ENTERPRISE — Wildfires did not devastate Northeast Oregon this year, but they decimated other portions of the 2nd Congressional District, which Cliff Bentz is seeking to represent in the U.S. Congress, most notably the cities of Talent and Phoenix.
Bentz, a Republican and former state representative and senator who is running to replace Greg Walden, sat down with the Chieftain on Tuesday, Oct. 27, one week before the general election, to discuss what has happened with fires in Oregon, and other issues pertinent to area residents. Bentz said a key to protecting Oregonians from fires is letting them know what the risk level is for communities around the state.
“The two things that need to happen right now in this space to anybody that is even close to those fires … is that we’ve gotta do something to tell communities who are at risk that they’re at risk and do a risk assessment of all the communities in Oregon, but particularly those surrounded by the woods, and say ‘You’ve got to do something because we can’t have our people burning up. You can’t have this,’” he said. “This is one of those things people tend to forget when a fire is put out.” Bentz said a bill was introduced in March of this year “that would have directed risk assessment,” but did not advance through the Democrat-led state Legislature.
He said a risk assessment would first need to address power line strength and how they would handle high winds, would need to address how to deal with grass — and not just timber — that gets tinder-dry in the summer and putting fire breaks around cities.
“The people in Talent and Phoenix, just south of Medford, didn’t have a chance,” Bentz said. “Those 40-50 mph winds came up and took the fire through. Three people were killed. They barely had time to get out. We have to have an understanding that this can happen. ... We’re going to lose cities. We don’t need to be doing that.”
He also discussed concerns on a lack of housing, which he said came up in a meeting earlier Tuesday that included Wallowa County commissioners and mayors and that has been brought up, he said, in each county in the district.
He said housing issues often come down to what a community wants.
“I said (at the meeting) ‘What do your communities want?’ They said, ‘We want middle-class housing.’ I said, ‘You’re going to have a real problem attracting people who are not making enough money to make the payment to either rent a middle-class house or build one. That’s what’s happening.”
The solution, he said, is for communities to get set on what they want, then to reach out to the government, rather than having the government tell them what a city should put in place.
Bentz, who if he defeats Democratic opponent Alex Spenser, will enter Congress during a time when the nation is severely divided, and, he added, likely in the minority, as he said recent indicators are the majority in the House of Representatives will stay with Democrats. Bentz, though, is used to being in the minority, and said he still was able to effect change in his 12 years in Salem despite that.
“The way you accomplish things is you focus on stuff where people are in agreement,” he said. “...What you do is seek common ground with people who are on the other side of the aisle and go get it done. What I found in Salem is about 80% was just the hard work of governing. ... You’re just trying to get it done better. Fire is a really good example. How do we address paying for fire? Where do we find the money? Or roads? There was almost always agreement that we need good roads and we need good bridges.”
Bentz said there are five issues he believes are important to those in the district he is trying to win that he would focus on in Washington.
“First is going to be trying to help small businesses and people unemployed through this COVID crisis,” he said. “Small businesses that are holding on as they wait for demand to return...help them hold on until we get a vaccine. People who have lost their jobs, help them with their rent. People who are landlords who are not getting rent, try to help them.”
In addition to helping individuals through COVID-19, he pointed to the aforementioned risk assessment, water, health care and housing as key issues.