Remembering Judy Sugnet
By Carl Fisher, Washington County CD-6 Delegation Chair
I have met only a few people in politics today who had the feet to the street and backroom political experiences that my friend Judy Sugnet acquired in her over 50 years of involvement with the Democratic Party of Oregon. I met her while attending college down in Monmouth and working with the college Democrats in the wider state party. When first meeting her, you might call her frumpy, giving off the crazy cat lady vibe. While, yes, she did love her cats, if she let you get to know her she was actually this wonderfully sweet, good-hearted person who cared about making a difference in the community. She always let you know what she was thinking and when she thought you were going off the tracks. Many people that worked in the legislature during and after her would often comment that ‘she knows where all the bodies are buried in this building.’
Judy was born and raised in Salem, Oregon. You can read her traditional obituary from the Salem Reporter here. I want to use this space to talk about her involvement with our party and give her Democratic friends a space to share some words about her. If there was ever a person to put into a Democratic Party of Oregon Hall of Fame (if we had one), Judy would be there.
She held a very impressive distinction for Oregon Democrats. She had organized to get elected as a delegate or alternate to every Democratic National Convention from 1972 to 2012. Judy was able to organize and get a ticket to some of the most memorable conventions of the 20th century. The person who may be closest to matching her record is Ron Wyden, who has been to 9 of them, according to my records.
She often told people who were willing to listen that the first candidate she ever volunteered for was John F. Kennedy, when she was in the 9th grade. He was her favorite President. “That’s where my heart has always been,” she said when discussing JFK with the Statesman Journal in 2004. Why did she identify as a Democrat from such an early age? She told a reporter once “The Republicans don’t care about people in my price range.” Judy was inspired by Bobby Kennedy and was the Marion County Office Coordinator for his campaign and a leader in the Kennedy Action Corps. She and her fellow Action Corps members gathered over 300 signatures asking for greater gun control legislation in the wake of the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.
Judy worked at the local Del Monte cannery between taking jobs with various legislative offices during sessions and campaigns early on in her career. This was especially true as she worked towards her master’s degree. By 1972 she had become more involved in the Marion County Democrats and served as their Chair of Voter Registration. This work, along with work she was doing to reform the primary and convention processes, also led to her first run for office. Since she was an advocate for getting out the vote, she decided to run for Marion County Clerk when no candidate stepped forward that year. She won a write-in campaign to be the Democratic nominee.
Then Marion County Democratic Chairman, Steve Anderson, credited Judy with helping Democrats lead in voter registration for one of the first times in the party’s history. He said:
She ran a grassroots campaign, but the power of incumbency can sometimes be just enough to counter it. The Statesman Journal endorsed the incumbent, pointing out that maintaining voter registration rolls was just one small part of the job of a county clerk, and urged voters to send the incumbent back. She did take some pride in winning the vote of students in two local high school straw poll votes.
While losing an election always involves some soul-searching and reflection, Judy didn’t let it stop her from continuing to work for the Democratic Party. While she didn’t become county clerk, she did manage to get herself elected to Miami Beach for the 1972 Democratic National Convention. In the backlash to the 1968 convention, where a candidate won the nomination without entering a single primary, the party underwent historic changes that enabled grassroots activists like Judy to become delegates for the first time.
Overall, 1972 was a tough year for Democrats in Oregon and Marion County. George McGovern, Wayne Morse, and Judy Sugnet lost their elections in the county. If you were going to lose, you couldn’t have better company to lose with. Marion Democrats were so impressed with her leadership and willingness to take on the County Clerk campaign that when party chair Steve Anderson resigned, they elected her as the new chair. During Judy’s tenure, the Marion County Democrats passed a resolution asking Oregon’s Congressional Delegation to move to impeach President Nixon. This was in November of 1973, after having to endure a summer and fall of all kinds of revelations about the ever-growing Watergate scandal. The resolution was passed just several days before Nixon’s famous “I am not a crook” press conference.
