Candidates for state representative, 17th District position 1, participate in League of Women Voters candidate forum

Democrat Terri Niles and Republican Kevin Waters are vying for the seat in the Washington State Legislature in the Nov. 8 general election

The candidates for state representative, 17th District, position 1 in the Nov. 8 general election took part in a candidate forum hosted by the League of Women Voters of Clark County Monday at the Camas Public Library.

Terri Niles, who prefers the Democratic Party, and Kevin Waters, who prefers the Republican Party, advanced from the August primary election and are on the ballot for the general election. Rep. Vicki Kraft has served in the position since 2017. This past year’s redistricting process moved Kraft out of the 17th District boundary.

Niles’ elected experience includes service on the Clark County Charter Review Commission. Her professional experience is as an Intensive Care Unit nurse for 20-plus years.

Waters is a business owner in Skamania County. He also served 10 years as a port commissioner in Skamania County.

To view the video coverage of Monday’s candidate forum, go to

Here are the questions and each candidate’s response in Monday’s event:

Why do you want to be a legislator? What issues are most important to you? And what skills and abilities will you bring to the position?

Terri Niles
Terri Niles

Niles: I am a 25-year ICU nurse that has dedicated my life to public service. I care deeply about the health of our community and the people that I am running to represent. As an ICU nurse. I’ve taken care of patients and families in some of the most difficult times. I know how to work under pressure and to get the job done when the stakes are high. I have extensive experience in contract and labor negotiations and have been able to work together to find real solutions with folks that may not have the same ideas as I do, or outcomes. I am from a family of seven with five siblings. My father worked for NASA and my mother was a surgical nurse. Jim, who I’ve been with for 15 years, is a lifelong Republican and very supportive. I am calm and confident in my ability to work across the aisle, though we may not agree, Mike has taught me how to listen to others points of view and work together.

Kevin Waters
Kevin Waters

Waters: I’m fourth generation from Skamania. County. I feel that I’m called to serve. I was a Port of Skamania Commissioner for almost 10 years. I was a corrections officer for a couple of years. And then I started a couple of businesses. At some point, I’ve employed over 70 people. I know what it takes to communicate. I know what it takes to get along. I was actually asked by a group of Democrats to run so I found that very encouraging. And some of the things that bring me passion and the reasons why I’m running is I care about our schools. I care about our police, obviously being former corrections. I’m on the school foundation. I’m also the economic development director for Skamania County. 

What do you like or what would you change about the modified locally preferred alternative to replace the interstate five bridge?

Waters: I am on the Regional Transportation Committee board for Skamania County, so I kind of get a firsthand look at what happens with the bridge. I would say right now all of this is in limbo. And, you know, unfortunately, the change that really needs to be made is I’m not really so much worried about design, I think design will come. But we need the Oregon side to start playing ball with us. And until the Oregon side starts playing ball, I personally, right now, I’d love to see an alternate lane – kind of an empty lane that could be for future growth on the bridge. I’d like to see it not so high, which has been a problem. There was just an article where C-TRAN came out and said, as it stands right now, the bridge is incredibly high. So, for me, I just want to see a bridge that works. I want to see the best bridge for Southwest Washington.

Niles: There’s a lot I agree with my opponent about that. The bridge is not safe. It has to be fixed. It’s vital to commerce and our economic prosperity. So getting it down and replaced as soon as possible is something that I support. The thing that I would like to talk about is the use of light rail. What people don’t realize is, I was a critical care nurse that worked at OHSU. I spent four hours trying to get to work in snow and inclement weather. And the people, the nurses that were able to go to the hospital and take care of patients are nurses that were able to take TriMet in from Beaverton and those kinds of things. So I think that people don’t realize how important light rail is and how it’s important for providing essential services. So that would be something that I think that people really need to stress and talk about.

Tuition continues to rise at state colleges. Should Washington provide more financial support for colleges? Or do colleges need to trim their budget? 

