SALEM — Cheri Helt finds herself in the middle a lot these days. She ran as a middle-of-the-road Republican, winning House District 54, which is both geographically and politically near the middle of the state. Now she finds herself in the middle of what promises to be one of the most contentious sessions of the Legislature in recent memory.
Helt is a moderate in an increasingly conservative Republican caucus, which itself is dwarfed by the Democrats’ 38-22 supermajority in the House. Helt still believes she can get things done, even if politically, she is a minority within a minority.
“My hope is we have a very bipartisan session,” Helt said. “I am very excited to work with anybody regardless of party.”
Helt spoke Monday in her new Capitol office after being sworn into office for a two-year term. The legislative session formally begins Tuesday.
Helt, a Bend restaurateur, won the House District 54 race despite Democrats holding about a 7,000 voter registration edge over Republicans. She was helped by the implosion of the campaign of Democrat Nathan Boddie, who was accused of sexual harassment, and later, the withdrawal of Working Families Party candidate Amanda LaBell amid revelations she made a false statement about her college education.
With the field essentially cleared of opposition, Helt was able to run without having to sharply delineate her politics or policy goals. Democrats had targeted the seat, which despite a steady Democratic voter registration trend, had voted for moderate Republicans in the four previous elections. Helt replaces Knute Buehler, the Republican who stepped down after two terms to make an unsuccessful bid for governor.
Helt said she is optimistic she will be able to work with Democrats on her goals, which center on education. She’s been named vice-chair of the House Education Committee and a member of the Joint Committee on Student Success. Helt hopes political discussions will move beyond the “D” for Democrat and “R” for Republican partisanship.
“Voters may have those letters they may identify with, but that is not really what defines us,” Helt said. “What defines us is our passions and beliefs and the need to move forward. We can only do that if we work together. It is the best way to get things done. We don’t want a government that shifts like a pendulum, and that is what we get if we only work with one side.”
But Helt is a realist and knows that results will be measured in votes, not words. She says that her experience with contentious issues as a member of the Bend-La Pine School Board has prepared her for the sharp debates to come — the ones that Gov. Kate Brown on Monday said require “metal underpants” to withstand.
“I am coming from a school board where we talk about school boundaries, negotiate with unions and a lot of other work that, if you want to put it in those words, require metal underpants. So I am very, very ready to take up those challenges.”
Improving public schools is at the head of Helt’s legislative to-do list.
“I want to really keep our young people at the top of our minds, because a lot of times in the process, they get lost,” Helt said. “That is why we are number 48 out of the states in graduation rates.”
Helt said she knows there is much debate in Salem about how to implement improvements — and how to pay for them. She’s ready to listen to those who are open to listening to her.
“I am prepared to do the hard work, the difficult work and to keep our vision towards our children,” Helt said.
Helt’s legislative agenda includes substituting the standardized tests taken by high school students, which she feels are obsolete, with real-life college admissions tests.
“I’ve co-authored a bill to utilize the SAT or ACT instead of the Smarter Balanced tests at the 11th grade,” Helt said. “A lot of students are opting out or dropping out from taking the test because they don’t see it as relevant to their lives, that it is not something that will help them get into college. We have to make sure it matters for them as well as us. If more students take part, we would be able to collect better data.”
Helt will be joining other lawmakers and legislative staff in training on sexual harassment issues. A recent report by the Bureau of Labor and Industries was critical of legislative leaders for allowing a hostile workplace environment for women.
“We need to improve our culture,” Helt said. “I support anything that makes the workplace environment a better, stronger place for women.”
Helt is also one of the chief sponsors of a House bill that directs the state Office of Emergency Management to study and make recommendations regarding funding of search and rescue operations. The effort comes from questions of coordination after a November 2014 rescue and recovery effort around the death of Ben Newkirk, a Bend resident who worked for Helt at Zydeco, a restaurant she co-owns.
Helt said she plans on living in Salem “five days a week” while the Legislature is in session. She’s packed a pair of comfortable slippers to keep in her office that she plans on wearing as the Legislature grinds through a mountain of legislation.
“I’m looking forward to working long days,” Helt said.
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