1973 also had its difficulties. Judy’s father Fred Sugnet passed away unexpectedly. Judy, her mother, and her brother made it through this difficult period and she continued to thrive in community affairs.
During the Watergate election of 1974, Judy was re-elected Chair of the Marion County Democrats. As a member of the State Central Committee, she participated in the convention that selected a replacement nominee for the late Senator Wayne Morse who died shortly after winning the Democratic nomination. At this time the committee was made up of two delegates from each county, which the district courts ruled violated the one person-one vote doctrine when they had the committee hold a nominating convention to select Morse’s replacement. The solution was to give each delegation votes proportional to the Democratic registration in their county. Judy and her fellow delegate from Marion cast their votes for Betty Roberts.
In the wake of Democratic victories across the country, many were excited about the prospects of Democrats winning the White House in 1976. Democrats felt they had a real shot with the nation still reeling from the fallout of Watergate. Even Judy Sugnet felt this was her chance to succeed as a candidate. Once State Representative Norma Paulus announced she would seek the Republican nomination for Secretary of State, Judy announced she would seek the Democratic nomination in House District 31 (at the time, HD 31 was a Salem seat) in 1975. She went about collecting signatures to appear on the ballot.
Judy campaigned on her record as an effective legislative staffer and her familiarity with the legislative process in Oregon. She and her supporters felt that her work at the Capitol for the last eight years would give her a head start over someone new to the Oregon legislature. Her primary opponent, a professor at Willamette University named Ross Runkel, freely admitted he didn’t have as much local experience, and this set up a race between the insider and the outsider.
Some of Judy’s positions were ahead of their times. For instance, she believed that the state needed to pick up a larger share of public education costs if the voters didn’t support increasing property taxes. She believed that if the state was not interested in raising new revenue to pay for education and property taxes were the only tool available to use, those making under $15,000 a year should be eligible for tax rebates.
On healthcare, she said, “Today, a short stay in the hospital can wipe out a family’s entire savings. I will support legislation that will work towards providing Oregonians with good medical care at a cost they can afford”.
The issue that was very common for all candidates to be talking about in 1976, that we don’t hear much about today, is that of nuclear power. In Oregon, a ballot measure on a Nuclear Power Moratorium was being proposed. Judy believed from her time working for the Senate Energy & Environment Committee that nuclear power was not something Oregonians should embrace. She believed that the fuel was too toxic and there were no safe or environmentally friendly ways to dispose of the waste generated by these plants.
In a normal year, Judy Sugnet may have been able to make her legislative experience a positive asset, but in an open race in the aftermath of Watergate, I wonder if some voters looked at her impressive resume and thought ‘I’m not voting for an insider this time, I’m voting for the law school professor instead’. Runkel would end up winning the primary. He had access to more campaign funds and raised $4,609 compared to Judy’s $2,207. The vote came down to Runkel 3,036 and Sugnet 2,613. Of course, no matter who the Democrats put up, they were going to have a tough time beating the Republican nominee. This was the seat being held by Norma Paulus after all. Al Riebel defeated Runkel in the November General Election by 9,809 to 8,005 votes.
I don’t recall if Judy ever ran for office again, but she did run many more times for delegate to the national conventions. In 1976, she would be elected a Frank Church delegate and serve in a divided delegation, though she admitted that she would vote for Jimmy Carter after Senator Church released his delegates. The Oregon delegation was divided by Carter, Church, and Brown delegates in New York. Her biggest motivation for campaigning to get to New York was fear that some delegations would vote to undo the changes that made the party more open to new and younger activists in 1972. When asked if she believed the convention would be boring, she responded by saying “I’ve never known Democrats to be dull and boring. We can always find something to argue about”.
