The two candidates for Oregon State Senate District 26, incumbent Senator Chuck Thomsen (R) and challenger Chrissy Reitz, answered questions at the Hood River Rotary Club’s Sept. 27 meeting.
Rotarian and former County Commissioner Maui Meyer moderated and presented questions chosen from a list submitted by Rotary members.
Starting with Thomsen, the candidates were asked to start off by introducing themselves.
Thomsen currently lives with his wife, Kristi, on their family farm in Hood River, where he works full-time as a pear-grower. He’s the father of two grown daughters and is also a grandfather. “It’s true, it’s so much more fun to be a grandfather,” he joked.
He also describes himself as a “professional canvasser,” saying, “I still go to Portland three days a week to knock on doors.”
Thomsen graduated from Hood River High School in 1975, served on the Hood River Planning Commission from 1990-1994 and then served on the county commission for 16 years. He was first elected Senator in 2010.
“There’s no manual out there for how to be a state senator,” he said, adding that the only way to do it is to talk to people and ask a lot of questions. “I think I’ve done a pretty good job and I think I’ve got the energy to make it through four more years — we’ll see!”
Reitz is the chair of the Hood River School Board and a former neo-natal intensive care nurse. She currently lives in Hood River with her two children and husband, Max.
She describes herself as a “professional volunteer” and founded the Gorge Kids Triathlon, an annual event that raises money for physical education classes in local public schools, in 2011.
Though she didn’t grow up here, she’s lived longer in Hood River than she has anywhere else.
“I don’t really come from anywhere: My dad was in the Air Force, so I was kind of a citizen of the world,” she said.
Because of her experience as a parent and the chair of the school board, education is a fundamental part of Reitz’s platform. “I really truly believe that is the only way to succeed, through education,” she said.
Meyers then presented the candidates with policy questions:
The first centered on how to fix the Public Employees Retirement System (PERS), which has a whopping a $22 billion in unfunded liability.
Thomsen said that PERS is largely a collection of individual contracts and said it was unlikely that Oregon could bargain out of those. He described former Governor John Kitzhaber’s failed attempts to reform PERS back in 2013 and said, “I try to be non-partisan on this, but if you go and try to change PERS, that’s a big no-no. You probably won’t be there very long.” He said that he will likely consider an idea he got from Happy Valley Mayor Lori Chavez-DeRemer: To separate PERS into its own silo. “What I’ve heard is if we want to change PERS, we have to add a fourth tier, a 401k or something like that,” he said.
As a school board member, Reitz said, “PERS is something I deal with every single year … and it has to be fixed.” She said that it does no good to look back at existing contracts, as those likely cannot be changed. “We’re only going forwards,” she said. She recognized that many workers depend on PERS for their retirement and emphasized the importance of supporting it, but said, “We can’t just keep giving money away. We have to make it sustainable.” While she did not have a direct plan for doing so, Reitz said that she would be interested in engaging members district-wide who have a stake in this.
The candidates were then asked if it would be appropriate for workers to contribute to their own PERS retirement.
“I believe this is a statewide problem — everybody needs to contribute to this,” Thomsen said, “This is a statewide problem and I think everyone has to step in and solve that problem.”
Reitz said that she is “definitely interested in policy that involves some sort of employee buy-in,” but added that that must be accompanied by compensating wage, and she would want to talk to constituents with a stake in the issue.
The third question focused on education and asked Reitz and Thomsen to present their “best education ideas.”
“I’m in a unique position right now because I’m a working member of the school board,” she said, “I’m a very strong advocate for education and not only that, I’m a very strong advocate for education that works.”
Reitz stressed the importance of not only increasing school funding, but also providing stable funding for schools. Increasing funding is essential, she said, but even if schools have the funding one year to hire teachers and start new programs, they can’t reasonably do so if they’re uncertain if they can pay for them the following year.
She strongly supports providing all kids access to preschool education, citing studies that show preschool students performing significantly better throughout school than those who went straight into kindergarten.
She also supports career and technical training as an answer to both Oregon’s troubling high-school dropout rate and “desperate need for trades.” Offering these programs will support students who aren’t interested in the traditional college path. “It’s about telling those kids, ‘There’s a career waiting out there’ and it’s a really good one,” she said.
Thomsen serves on both the Full Ways and Means committee, which deals with budgetary matters, and the Education Budget Subcommittee.
“Ever since I’ve been there … our priority has been to fund schools first,” he said, citing studies that correlated school funding to graduation rates. The percent of the state’s budget that goes to schools dropped significantly before he got into office, but “we’ve gotten that number back up because of people like me who scream and holler,” he said. “But it’s putting our money where our mouth is in Salem.”
He agreed with Reitz’s points on funding career and technical training and said, “We’re getting there, and we need to continue that.”
Finally, Meyers asked each candidate to name two times that they compromised something they personally believed in to reach across the aisle.
Thomsen said the closest he’s been to that position has been with the “Driver Card Bill” back in 2013, where he got mixed up in the controversy surrounding the bill.
“My wife says that I have to tell the truth because my nose twitches,” he said.
He admitted that, as part of the minority party in Salem, he is not often in a position where he needs to compromise, but added, “I’ve always voted how I think I should vote.”
Reitz said that “doing a school board budget is all about compromise … and you have to be able to sit at a table with everyone.”
She said that she will likely be amongst the majority in Salem, but added, “I don’t serve a party, I serve the people of District 26.”
For more information on each of the candidates, visit chrissyfororegon.com and chuckthomsen.com.