Editor’s note: This story is the second in two-part coverage of an election forum held April 24.
Education, public safety and guns rose up as hot topics for Hood River’s candidates for state positions at a primary election forum April 24.
Audience members heard from Hood River candidates for Oregon Senate District 26: Chuck Thomsen (Republican, incumbent) and Chrissy Reitz (Democrat).
In the House District 52 primary, Anna Williams (Democrat) and Jeff Helfrich (Republican, incumbent) discussed their stances.
The forum at Columbia Center for the Arts was sponsored by Hood River Valley Residents Committee, Hood River League of Women Voters, and Livable Hood River.
Senate Dist. 26
The district includes Hood River and Sandy, as well as parts of east Multnomah County and Clackamas County.
Reitz, a member of the Hood River County School Board and former neonatal intensive care nurse, explained her reasons for running.
“When you are in the school district, you realize we do an amazing job here in Hood River, but kids are affected by so much more than what happens in those walls of a school,” she said, discussing poverty conditions.
“I want to be part of that discussion, everything that affects our kids. So I’m going to go to Salem — I’m going to work for education, strong families, and environment,” Reitz said.
Thomsen, a Pine Grove orchardist, has served as Dist. 26 senator for two terms. He previously served as a Hood River County commissioner and planning commissioner.
“I think there’s room still for a moderate Republican to serve,” Thomsen said.
He said Salem legislators “get along really well” compared to the federal level, and that roughly 95 percent of state bills are nearly unanimous.
“I think I bring something to the Senate that’s worth me doing this one more time,” he said.
Hood River Valley High School student Eva Jones questioned the candidates about gun violence and mass shootings at schools.
Thomsen said it was a “contentious issue,” and that several ballot measures emerging in November could settle some conflicts around guns.
“We need to focus on school safety,” he said, pointing to security upgrades undertaken at a school district in Sandy.
He also questioned the cause of shootings: “Why do they think it’s okay to go into a school and shoot people? I just don’t get — what is the root of that problem? A lot of that is mental health. A lot of that we’re not paying attention, we’re not taking care of the folks we should be taking care of.”
Reitz said, “There are guns in the hands of people that they shouldn’t be.”
She contended that such violence isn’t being assessed like the epidemic it is.
“We study every other epidemic that happens in this country, but for some reason, we’re not studying this. I’m not saying what needs to happen, I’m just saying we need to look at what’s happening so that we have the information to make good decisions about where guns are and where they’re going.”
She applauded a 2018 Oregon bill closing the termed “boyfriend loophole,” saying, “It’s common sense and we need to keep going on that track.”
Both candidates pledged to seek education funding.
“If re-elected, I will continue to fight for more funding for K-12,” Thomsen said. Also, “We’ve fallen down on higher (education). Look at the debt that our kids are graduating with these days.”
Thomsen anticipates he has a good chance passing a student loan tax credits bill that failed last session. He was recently placed on the education policy committee, he said.
Reitz supported a focus on post-high school options: “We need our kids to be able to walk out the door and be able to choose their path … they need to have the options of going to college two or four years,” as well as skills-based paths.
“We need to fund at a level that allows them to get there.”
House Dist. 52
The district spans Hood River County and eastern parts of Multnomah and Clackamas counties.
Helfrich, a former law enforcement officer and Cascade Locks council member, was appointed representative in December to a vacancy following Rep. Mark Johnson resignation.
Williams, a social worker and teacher, has worked closely with underserved communities through Columbia Gorge Health Council, Local ID, Meals on Wheels, and veterans’ services.
Candidates fielded a question about the top issues faced statewide.
Helfrich said PERS (Public Employee Retirement System) is the top funding issue that must be solved before change can occur, such as economic development and education.
Williams identified housing and education, as well as environmental issues.
On public safety, candidates agreed that services, including sheriff’s search and rescue, are overburdened.
Helfrich proposed a state-issued program, like Colorado’s fishing or hunting license, which agencies could draw from for reimbursement.
“I think those are creative, outside the box solutions that you look for (in) other places that have solved those issues,” he said.
Williams said, “We have done about a thousand SARs in the last three years and only one of them was for a Hood River County resident.
“I think we need to build a reinsurance program at the state level, where other communities chip in and help recover costs for that.”
The speakers closed by advocating for what they bring to the table.
Helfrich said, “I appreciate my time in Salem sitting down, working together, making a difference and trying to move forward with legislation that we can win in a non-partisan way.”
He lauded the passage of bills he sponsored — including the Eagle Creek fire recovery bill and educator recruitment/retention bill, and his work with Thomsen on Cascade Locks projects.
“For me, public service has been in my life for 30 years. I’m a servant-leader; I serve the community as a servant and then lead down in Salem. I take what I hear and move things forward. For me, going forward in the ‘19 session, I need your ideas what are going to be good, solid, nonpartisan bills …
“I view myself as a very moderate Republican. And just like Sen. Thomsen talked about, doing that and working together moving forward is the way we get things done in Salem.”
Williams said there were “pretty clear” differences between herself and Helfrich, despite the two being neighbors.
“The biggest thing I’m going to bring is a rural progressive, which I think is missing in Salem.
“There are a lot of progressives (who) are elected from the I-5 corridor, and a lot of the policies that they put together sort of leave us out a lot of the time,” she said.
“I think that we need a voice like that in Salem, somebody who can look at public health research and really be proactive about making sure that we’re being cost-effective in the work that we’re doing and pressing progressive policies that work for rural Oregonians,” Williams said.
She intends to “stand up for all the things that we need and the things I think we’ve been a little frustrated about, we haven’t been heard on for a long time.”