Judy would go on and serve as Vice Chair of the Marion County Democrats for most of the 80s and 90s and then return to serving as Chair in the early 2000s. She was a State Central Committee Delegate from 1968 to 2019, and served a variety of roles in the Jane Jefferson Democratic Club of Women, including serving as treasurer for over 20 years. She would continue to be elected a delegate or alternate to various Democratic National Conventions. She served as Chair of the 5th Congressional District Democrats from 2000-2004, and was an Elector for both Al Gore and John Kerry. She was the Secretary of the DPO Labor Caucus for many years. In 2011, Judy’s mother Florence passed away. Judy’s mom was a constant travel companion to her daughter and often accompanied her to the Democratic National Conventions. Judy’s younger brother Barry also passed away several years ago.
Judy would eventually retire from working full-time for the state of Oregon, and her final work in the legislature was in the 2010s working part-time in the office of State Representative Brad Witt. She was active in OPEU and SEIU, her union, and they often helped her attend the conventions and other political events that supported their mission.
She did run for delegate one last time in 2016, and I can recall her stumping for votes at the State Convention. She came up just a bit short in the vote. For the first time, Judy would not be attending the convention. She never mentioned being upset or disappointed about it, but I suspect that after attending 11 conventions, she was happy knowing that she had helped some younger folks from the 5th district attend their first convention. Above all else, Judy was there to support the work of our party and the working people depending on us to deliver for them. As a fitting tribute to all her volunteerism and commitment to the Marion County Democrats over the years, the county party named an award that they would give to an outstanding volunteer to the county party the Judy Sugnet Democratic Legacy Award. She was the first recipient.
Judy’s Democratic National Convention Record
1972: George McGovern Delegate
1976: Frank Church Delegate
1980: Ted Kennedy Delegate
1984: Walter Mondale Alternate
1988: Michael Dukakis Delegate
1992: Bill Clinton Delegate
1996: Bill Clinton Delegate
2000: Al Gore Delegate
2004: John Kerry Delegate
2008: Hillary Clinton Delegate
2012: Barack Obama Alternate
Sitting with Judy at lunchtime at State Central Committee meetings are some of my fond memories from those years. She had amazing stories to share and was one of those few folks in the room who could tell us ‘Well, we tried that in 1984 and it didn’t go very well. Maybe you can fix it now…or not!’ Judy and I were both fellow button collectors, and the other great thing about Judy was she was always willing to share. I remember a number of meetings where she would hand me a little bag of buttons or a grocery bag with a shirt with cat hair on it and she would simply say ‘Give it a wash before you display it!’. One of the last things I got to help her with was digitizing her various convention photos from over the years. I don’t think we got them all, but I know I was able to get 1992, 1996, 2000, and 2004. Some of those photos are scattered throughout this article. If you are scrolling beyond this point you will now hear from friends and fellow party stalwarts about their fond memories of Judy.
Memories and Tributes to Judy
“Judy was Chair of the MCDCC since I became involved long, long ago. She convinced me to become a PCP and the rest was history. She held our monthly meetings at the local SEIU building. One-hour meetings! Fabulous! She was a great predictor of who would win each race. Amazing! I miss her!”
-Aileen Kaye, longtime Marion County Precinct Committee Person
“I met Judy when I got involved in the political arm of my union – OPEU/SEIU in 1988. I never did anything except vote prior to that and was in awe of anyone who had the knowledge Judy had about officeholders’ past, present, and future. I had the privilege to join Judy at four National Conventions as Judy taught me the ropes. I know she lived and breathed the Democratic Party. It was because of her I got involved in the Party, walked and phoned for candidates, and served as a PCP for a number of years. She was really amazing and no one will ever match her accomplishments.”
–Rosalie Pedroza, OPEU/SEIU Member, PCP, and former DNC Delegate
“Judy never wavered from her ideals. She was an active supporter of labor & Democrats. Always helpful – always willing to serve. Politics was her love. And we all know she can’t eat onions.”
-Mari Anne Gest, Former Lobbyist for OSEA, Staff to State Treasurer Jim Hill