Two candidates seeking to represent the largest chunk of Oregon in Congress faced off Friday night in a sharp but civil one-hour televised debate.
U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, is seeking an 11th term representing the 2nd Congressional District, which includes most of Eastern, Central and much of Southern Oregon, including the tri-county area.
He’s being challenged by Democrat Jamie McLeod-Skinner, a former civic administrator living in Terrebonne in Deschutes County, and Independent Party nominee Mark Roberts, a truck driver from White City in Jackson County. Roberts pulled out of the debate at the last minute due to illness.
The debate, hosted by television station KTVZ in Bend, was the first public face-off before the Nov. 6 election.
Walden underlined his experience in Washington and his ability to have an impact at the highest levels of government. He’s currently the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has dealt with issues from tax cuts to net neutrality, opioid addiction programs to an attempt to repeal Obamacare. Walden also said he had been working to cut wildfires through reform of forest management that allow more cutting of dead, burned trees.
“At the end of the day, the changes we have made in Washington have given us the strongest economy in years,” Walden said.
Walden said he was proud of his work on improving water quality in Oregon.
“When a mom is pouring water out of her tap at home, she knows that water is safe,” Walden said.
Walden said he was working to expand rural broadband networks and the next generation of 5G networks.
“This will help close that digital divide,” Walden said.
Calling Oregon a “small-business state,” Walden said he was proud of the tax cuts signed into law by President Donald Trump.
“We have to lift the dead hand of government off of small-business owners,” he said.
McLeod-Skinner called out what she said was Walden’s “failed” leadership in Washington.
“Half of the people in our district live below the poverty line,” McLeod-Skinner said, adding, “They struggle to put a food on their table and a roof over their head.”
McLeod-Skinner said she believed the main problem was that Walden had lost touch with the district.
“What I am hearing as I travel around the state is you are not showing up, you are not listening,” she said.
McLeod-Skinner said her top priorities if elected are to improve access to affordable health care, end tariffs that hurt agricultural producers, build infrastructure, such as roads and bridges, that would also create high-paying jobs and create a program for which students could trade a pledge to work in public service in place of tuition at colleges and trade schools.
“Government has to know when to get involved and when to get out of the way,” she said.
On guns, both candidates said they supported gun owner rights.
McLeod-Skinner said she wanted to balance her support of the Second Amendment with her support of the idea of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence that includes people feeling safe in their workplaces, schools and churches. She suggested subsidizing gun locks as one step forward.
Walden said that shootings were every parent’s greatest fear and that solutions included repairing the firearm background check system, better training of law enforcement and continuing to fund mental health services.
McLeod-Skinner said that one in five residents of the 2nd District would have lost health insurance if the Senate had not blocked the repeal of the Affordable Care Act that passed through Walden’s House committee. She said Walden supported legislation to allow insurance companies to charge “deterrence premiums” to cover people with pre-existing medical conditions.
The candidates hit each other on their positions, but mostly kept away from direct personal attacks — while both claiming to have been the target of the other.
Walden claimed that McLeod-Skinner’s critique of his record was the kind that deserved “four Pinocchios” for being untrue. He referred to her as a “Nancy Pelosi” Democrat, a reference to the often unpopular House Minority Leader from California. McLeod-Skinner claimed Walden supporters were the source of unspecified “attacks on me and my family.” She also tied Walden to the “culture of divisiveness” created by President Trump.
McLeod-Skinner challenged Walden to two more debates — one in Eastern Oregon and one in Southern Oregon. She said Walden had avoided forums that were open to the public.
“In the past year and a half, it has been closed meetings and fundraisers, a pay-for-play mentality,” she said. “You shouldn’t be afraid of people who are frustrated.”
Walden countered that he had held dozens of meetings across the state and has done 147 town hall meetings during his career. He argued people knew him and where he stood.
“I don’t think people want a debate on debates,” he said. “I don’t think we are going to do any more debates.”
Roberts was the odd man out on Friday. The Independent Party leadership withdrew its support from Roberts and backed McLeod-Skinner after Roberts made disparaging remarks about First Lady Melania Trump on Twitter. But Roberts remains on the ballot as the Independent Party nominee.
Oct. 16 is the deadline to register to vote. Ballots will be mailed out beginning Oct. 17. Marked ballots can be returned by mail or by dropping them off at designated boxes in every county.
The 2nd Congressional District seat is held by Walden, the only Republican among Oregon’s five House members and two Senators. Though Bend and Walden’s home, Hood River County, supported Democrat Hillary Clinton for President, the rest of the district favored President Trump. The state and its seven electoral votes was won by Clinton.
This election is a rare strong challenge for Walden, who has won by more than two-thirds of the vote in his heavily Republican district in each of his re-election campaigns. He won 72 percent of the vote in 2016. Through June, Walden had raised $4.2 million vs. $282,000 for McLeod-Skinner. New campaign finance reports for the period through September will be released Oct. 15.
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