Despite more Democratic control, Malheur County legislators see opportunities

Gov. Kate Brown listens to Grant Kitamura, the general manager of Baker & Murakami Produce Co., during a tour of Malheur County in the aftermath of a series of severe winter storms in 2017. The visit, spearheaded by Sen. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, was a major turning point in the effort to bridge a gap between rural and urban perceptions and helped kick start several new economic programs for the county. (The Enterprise/Les Zaitz).

VALE – The recent election showed the divide between rural and urban Oregon is as sharp as ever as the state’s Democratic party claimed three seats in the House and one in the Senate and decisively held on to the governor’s office.

Gov. Kate Brown lost every county in eastern Oregon, but carried seven heavily populated counties to keep her office.

And Democrats now hold a commanding supermajority in both and the House and Senate.

At first glance that could mean an area like Malheur County – predominantly Republican and rural – could expect to be left out the next four years.

Recent history, though, shows that probably won’t be the case.

According to state Sen. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, and state Rep. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, the shift won’t affect their work.

“I have always been in the minority so this is nothing new,” said Bentz.

Findley agreed.

 “I don’t see any difference. They (the Democrats) have been in control,” said Findley. “It changes the dynamic a little, but not a lot.”

With Democrats so firmly in control, Findley and Bentz said they will have to reach across political lines to succeed with their legislative agendas.

“We will have to collaborate on stuff,” said Findley, who took office earlier this year after retiring as Vale city manager.

Bentz said the Democratic success in the recent election isn’t a new paradigm.

“I saw this happen when I first got in the Legislature in 2008. I managed to still be relevant,” said Bentz.

He turned political negotiation and collaboration into an art form, building coalitions that translated into big wins for his district and Malheur County while serving in the House.

The winter of 2017 was a watershed political moment.

Governor’s trip

After Malheur County was slammed by a series of crippling snow storms that year, Brown arrived at the invitation of Bentz.

The trip clearly made an impact on Brown as she saw the damage and listened to concerns of local officials and residents.

The trip also pushed Malheur County onto Brown’s radar. Suddenly, Brown heard about the perception among local farmers and residents that they lived in an abandoned part of the state, dismissed by Salem.

Brown wasn’t the only powerful Democrat who became familiar with Malheur County. House Speaker Tina Kotek toured the county – again at the behest of Bentz – and received a crash course on the region’s economic challenges. Those two visits set the stage for two important new economic proposals – the Eastern Oregon Border Economic Development Board and a rail reload facility north of Nyssa.

The two items have one thing in common: They unfolded after Bentz reached out to powerful Democrats and asked them to fly east. That style – invitations rather than shouts and searching for a middle ground rather than pouting in the back of the room – is the key to the future for places like Malheur County, said Bentz and Findley.

“When you are in the minority you always talk bipartisan really loudly. How else will you get anything done if you don’t have the votes? You carefully, carefully look at opportunities that are consistent with what we need to happen in our area,” said Bentz. Bentz said there are “lots of opportunities in Salem if you pay attention and work at it.”

Findley said finding political opportunities, where the needs of his district coincide with the needs of another, makes sense.

Grant Kitamura, the general manager of Baker & Murakami Produce Co., said he doesn’t see the Democratic majority in the Legislature as a major challenge.

“As long as we have our local guys who can reach across the aisle and help the other side understand our situation, that is the most meaningful thing,” said Kitamura.

Kitamura is a product of eastern Oregon but he agreed to allow Brown to use his quotes of support on her election literature. Kitamura said his support for Brown wasn’t a major break from his Republican roots.

Kitamura said Brown was instrumental in freeing up nearly $1 million to direct engineers to appraise buildings in the county damaged by the 2016-2017 winter.

“She saved me hundreds of thousands of dollars. When she visited she asked, ‘How can I help?’” said Kitamura.

Kitamura said he “took a little heat” for his support of Brown. “But I just told the truth.”

Kitamura also touted Brown’s support for the rail reload project.

“She helped us in snowmageddon and the trans load facility and I don’t think any governor has ever done that,” said Kitamura.

Rural politics

Brown doesn’t want to ignore rural Oregon either. She campaigned for re-election in part on themes involving rural Oregon.

Before the 2018 session, Brown made job creation and improving housing opportunities in rural Oregon one of the pillars in her agenda. Brown proposed attracting contractors to rural areas of the state to build affordable housing by providing low-rate loans. Brown has helped industry such as potatoes and onions with loans from the state and inked legislation last year to help Eastern Oregon University in La Grande build a new field house.

The Eastern Oregon Border Economic Development Board is a good example of how political and economic issues are not “always red and blue,” said its chair, Ontario attorney Shawna Peterson.

The board, she said, was a bipartisan effort to fix economic woes in a rural section of the state.

“It (the border board) passed unanimously and was co-sponsored by the Democratic speaker of the House. So, we are benefiting from bipartisan support,” said Peterson. Peterson said she would depend on Findley and Bentz to navigate the political landscape.

“They are a tremendous asset to Malheur County. Regardless of party affiliation they can get the ear of other decision makers,” said Peterson. Peterson said lawmakers should rely on people who live in rural areas for advice on contentious issues such as economic development and land use.

“We are the subject matter experts,” said Peterson.

Peterson said creation of the border board signals a move in the right direction for rural areas of the state and that lawmakers in Salem are paying attention.

“They have asked us to speak up and empowered us and now it is up to us to come up with reasonable, sustainable solutions that fit. I think we have their ear,” said Peterson.

Republican fate

Bentz said the bigger question that haunts the election is why the Republicans lost the seats in the House and Senate.

Bentz said the Oregon GOP must review its performance.

“I think there are is a whole bunch of heavy duty thinking going on if you are a Republican in Oregon. If people are not listening or choosing to disagree, you better check your positions carefully. And we will be doing that,” said Bentz.

He said Republicans has to assess their state agenda if they hope to make gains.

“The way folks get elected is with money. That means money from lobbyists and constituents. And people are not going to give you money to help if you are going to lose. It is time for us in the blue states to look carefully at what we stand for and make sure it is consistent with the power in this state,” said Bentz.

Bentz said people might “not like to hear that.”

“But things don’t get better with just the passage of time,” said Bentz. “If we want people to adopt our position we better figure out why they are not voting for us.”

Bentz and Findley said there are issues they plan to focus on when the next session kicks off in January.

“There are some major things that affect Malheur County, like economic development, land use and broadband,” said Findley.

Bentz said he sees the Democrats raising taxes and implementing legislation to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

He said he would likely oppose both.

Reporter Pat Caldwell: [email protected] or 541-473-3377.