Richard Esterman says he has the right to run for governor in November; he just needs 18,000 signatures to convince the state of Oregon 

It’s about noon on a Thursday and Richard Esterman is walking the streets of a nondescript housing development on the far eastside of Bend. It’s cold.

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It’s about noon on a Thursday and Richard Esterman is walking the streets of a nondescript housing development on the far eastside of Bend. It’s cold. Far too cold for the end of May and cold enough that snowflakes are tossed from the black sky when the wind starts blowing hard enough.

Esterman, his long gray ponytail resting on his back, bounds toward an immaculately landscaped home on a quiet corner. There’s a pickup truck backed neatly into a driveway that’s vacant of even a single oil stain and Esterman says, “There’s a car, so I’ll give it a try.”

He heads up to the door and knocks. On the other side of the door, rapid-fire barking erupts, but Esterman doesn’t flinch. Rather, he waits, tapping his clipboard against his side until a man in his late 60s wearing a green sweatshirt and thick-framed glasses swings open the door and pushes back a diminutive white dog with his foot.

“Hey, there. First off, I’m not from the Census Bureau,” says Esterman with a laugh.

The man in the green sweatshirt smiles.

“And this has nothing to do with the primary that just happened. I’m Richard Esterman and I’m running for governor. Now, I could have joined one of the parties and paid $100 and been on the ballot, but I’m doing this the hard way and collecting signatures so I can run in November,” Esterman says, extending his clipboard.

“Yeah, I actually saw that,” says the man, taking the clipboard from Esterman as the dog continues to bark at his side.

“I’m not asking for a vote. I just want your signature to get me on the ballot,” says Esterman.

“Well, I can’t let John (Kitzhaber) get in again. Thanks for jumping into the fray,” says the man, scribbling down his name, address and signature before handing the clipboard back to Esterman, who smiles and shakes the man’s hand.

The 54-year-old Esterman will walk these streets for a little over two hours, knocking on doors. Sometimes people answer and smilingly add their names, bringing Esterman one scribble closer to amassing the 18,279 verified signatures (equal to one percent of the votes cast in the last general election) of registered Oregon voters needed to place his name on the general election ballot in November, right next to the names of John Kitzhaber, a former two-term governor of this state, and Chris Dudley, a former Portland Trailblazer. On occasion, Esterman will knock, stare casually at the ground for a few seconds and then stride off to the next home. At least once he’ll go to a home with a boat in the side yard and American flags plastered on every window of the garage door and have a guy say: “I appreciate what you’re doing, but we already have someone we’re voting for.”

Richard Esterman doesn’t argue with those people. At this point, he doesn’t seem to care as much about who people are planning on voting for, he just wants to be on the ballot. Because getting on the ballot has become key to Esterman’s platform, which is centered on the idea that an average guy—as this professional photographer considers himself—should be able to run for, and in turn have a chance of being elected to the highest office in the state. He’s still trying to gather the nearly 20,000 signatures to get on the ballot (he’s only at about 3,000 right now), but Esterman is also hoping to put together a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Oregon’s election process. He thinks that people who don’t want to be part of a political party should be able to be on the ballot as easily as those with “R”s and “D”s next to their names. If you ask him, he’ll acknowledge that he’s probably not going to win this race.

“Someone said to me that I shouldn’t say I’m a long shot, but that’s the truth. I’m not going to stand there and lie to people when they know I’m a long shot,” says Esterman. “But this is something I gotta do.”

Esterman is a conservative, by and large, but his political leanings can be tough to pin down. He talks a lot about government getting too big, but then he’ll tell you that we need to fund arts and music education in public schools. He’ll attend a tea party rally, but then question the common sense value of the recent Arizona immigration legislation. The main thing he’ll say about his platform is: “Everything I hear is about party differences and money. We need to get back to listening to the people.” If there were a Richard Esterman for Governor T-shirt, this phrase would almost certainly be emblazoned on the back.

This is a guy who doesn’t necessarily want to be governor as much as he wants to run for governor. Right now, it looks like getting on the ballot would be a victory for Esterman, a 20-plus-year Sisters resident who’s put his professional life on hold to focus on signature gathering. He grew up in Southern California and worked in the grocery business until becoming a photographer in the early ‘80s. For a year, Esterman says, he devoted his life to a comedy act with a friend, traveling the country to perform. This is just one of the out-of-the-ordinary things he’s done in his life; he’s also written a novel and a children’s book and traveled to 34 countries shooting pictures. He’s had some lows, too, especially the 1987 drowning death of his six-year-old son, an event that he says instilled in him a grab-life-by-the-tail mentality.

Now, Esterman is challenging an Oregon political system that he, and many others like him, feel heavily favors candidates from the two major parties. While Oregon may have a reputation for having individualistic residents when it comes to politics, the two major parties have a solid lock on the electoral process. Esterman has made himself a martyr of sorts for non-affiliated candidates, carrying his clipboard full of signatures like a cross through the streets of Central Oregon.

