With U.S. Rep. Greg Walden retiring, voters in rural Oregon will elect a new leader to Congress for the first time in over two decades.
Former state Sen. Cliff Bentz, who won a crowded Republican primary in May, will face Democrat Alex Spenser for the open seat to represent Oregon’s 2nd Congressional District.
Based on the demographics of the historically conservative district, Bentz is the frontrunner.
Bentz, a lawyer from Ontario, served 10 years in the state’s House of Representatives in District 60. He resigned in 2018 after being appointed to Oregon’s Senate District 30. He stepped down from that seat earlier this year to campaign full time.
Bentz played an instrumental role in 2017 by getting Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature to come together to pass a landmark $5.3 billion transportation package. The bill included taxes and fees to fund congestion-reducing projects, highway and bridge improvements and transit projects across the state.
Bentz said he learned some valuable lessons about bipartisanship.
“The party in power has to be in some fashion motivated to work with a party that’s not in power,” Bentz said.
Bentz was one of 11 lawmakers to leave the state last year after negotiations with Democrats broke down over a proposed climate bill. He continued working on climate legislation from March through December of last year — including 16 round-trip flights from Boise to Portland and another seven by car — but said he was “frozen out” of the climate change discussions in December. He said, despite the expertise he brought to the talks, Democrats kept him out solely because he was a conservative.
“They couldn’t bring a bill into the committee and keep all of their environmental organizations with them if a Republican helped put it together,” he said. “Didn’t matter if I was Einstein.”
Bentz said the Democrats needed a Republican vote to pass the transportation package, but that wasn’t the case with the proposed cap and trade bill.
“So what does this translate into? Power. If you don’t have power, you don’t have leverage,” he said. “Then the political winds will prevail, not the policy wins.”
Bentz said, if he can get to Washington, D.C., with President Donald Trump winning reelection and Republicans maintaining control of the Senate, then that leverage can come from the Senate and the presidency.
“I’ll go to the House because I’m used to working in the minority,” he said. “I’ll see what I can do, because finally, we’ll have leverage.”
He said, without Republican leverage, the opportunity will be “vastly diminished ... because politics will govern rather than policy.”
Bentz said he would do in Washington what he did in Salem: listen to his constituents and educate himself. He said he has purchased between 20 and 30 books on Congress’s rules and parliamentary procedures that apply in the House.
Bentz said he is meeting as many congressmen and women as possible, which he said has been “super informative.” He’s up to 22.
“I only have about 400 more to go,” he said.
Bentz said getting on committees that best fit the district is essential too. He said natural resources, transportation, infrastructure and agriculture are the four that would serve his background and the region.
He also said several representatives had suggested the Judiciary Committee because of his background as a trial lawyer.
“I wasn’t a very good one, but I do know how to ask a question,” Bentz said.
Bentz said his priority will be to his constituents in Eastern Oregon.
“National issues, of course, are going to play a big part,” he said. “But my reason for going back there has much more to do with local, regional stuff. ... You don’t want the national to take over, or pretty soon you won’t have a job.”
Bentz, who spent 14 days in quarantine last month after his wife tested positive for COVID-19 while he tested negative, had firsthand experience with the virus.
“(Quarantine) didn’t make a huge difference to me because I had been doing so much by Zoom anyway,” Bentz said. “I just moved my computer and everything up to the house and did everything from the house.”
Moving forward, he said, the state and the federal government should be responding to the virus by conducting risk assessments and identifying groups most at risk of getting the virus.
President Trump, he said, has tried to communicate this, albeit in an “awkward” way.
“He’s trying to blurt out that some people are more at risk than others,” he said. “And that is absolutely true.”
He said, while he does not support mask mandates, he supports educating people about the risks of not wearing a mask.
“If you want to drive down your risk, wear a mask,” he said. “That’s what I like telling people.”
He said people in a “risk group,” 70 or older, should “seriously” consider wearing a mask. He said face coverings make sense in enclosed places or areas where air cannot move around.
