By Elon Glucklich

The Bulletin

The Republican primary race for Deschutes County commissioner is getting more heated by the week.

In the two months they’ve been actively campaigning, Commissioner Tony DeBone and challenger Richard Esterman have sparred over groundwater issues in La Pine, rural farmland events, even which of the two candidates is a true conservative.

And as the May 20 primary election looms, each jab seems to be hitting a bit harder.

Esterman has said he’s the more conservative candidate, criticizing some of DeBone’s views on the role of government in citizens’ lives.

The exchanges continued this week, with DeBone calling himself a more practical choice for office.

“Being more conservative doesn’t mean just being upset about how you’d rather have the world be,” DeBone said Tuesday.

Esterman fired back, saying DeBone has essentially learned on the job.

“It’s taken him almost four years to finally understand the office,” Esterman said Wednesday. “He’s not getting anything done. Anything he’s started he hasn’t finished.”

Esterman, 57, filed to run for DeBone’s seat last fall. A Sisters-area event planner and photographer, Esterman has called Central Oregon home since 1989.

His background includes several years as a grocery store manager and owner of a small gift and shipping store. Esterman launched an unsuccessful bid for Oregon governor in 2010. But he said that campaign gave him valuable political experience.

DeBone, 47, won his seat on the Deschutes County Board of Commissioners in 2010. He launched his bid for a second term in December. A La Pine resident, DeBone and his wife, Kathy, run the computer store Little d Technology.

DeBone served as president of the La Pine Park & Recreation District before his election to the county commission.

Both candidates say they want to be a conservative voice on the board, advocating for local businesses and keeping regulations to a minimum.

But as the campaigns have unfolded, the differences between the two have become clearer.

Esterman has taken more black-and-white positions on issues such as events held on farm properties. He says the county shouldn’t get involved at all if property owners want to host weddings or other events.

DeBone said property owners should have the freedom to host events as long as they don’t have negative effects on neighboring property owners.

The issue has bubbled up over the past year, as an improving economy has prompted more landowners to seek permits for events on their farm properties.

Esterman has also criticized DeBone for what Esterman calls a slow response to county issues.

Southern Deschutes County has grappled with contaminated groundwater issues for decades, a result of poorly built septic systems in subdivisions that have branched off from the city of La Pine.

The county has long tried to resolve the issue, but the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality has recently taken the lead.

Esterman has been quick to hammer DeBone for not resolving the groundwater problem at the county level, and ramped up his criticism this week.

But DeBone said helping run a county has meant putting ideology aside to solve problems, even if that has expanded the role of government in some cases.

“I think I’m the kind of pragmatic person who can represent (Deschutes County) businesses,” DeBone said Tuesday.

Their differences extend to fundraising strategies and health benefits.

Esterman has said he’s not taking campaign contributions, and, if elected, he wouldn’t accept the health insurance plan county commissioners receive.

DeBone has raised more than $6,000 since December, according to state campaign finance records.

Deschutes County registered Republicans will decide between DeBone and Esterman in the primary election May 20.

The winner will face Bend City Councilor Jodie Barram, a Democrat, in November.

— Reporter: 541-617-7820,