A crowded field of Democrats aiming to unseat U.S. Rep. Greg Walden answered questions during a forum at the Canyon City Community Hall March 7.
Oregon’s Second Congressional District by area is the largest in Oregon and seventh-largest in the U.S., encompassing two-thirds of the state and including all of 19 counties and part of one more.
The district has been represented by Walden since 1999. The Republican has taken about two-thirds or more of the vote in 10 straight elections, leaving the Democrats facing an uphill battle.
About 30 people listened to the six candidates, who have been criss-crossing the district to spread their message.
Eric Burnette, a retired Merchant Marine officer from Hood River, is the former executive director of the Oregon Board of Maritime Pilots. He said he once voted for Walden, who lives only two blocks away, but his views of the congressman drastically changed after Walden voted to repeal Obamacare.
“This is a winnable race,” he said, a point echoed by other candidates that night.
Michael Byrne, a licensed stonemason from Parkdale, grew up working on wheat and cattle ranches in Eastern Oregon. He wants the district’s representative to support working families, Medicare for all, social and environmental justice and a transition away from fossil fuels. Many of these positions were shared by the other candidates.
“I’m not a politician,” he said, noting that it’s impossible to present yourself to the voters in one-minute “elevator speeches.” Byrne said he felt things were so bad he had to do something, and that meant “going to the top.”
“Things at the top can kill you,” he said, adding, “Walden has got to go. He’s going to get us killed.”
James Crary, a retired supply-chain manager for British Petroleum from Ashland, was defeated by Walden in 2016. He has a law degree and taught at the University of North Dakota. Like the others, the direction of today’s politics drove him to run.
“When something really irritates me, you can sit back and complain or do something,” he said.
Campaign finance reform is Crary’s No. 1 issue. The voice in Washington, D.C. is not coming from the people but from corporations, he said.
Jamie McLeod-Skinner, a former Phoenix city manager who lives in Terrebonne, has degrees in civil engineering, regional planning and law and has served on the city council in Santa Clara, California.
People in the district are hurting, and Walden is not trying to help them, she said, noting that she is the only candidate in the room who has won an election.
Jennifer Neahring, a physician from Bend, is a kidney specialist who has a medical practice in Salem and Portland. Her No. 1 issue is health care, which she says costs too much and affects everything in government.
“The system is broken, so broken,” she said.
Tim S. White, a retired Chrysler Corp. finance director from Bend with a master’s in business administration, used his experience as a turn-around specialist to write an award-winning book about business. He agreed that the race against Walden was winnable, but Democrats need to change their platform.
The No. 1 issue is not health care, he said, it’s jobs. And campaign finance issues are not going to go away, he said, so the No. 2 issue is protecting Social Security.
“The government needs to keep its hands off Social Security and Medicare,” he said.
Burnette noted that the Democratic platform is 26,000 words long, and very little of it deals with rural problems.
“The party is not paying attention to rural issues,” he said.
But neither are Republicans, who believe the market can fix everything, Burnette added.
“We don’t need a tax cut. We need a raise,” he said.
Crary noted that the biggest obstacle to health care reform “is Greg Walden.” The solution is Medicare for all, he said.
“I’ve never heard a person complain about Medicare,” he said, noting how much money in private insurance goes to executives and profits.
Byrne suggested bringing broadband internet to the John Day area could help stop young people from leaving, but he noted that the area is also a good place for retirees.
“I’d like to live in John Day,” he said.
Crary said the answer to keeping young people in Grant County is good-paying jobs, so they can save up to buy a house and send their children to college. Instead of a $1.5 trillion tax give-away for the wealthy, federal money should be spent on infrastructure — repairing roads, bridges, sewer and water, which would also provide those good-paying jobs, he said.
McLeod-Skinner has a lot of experience in infrastructure, having repaired water and sewer projects damaged during the war in Bosnia. She sees two types of needed infrastructure improvements: physical and social, the latter including education and health care.
Neahring agreed with the importance of education but pointed out the diversity of the huge Eastern Oregon congressional district.
“There’s no two-minute answer,” she said.
She also noted that the Trump administration had promised a “grand infrastructure plan” that has never materialized.
White suggested revamping an existing federal education act that has long gone unfunded and giving $300,000 to $400,000 to every high school in the nation.
McLeod-Skinner said broadband access could improve health care in rural areas, but a better way to finance health care is also needed.
White pointed out that 20 health care CEOs take home about $400 million in compensation. The country needs a better tax policy to address that, but big health care companies are Walden’s No. 1 contributor, he said.
Burnette took issue with the Democratic platform — it’s not clear on health care reform, he said. He wanted to see support for rural facilities folded into improvements for mental health and drug treatment.
“Should you have to drive 100 miles to a doctor?” he asked. “No.”
All six candidates supported keeping federal lands public. Neahring wanted to see more collaborative efforts and not some bureaucrat flying in from Washington, D.C., to make quick decisions.
White wanted politicians in Congress to keep their hands off national monuments. He wanted to preserve the legacy of grazing leases for ranchers in a sustainable way, and he criticized Walden’s support of the 2017 Resilient Federal Forests Act, which he called a “hand-off” to timber companies.
Burnette noted that if Grant County one day was given all the federal lands in this area, the county government would be unable to manage the lands and would be faced with bankruptcy or a big sale to private interests.
Byrne said he wanted to see public lands managed for multiple use — including a new use called “carbon banking,” in which forests are maintained as an asset for climate change financing.
White called for building a major north-south interstate highway through Central Oregon and paying for it with a big cut in defense spending — from the current $800 billion to about $300 billion.
Burnette noted how much better America’s middle class was doing when unions were strong.
“We need to re-unionize the U.S. economy,” he said.
White called for changing the Democratic Party paradigm. He called himself “policy-driven” and wanted to figure out a way to make the issues of jobs and protecting Social Security work politically.
Neahring said Congress needs to focus on the tough issues — education and infrastructure — before more people get hurt.
Looking around, Byrne noted that he was running against “a wide field of super-qualified individuals.” But Congress doesn’t need more politicians — it needs a working man, he said.