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Esterman admits that he’s chosen the toughest path to the ballot and is already facing an uphill battle. While the two major party candidates are off giving speeches and glad-handing big donors this summer, Esterman will be trying to gather signatures, in addition to filing a suit that he hopes will help land him on the ballot. The officials in the Secretary of State’s office, the body that governs elections in the state, are familiar with Esterman, who’s made himself well known around their offices.

Don Hamilton, a spokesperson for the Secretary of State’s office, says that although the number of signatures Esterman will need is 18,279, he’ll likely need to gather many thousands more than that by August in order to qualify.

“It’s always wise to submit more than the minimum. Sometimes, the validity rate [for signatures] has been as high as in the 80s [percent], but they’ve also been as low as in the 60s,” says Hamilton.

Signatures must come from registered voters and their name and address listed on the petition must match those on record. As Hamilton indicates, candidates can expect a good chunk of their signatures to get tossed out after a sampling of signatures is inspected.

The other option for Esterman would be to hold a convention during which he could gather the signatures of 1,000 registered voters in a 12-hour period. He’s recently become aware of this alternative, but has no plans as of now to throw himself a nominating party.

For the last gubernatorial race in 2006, there were no non-affiliated candidates on the ballot, but there almost were. Ben Westlund, the Bend-native and state treasurer who passed away from cancer in March, made a convincing run for governor that year by way of signatures. Westlund’s campaign submitted the signatures, but before they could be fully validated, he withdrew from the race.

Westlund’s campaign faced an additional hurdle in the form of a house bill that had been passed one year prior, which prohibited voters from signing a petition like Esterman’s if they’d voted for another party in the primary. That law was repealed in 2009, which is good for Esterman, who’ll gladly accept a signature from whomever will take hold of his clipboard.

If it was a tough go for Westlund—an already established name in the state when he made his run for top office—it’s even harder for Esterman, a virtual no-name in the region.


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He’s not totally unknown, however. Last summer, Esterman put out the call for people to meet him at the Deschutes County Fairgrounds with signs that read “Listen to the People,” a phrase that’s since become a cornerstone of his campaign. The event was relatively well publicized and drew a couple hundred folks—far less than he’d initially planned for—who held up their signs or, like one man, wore a Revolutionary War costume and held a rifle.

Still, he has no experience in politics and admits he hasn’t always been the most politically minded guy throughout his life, although he did write a story in junior high about a 13-year-old who runs for governor. His daughter, Sarah, a former Source intern who now is an associate editor at Wend magazine in Portland, admires her father, but says before he announced his candidacy, she wasn’t positive of his political or social beliefs. This might come across as a shortcoming, but Esterman see this as evidence of his “everyday guy” mentality.

Esterman has no desire to join the ranks of either the Republicans or Democrats.

“I’m not against parties, I’m against the differences they create for themselves,” he says.

He’s recently reached out to the Independent Party of Oregon, who just this week confirmed that Esterman will be on their ballot for the party’s online nomination process—which, if he were to win, would place him on the ballot.

He’s still gathering signatures one by one almost completely on his own, whether door to door (which has led to at least one call to police after someone thought he was a burglar) or in front of the Bend library. But now he’s got another aim: to file a discrimination lawsuit against the state, saying that they’ve unconstitutionally prevented him from running for office. Esterman says he’s contacted some 30 lawyers to take his case, none of whom have obliged, which is why he’s now talking to the American Civil Liberties Union.

“If a resident of Oregon is going to run for office, it should be equal for all, and that’s what Section 20 (of the state constitution) says,” Esterman asserts.

Bill Lunch, the chair of the political science department at Oregon State University and the political analyst for Oregon Public Broadcasting, agrees that the path to the general election ballot is difficult (if not nearly impossible) for someone like Esterman, but doesn’t see Esterman’s law suit as having much traction.

“There are grounds on which a candidate can challenge his or her lack of access to the ballot, but they’re very tightly specified in the law and constitutional doctrine,” says Lunch. “Being unhappy that you don’t have the access to the ballot probably isn’t going to be enough.”

Esterman still isn’t sure how or if he’ll make his way into court, but he hopes something will work out. Lately, he’s been out speaking to conservative organizations in Central Oregon such as the Americans for Prosperity and the Central Oregon Patriots, i.e. the local tea party, hoping to gain support for his lawsuit. This all might be another uphill battle for Esterman, who’s already such a long shot that another hill to climb doesn’t seem to faze him. But he’s hardly throwing in the towel, even if he’s got a fast-approaching deadline for signatures and little resources to get his case into court.

“I’ve got a lot involved in this. I’ve got my credit on the line and this isn’t a glory thing for me,” he says.

Back out on the eastside of Bend, it starts hailing as Esterman chats with a woman who appears no younger than 70, but was changing the oil in her car when he arrived with clipboard in hand. She likes his ideas and his aversion to political parties. She signs the petition and he heads back onto the street, that gray pony tail bouncing on his back, as he goes in search of the 14,000-plus signatures (or more) that will allow him to run for governor. At this point it seems that just seeing his name accompanied by a blank oval would be a solid victory.


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