By Taylor W. Anderson • The Bulletin

NAME: Craig Wilhelm

AGE: 42

RESIDENCE: Bend

EDUCATION: Bachelor of Science, U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Master of Business Administration, Duke University

GOV/CIVIC EXPERIENCE: Former chair of Deschutes County Democratic Party; Strategic Planning for Crook County Foundation; Bethlehem Inn; Central Oregon Food Policy Council

Oregon has few districts that still change party control from election to election. Many Oregon districts are so heavily Republican or Democrat that elections aren’t contentious.

Bend’s House District 54 isn’t one of those. There are 2,195 more Democrats than Republicans in the district, but a large number of independent voters make the district a close one.

The candidates running Nov. 4 for state representative, Republican Knute Buehler and Democrat Craig Wilhelm, are leaning on their professional experience to tell voters why they should be elected.

Wilhelm

Wilhelm’s life has largely been guided by a dream he had when he was in junior high.

At 13 years old, four years after living in Saudi Arabia with his family, Wilhelm decided he wanted to go to the United States Military Academy at West Point. During his last two weeks of high school, Wilhelm said, he was accepted to the academy and was at the new school 10 days later.

“It really set me in terms of the discipline. It set me in terms of the way that I run my business now. How I try to set myself up in life. But it was tough,” he said.

He joined the Army and served for nearly 14 years, earning 11 medals and badges, according to military records, before getting an MBA from Duke University and leaving the military as a major and moving to Bend in 2006.

Wilhelm now is vying for a seat in one of the state’s few battleground districts. It’s a district with more registered Independent voters (2,789) than any other House district in the state. There is also a high percentage of voters registered to no party.

Wilhelm is personally visiting nearly 6,000 houses in Bend, taking his ideas onto voters’ doorsteps and into living rooms one at a time several hours of every day of the week.

On Tuesday, Wilhelm knocked and a man in Northwest Crossing opened his door. Wilhelm introduced himself as a candidate for House District 54 and asked whether the man wanted to hear more about any particular issues.

The man said keeping Bend’s biking infrastructure maintained is his biggest concern. Another man invited Wilhelm in to hear him talk about his ideas on making class sizes smaller and bringing businesses and jobs to Bend.

Those fit in as central aspects of Wilhelm’s campaign. As someone who’s never run for public office, Wilhelm says his No. 1 goal is to improve Bend and its economy.

“I’d rather have 40 small businesses with 15 to 20 employees come here and succeed,” Wilhelm said.

He’s running a campaign that keeps hyper-focus on Bend’s schools, economy and jobs. He tells voters if they have any questions to call him. His direct line is on his website.

He’s also facing off against a well-known and well-financed opponent in Republican Knute Buehler, who ran for secretary of state in 2012.

Buehler

Buehler grew up in the southern Oregon town of Roseburg, and said he remembers when Gov. John Kitzhaber, a former emergency room doctor, patched up his broken arm when he was young.

The son of two parents who never finished high school, Buehler said he worked grunt jobs cleaning a butcher shop and attaching chokers for logging operations.

“If anyone ever asks ‘Do you want to work in a butcher shop?’ Don’t do it,” he said.

He attended Oregon State University, studying American history and microbiology before heading to Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore.

Buehler says living in Baltimore in the 1980s put him in the middle of issues that were entirely different than ones in Roseburg. The AIDS epidemic was challenging medical professionals, new cancers were being discovered and the nation’s urban areas were plagued by gang violence.

“The other thing at that time, I could see that medicine was going to be a big political issue,” Buehler said. “The forces that were influencing my chosen career were going to be important political issues for a long time.”

Buehler was accepted to be a Rhodes Scholar and studied politics and economics at Oxford from 1988 to 1990.

Back in the U.S., a friend introduced Buehler to the campaign of Ross Perot, an independent presidential candidate whose grass-roots efforts influenced the 1992 and 1996 elections.

Perot’s approach to American politics can be seen in Bueh­ler’s political style today.

Buehler, who is running as a Republican, was cross-nominated by the Independent and Libertarian parties under the state’s fusion voting system.

He’s forming coalitions, such as a group of local Democrats who have endorsed his run for office, in a manner similar to Perot’s campaign.

Maintaining independence from political ties has been a central piece of Buehler’s message for election to office.

He said he supports smaller government and more personal freedom. Making state government more accountable to voters is another key part of his campaign message.

While he says the nation’s founders didn’t support partisan labels, he’s running as a Republican and will join the caucus if elected.

“I think independently, I look at the facts and I make the decisions that suit the public interest,” Buehler said, adding that he held a Kitzhaber fundraiser in 2010. “If that means going against my party, I have no problem in doing that.”

He also supports Ballot Measure 90, which would change the state’s electoral process by creating a nonpartisan primary open to all voters. That measure is opposed by Wilhelm, who said it would allow businesses to pick favorite candidates and would lead to more money being spent in the primary elections.

Wilhelm’s military experience

Wilhelm was in Kuwait in 2003 right before the U.S. invaded Iraq.

“I actually went into Iraq before the war started as an advance team,” he said.

In one of Wilhelm’s last years in the Army, while commanding a Chinook supply helicopter fleet in Afghanistan, he got a call. Five of his soldiers died in a crash there on April 6, 2005.

Five years later, he set up a memorial fund, Windy25, to help support the families of his soldiers and others who have died in combat.

Improving treatment of veterans is one of six main issues he highlights as important for Bend’s next representative.

“I’m a staunch advocate for making sure we give veterans access to care that they need locally,” Wilhelm said.

He moved to Bend and started working for a business that recycles metals and wiring for companies worldwide that are moving to fiber optics.

He soon proposed an offshoot business with a co-worker to work almost exclusively with military bases that are upgrading their communications systems.

He leans on that experience as part-owner of a business in calling for focus on creating new jobs in Bend. He said he’d work in Salem to cut regulations on businesses.

His campaign has been endorsed by prominent Oregon Democrats including Kitzhaber, as well as the Oregon State Firefighters Council, public employee unions and others.

Buehler and health care

To run for office, Buehler is forgoing a project that has helped him gain wealth and one that could change the surgery process worldwide.

He was part of a team that created technology that digitized part of the process used in surgeries over the last decade.

“It’s really kind of revolutionized the way knee replacements have been done,” he said.

The next step in that process, he said, is linking the digitized process to robotic equipment for surgeries. But he won’t be a part of that as long as he pursues a career in politics.

He hopes to become the only doctor in the House and points out that health care reform will remain a top issue next session.

“There’s three big problems: access, quality and cost,” Bueh­ler said. “And the Affordable Care Act did make significant progress in improving access. That’s good. But it also came at a high price.”

He said he would work to expand access to the health care system for the state’s 95 percent of residents who now have insurance by promoting programs that give loan forgiveness to doctors in rural areas.

Buehler has been plagued by questions over whether he’s running for a seat in the House only to parlay that into higher office. It’s a cloud that he doesn’t deny is hanging over him and does nothing to get rid of, neither confirming nor denying interest in higher office.

“Right now I’m focused on winning this election and I’m focused on doing a good job for two years,” he said. “Who knows what will happen in two or four years?”

— Reporter: 406-589-4347,

tanderson@bendbulletin.com

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