Seven candidates gathered Thursday evening at the Lake Theater and Café in Lake Oswego to make their case for why they ought to succeed state Rep. Ann Lininger.
The public forum, hosted by the local group Independents for Progressive Action, focused on several key state issues, including health care, education and tax reform.
Lininger was recently appointed to serve as a judge on the Clackamas County Circuit Court and will formally resign her seat on Tuesday; a new representative must be chosen within 30 days to serve out the rest of her term. Because Lininger is a Democrat, state law mandates that her successor be a Democrat as well.
Next Monday, Precinct Committee Persons from the Clackamas and Multnomah County Democratic Parties in Oregon's House District 38 will hold a nominating convention to interview the applicants and select three to five candidates for the seat. The Boards of Commissioners of the two counties will then choose a final appointee from that list.
Thursday night's candidate forum was the first gathering of all seven candidates: Lake Oswego City Councilors Theresa Kohlhoff and Joe Buck; political consultants Andrea Salinas and Moses Ross; public relations executive and former government spokesman Neil H. Simon; restaurateur Daniel Nguyen; and Alex Josephy, secretary of the Democratic Party of Oregon.
The questions for the evening were preselected based on questions submitted to IPA in the days leading up to the forum, with no live questions taken from the audience. Moderator Peter Toll introduced the candidates, then began with a question about taxes: How should Oregon solve its revenue shortfall, he asked, and how should the system balance corporate and individual taxes?
Ross cited the failure of Measure 97 — a gross receipts tax on the November 2016 ballot — as a source of frustration, saying that it would have made significant progress toward solving the state's revenue problem. But the measure was defeated, partially because of an infusion into the race of cash from large corporations, and Ross vowed Thursday to advocate for tax parity if appointed.
Josephy called for a greater effort to try to find a necessary balance between a tax system that helps Oregonians and a system that grows the economy, and Simon said the state's corporate tax rate needs to be raised to at least the national median.
Simon also cautioned against relying on voter referendums to fix the tax system, saying the Legislature shouldn't "pass the buck."
Salinas said successful tax reform could only happen if Democrats bring both businesses and Republicans to the table. Nguyen shifted the focus slightly to emphasize the need to fund education, and Buck also talked about the need to invest in education, saying any tax reform efforts needed to "keep that goal in mind."
Kohlhoff called for Democrats to take a strong opening position on tax reform. The goal, she said, was to make sure the party doesn't "give away the whole thing from the beginning."
"The time is overdue to say out loud, loud and proud, that the wealthiest among us must pay more," she said.
The second question of the night focused on affordable housing policies. All of the candidates called for the state to take action to increase housing availability, although they emphasized different approaches.
Josephy said he supported the idea of rent control, but he worried that it would lead to unintended consequences and said combating gentrification needed to be a higher priority. Nguyen argued that increasing the housing supply must be a focus of the discussion.
Simon said Democrats need to do more to put human faces and personal stories on the issue, and Buck cited his own experiences in Lake Oswego as an example of the need for better housing policy. Many of his own employees are being forced to move further and further away from the restaurants he owns in the city, Buck said.
Kohlhoff pointed to her candidacy for the Lake Oswego City Council last year, when she made affordable housing a centerpiece of her platform. She said she was warned that such a position would get a chilly reception in Lake Oswego, but she said the fact that she won a council seat shows that voters support new ways to improve housing, and she said she'd keep fighting for it if appointed.
Salinas called for an end to no-cause evictions and referenced House Bill 2004, which would have ended no-cause evictions but failed to pass the state Senate in the most recent legislative session. She said its failure was "the biggest disappointment of the session" for her.
Ross cited his own experience as a longtime renter in Portland, saying housing costs in the city have more than doubled in the past six years alone, and he called for action to keep people from being priced out.
"I'm fortunate enough to still be able to afford it," he said, "but I'm an outlier."
Toll's third question focused on health care and how to best ensure that Oregonians receive the care they need. Salinas pointed to her past work with legislators on health care policy and offered a strong endorsement of single-payer health care for Oregon.
"Single-payer really is the most affordable way to go," she said. "It is what everyone really needs. Health care is a right."
Those comments were echoed to varying degrees by the other candidates, all of whom argued that the current health care system eats up too much money and doesn't produce satisfactory outcomes. Simon pointed to the health care systems of other countries as proof that single-payer can work well, and said he wanted Oregon to lead by example.
"Oregon can lead — we can create this," he said.
The candidates were also unified in their calls for increased education funding, and many offered pointed criticism of the current state of Oregon's public schools. Joesphy added that education funding should be an area where Democrats can bring Republicans on board by pointing to the economic benefits that result from a more educated population, and Nguyen highlighted it as a pathway for people to move out of poverty.
Toll asked the candidates about campaign finance reform and whether they would take large donations if they ran for re-election in 2018. All called for reform and transparency, and Ross cited his work on Multnomah County Ballot Measure 26-184 to limit campaign contributions, which voters overwhelmingly approved in November 2016.
Simon said the United States' current campaign finance rules make it "the laughingstock of Western democracies," and Buck called out what he said was hypocrisy on the part of corporations that insist they can't afford higher taxes, but then put millions of dollars into political races.
There were also unified calls for criminal justice reform in response to a question from Toll, and several candidates emphasized the need to change how the state and country approach substance abuse issues by offering treatment rather than incarceration. Josephy in particular called for the legalization of "nearly all drugs" and said that providing treatment options has been shown to be most effective at reducing crime.
There were also calls for increased police accountability, and Kohlhoff and Nguyen highlighted the large racial disparities among incarcerated people as a problem that needs to be addressed.
Toll's final question focused on the environment, and several candidates offered ambitious goals. Kohlhoff called for immediate large-scale investment in mass transit, and Ross said he wanted to see the state set "audacious goals" for rapidly transitioning to 100 percent renewable energy.
Simon harshly criticized President Donald Trump's decision to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Agreement, which he called "the biggest global mistake" made by "our sham president." Nguyen called for Oregon to be mindful of how its climate policies affect the rest of the world.
"We don't like to burn coal here," he said, "yet we'll allow other states to send coal across our state to the coast to be exported (and burned elsewhere)."
Buck pointed to Lake Oswego's own recent work developing a Climate Action Plan, and said that in order to be successful at combating climate change, governments need to convince and inspire residents to make the myriad small lifestyle changes that will be necessary to create large-scale reductions in emissions.
"It does add up to make a huge difference," he said.