March 12, 2002 11:00 pm

By Ray Linker

Observer Staff Writer

Keeping the electorate and possible opponents in the dark until the last minute, state House Speaker Mark Simmons decided not to seek re-election after six years as the Northeast Oregon representative.

Instead, the candidate for the newly formed District 57 will be Rep. Greg Smith of Heppner. Both are Republicans.

Also getting into the race just under the wire Tuesday was Democrat Elizabeth Scheeler, who lives outside Pendleton on the west side of Highway 395.

With no other filings, the candidates will have no opponents from their respective parties in the May 21 primary.

Simmons and Smith held a news conference in Heppner Tuesday to announce their plans only hours before the 5 p.m. deadline for filing with the Secretary of State.

Simmons, from Elgin, endorsed Smith for the position.

Simmons had said last week he would take a few days to decide if he would seek another term. He said he would like to find a job in which he could use the political skills he has picked up in the last six years serving as Republican whip, majority leader and then speaker.

The Bulletin of Bend reported Simmons had been interviewed for a lobbyist position.

Simmons formerly represented District 58, which included all of Union and Wallowa counties and part of Umatilla.

With the mandated redistricting taking place, the local district is now District 57. It includes all of Union, Wallowa and Morrow counties and part of Umatilla County. It stretches from the Snake River to beyond Boardman.

Smith, an Eastern Oregon University graduate, formerly represented District 59, which included Baker, Crook, Gilliam, Grant, Sherman and Wheeler and parts of Wasco and Morrow counties, but his hometown of Heppner was placed in the new District 57.

Simmons, 46, said he was leaving the district in good hands.

Rep. Smith understands the economic realities of Northeastern Oregon and he will continue to work hard to support Union County, Simmons said.

Scheeler, a member of the Pendleton School Board, has a degree in forestry from Oregon State University and got into the race because it was obvious something needed to be done about school funding.

She was critical of Simmons efforts on behalf of pushing a $220 million Education Endowment Fund onto the coming ballot only to anticipate immediately borrowing from that fund to balance the state budget.

Scheeler said she did not know Simmons was not running when she filed late Tuesday.

I would have loved to run against him.

Smith is assistant majority leader and on the Ways and Means Committee, including the subcommittee on Economic Development and Transportation and the subcommittee on Public Safety.

House Majority Leader Karen Minnis, now in line to become speaker, said that during the last legislative session, Smith was instrumental in getting lottery dollars to rural economic development projects, job training and business loans for the area.

Smith said he would begin his re-election campaign by focusing on the economic development of Northeast Oregon, supporting adequate funding for local schools and working for senior and disabled citizens.

Smith, 33, manages the Morrow Development Corporation, a subsidiary corporation of the Port of Morrow in Boardman.

In November 1995, Republican Ray Baum of La Grande announced he would not seek a fifth term in the House, where he was majority leader. He had first been elected in 1988, but supported Simmons as his replacement from House District 58 (now District 57).

Simmons had been the Northeast Oregon spokesman for the Northwest Timber Workers Resource Council and a mechanic in Elgin for Boise Cascade.