Gary A. Warner
The Bulletin

SALEM — As the Republican House member from Bend, Cheri Helt has dealt with a lot of political friction over the past year.

She’s too liberal for Republicans and too conservative for Democrats.

She’s a Republican representing a district where Democrats are the biggest voting bloc.

She’s a freshman in a Legislature that bows to seniority.

She’s a moderate in a GOP caucus full of conservatives.

She’s a Republican in a House with a historic Democratic majority.

On top of it all is the way Helt even got to Salem. Democrats held a registration edge of 6,000 voters over the GOP in House District 54. But the 2018 campaigns of the two Democratic-backed candidates, Nathan Boddie and Amanda La Bell, imploded under scandals. Helt was the only viable candidate left on the ballot.

Instead of sitting quietly as a lucky newcomer might, Helt reached out and pushed the hottest political button of the 2019 Legislature: vaccinations. It would engulf her in a monthslong struggle ending in a sudden, bizarre twist of backroom deal-making.

Despite having to bob and weave politically left and right to stay in what she saw as the middle, Helt said she had no regrets over the turbulent year.

“It was fun,” Helt said in a post-session interview last week. “If you want to make changes in the world, you have to put up with some unpleasant things. If I was always asking myself ‘how will this affect my reelection,’ I’m in the wrong business.”

Is Helt running for reelection in 2020?

“Yes, definitely,” she said.

Helt said she was pleased to get nine of her bills approved by the Democratic-dominated Legislature. Educational reforms, wildfire protection and health care improvements became law.

She carried “Kaylee’s Law” in the House. It aims to create safeguards against problems that allowed a Central Oregon Community College security guard to kidnap, rape and murder Kaylee Sawyer of Bend in 2016.

Helt said her biggest accomplishment for Bend was getting bipartisan support for the city to redevelop older commercial areas such as Third Street into stores with apartments above.

“My top priority coming into the session was more affordable housing for Bend,” she said. “To get that through as a freshman and a member of the minority party was a big victory.”

On the flip side, her biggest disappointment was House Bill 3063. It would have recognized only medical exemptions as reason for public schoolchildren to skip vaccinaitons for measles and other diseases .

“I felt like that bill was a really powerful bill to make sure that our public health standards don’t go backwards,” Helt said.

The bill set off a firestorm of opposition from parents who wanted to retain personal and religious exemptions. Most Republicans, including Rep. Jack Zika, R-Redmond, opposed the legislation. Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, spoke at a Capitol rally of the bill’s opponents. Helt was one of only two Republicans to vote “yes” on the bill when it passed the House. Once in the Senate, it was used as a bargaining chip to end a GOP walkout seeking to block a $2 billion tax for education that was the centerpiece of Gov. Kate Brown’s legislative agenda. Brown wouldn’t budge on the tax, but brokered a compromise to kill the immunization bill and a gun control bill most Republicans opposed in exchange for the senators’ return.

It was a lesson in the bare-knuckle bargaining that marked the 2019 session.

“Disappointing that the loudest/most extreme voices in our politics prevailed+the sensible-center/thoughtful policy-­making lost,” Helt wrote on Twitter at the time.

Helt said that despite differences on immunizations and other issues, she worked closely with Knopp and Zika throughout the year to advance legislation important to Central Oregon, such as housing projects in Bend and Redmond, Kaylee’s Law, and outdoor recreation legislation.

“We didn’t let it get personal,” Helt said.

In addition to the vaccinations bill, Helt bucked the Republican caucus when she supported driver’s licenses for undocumented residents and a “rollback” of environmental standards to where they were before President Donald Trump took office.

She voted with the GOP in opposition to statewide rent control. She was a “no” vote on ending a policy that tries minors as adults for some serious crimes. In a crucial test for both Democrats and Republicans, she opposed a carbon emissions cap-and-trade program. Democrats won on all three issues, though they ditched the cap-and-trade bill to end a second walkout by Senate Republicans at the end of the session.

Helt said the biggest personal challenge was being away from her family in Bend for much of the workweek. She credits her husband, Steve, with making it work.

“I was able to do this because of a very supportive husband,” Helt said. “It was good for the kids to have dad in charge. It was different for them. But you don’t want to get used to having your peanut butter and jelly sandwich cut the same way every day.”

Helt said she found a surprising ally in trying to find a life balance between being a legislator and staying involved with her family and restaurant business on the other side of the Cascades: House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland.

“She was very kind in thinking about which committees I would be on,” Helt said. “I didn’t get any committees that met on Fridays, so most weeks I was only gone Monday morning through Thursday evening.”

Helt is now looking ahead to the next 18 months. She says she’ll declare for reelection soon after registration to run in 2020 opens in September. She wants to make mental health care a priority during the Legislature’s 35-day “short session” in February and March 2020. She’s cautiously confident she won’t face a challenger in the May 2020 Republican primary. Helt is well aware that her seat is a top Democratic target in November 2020, with party leaders vowing not to repeat the mistakes some believe cost them the seat in 2018.

Helt says she will run again as a centrist, hoping she can draw in the mix of Republicans, nonaffiliated voters and moderate Democrats who have kept the seat in the Republican column for the past five elections.

“I came in trying to represent Bend, bring things more to the middle,” she said. “I feel even stronger about that now.”

A sign of her seriousness: Under House rules, lawmakers could not solicit campaign funds during the 160-day session. But within days of the gavel dropping to adjourn the House, Republicans’ email in-baskets around the state received a letter from former Rep. Knute Buehler, R-Bend.

He was already asking them for contributions to Helt’s 2020 bid as “our best shot.”

— Reporter: 541-640-2750, gwarner@bendbulletin.com

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