As the Congressional Budget Office announced last week that the US deficit was $3.1 trillion, or 15.2% of the country’s gross domestic product, for fiscal year 2020, Bentz said it is essential to be cognizant of the deficit.
“If you’re going to create money, you’re generally going to dilute the value of everybody else’s,” he said. “Is that the way we want to pay for things? Monetizing your debt. I don’t think so.”
On the other hand, he said, it is important to keep the economy going during a recession. He said, during the Great Recession when he was in the Oregon Legislature, they did everything they could to pump money into the economy and bring jobs back.
He said he would have supported the previous federal pandemic relief bill because the “alternative would have been worse.”
Bentz said there were inequities, however, such as the prohibition on foreclosures and evictions. Lenders and landlords, he said, are picking up 100% of the cost.
He said he wants a rent relief plan that is fair to both the renter and tenant. And on the foreclosure side, the program should not put the cost on the banks.
“If the government’s going to come in and say, ‘We’re going to impose a cost,’ isn’t the government’s job to try to bear that cost?” Bentz said.
He said he would support another round of stimulus checks for those who are still out of work and struggling but that more funding should not go to everyone.
Protests and responses
Bentz said, although he does not support the organization Black Lives Matter — what he described as a “socialistic” organization that has raised nearly $2 billion — he supports the concept.
He said, to him, it is “pleading” for people to recognize the burdens Black people face in society.
He said, on nearly every social metric, such as health care or education, Black people are near or at the bottom. Bentz said he wants to get the figures in front of people and ask why the disparities exist.
“Let’s get it out there, and let’s place it before this nation and say, ‘This doesn’t seem to be right. What can we do about it?’” he said.
He said the topic is full of “landmines” and often turns into a “blame thing” that is not productive.
“How we move beyond understanding these differences is something that we need to work with others on,” he said.
Bentz said he is supportive of peaceful protests, and they are an essential part of society.
Protests that began in Burns over the imprisonment of local ranchers in 2016 were peaceful initially, but the armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge was not a peaceful protest.
“When they took guns to the party, it became much more of a criminal matter and much less of a protest,” he said.
He said the local response to the Portland protest has been disappointing. Mayor Ted Wheeler, Bentz said, should be doing more to keep the peace.
The phrase “mostly peaceful protest,” he said, is ridiculous, and one that should not have been used by the press to justify illegal activity.
The federal response in Portland, Bentz said, is justified in defending federal buildings.
He said Trump’s decision to go beyond defending the federal buildings was a mistake. Bentz said the Wall Street Journal drew a comparison to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell’s famous warning to President George W. Bush before the administration invaded Iraq, “If you break it, you own it.”
“Why, Mr. President, now, would you go into Portland?” Bentz said. “Because then you get to own it, and why would you want to own Portland?”
Bentz said Trump saw that he was “owning it,” which is why he pulled back forces.
Fires and forests
Bentz said longer, hotter and drier summers coupled with an increasing amount of wood compounds the risk of forest fires.
He said some areas in Oregon where there were normally 100 trees per acre have 700 trees per acre, and they will continue growing faster because of increased carbon in the air.
He said climate change is a problem, but there are disagreements over causes and solutions. He said, after working on the climate change bill in Salem, the problem comes down to adaptation, innovation and sequestration.
He said cities need to adapt to hotter, drier conditions by storing more water and getting into the surrounding forests and removing wood and other fuels.
Innovation, Bentz said, is about investing in cleaner technology. He said, if people want to pay 15 cents a gallon for gas, they should buy an electric car.
“Elon Musk has a pretty good idea,” he said. “You want a Tesla? Everybody wants a Tesla.”
For sequestration, he said, the best device to absorb carbon is trees.
“We need to clean up our forest to make them work better and sop it up,” he said.
Bentz said, no matter what actions are taken, climate change is “baked into the future” for the next 30 to 40 years.
“If all carbon stops tomorrow, we have 30 to 40 years of this problem,” he said.
Bentz’s website is cliffbentz.com.