Waters: College tuition has not kept up with inflation. We need to invest in higher education and all post secondary education, including the trades and apprenticeships. When I went to college, I was able to pay off my student loans within five years. And I wasn’t subjected to obscene predatory compounding interest loans, that those that are going to college now are while trying to pursue their dreams. An example of the difference is what is expected in education from people in health care. Now, just to be a pharmacist, you have to have a doctorate. To be a physical therapist, you have to have a doctorate, and these people are not getting paid to reflect that. So I think we need to return to adequately funding higher education and not saddle our young people with debt they will hold their entire lives and prevent them from buying a house and getting ahead and thriving.

Niles: I think that our schools, I’m a product of Washington State Universities, I went to Eastern Washington University and loved my time there. And, for me, I think that we need to continue to invest. We need to continue to invest in our schools. We need to continue to invest in our kids. Strong economies do not happen if we don’t have strong educational institutions. But, I’d also like to see the same kind of investment in trades … I think that we need to invest more in nursing programs. I think we need to get more into plumbers, electricians, that kind of work. Because, without them, we don’t have a baseline economy. We can’t grow. And so I would just love to see us invest more in every avenue and maybe not so much just one specific avenue.

Across the country voting laws are under debate. Do you want changes in Washington’s law? If so, what specific changes would you seek? Or if not, please explain why our voting laws are good.

Waters: I’ll keep it short and sweet. I’m pretty happy with Washington voter laws. I think that we have a great system. I think that the citizens are used to the system. And you know, I think that if we try to reimagine this and some other way, it could be a detriment. And I think right now we have easy access to voting. And I would love to see it. This is all I’ve known since I’ve been a voter for close to 20 years. So the time that I’ve been voting, I’ve loved it and you know there’s other options out there, but I think the state was ahead of its time when it did mail-in voting and I’d love to see it stay the same.

Niles: I’m glad to hear that my opponent supports mail-in voting. We are watching some candidates in Southwest Washington running for office. On the ticket that my opponent is running off, there are some really wild unsubstantiated claims about our elections in Washington state. The lack of facts and distortion of truth is something that we should all be concerned about. People running for office need to have the ethics to call out politicians that are running and saying and promoting mistruths and not fact. People within my opposition party want to question the elections without verifiable evidence. They want to make it harder for folks to register to vote, and to vote. And in my opinion, it’s discriminatory against working families, folks with disabilities, elderly, disabled frontline workers and essential workers. I will always be willing to listen to others and admit if I’m wrong about something. But, if I’m presented with something that is untruthful, I think that I people should help call it out.

Does the State Growth Management Act provide sufficient direction to address housing and climate change? If not, what changes would you call for? What is good or what is good about the law as it is? 

Niles: Washington adopted the Growth Management Act in 1990 and it provided a framework for land use planning and regulating. I know Skamania County doesn’t abide by that. So that’s something new. As the Clark County Charter Review Commissioner, I’m a little bit familiar with it, because I served this district in 2021. The Act responded to problems with uncoordinated and unplanned growth and a lack of common goals and conservation and land use. Problems that they were trying to address were increased traffic congestion, pollution, school overcrowding, urban sprawl, and loss of resource lands and rural character. The GMA contains these goals to guide local governments to meet these requirements. I think we have all visited areas that do not have good guidelines and urban sprawl is apparent. I just spent some time in Phoenix, Arizona, and it takes two hours to get across the city. And they’ve lost their character. There’s no urban character, there’s no rural character. And so that’s a good example of urban sprawl. I would not like to see that happen in Clark County. I know that  the Clark County Council is looking at it now. And I’m hoping they make good decisions around that.

Waters: In Skamania County, we actually do deal with the GMA. As the economic development director, I deal with it almost daily. We’re under the GMA, but we’re also under the Gorge Scenic Commission. And so, for those of you who aren’t familiar with the Gorge Scenic Commission, they put into place, back in 1986, a very rigid line where we could not expand our growth. And I’ll give you an example of why the GMA has failed us in Skamania County. Clark County, I’ll talk to you guys in a second. But I’ll give you my example really quick. There’s 67 acres that is right across the street from our dump. Now it doesn’t sound very appealing, but it’s great farmland. We can build one house on that 67 acres, and we cannot go out and build more houses. It’s a perfect spot to have either single-family dwellings or multi-family dwellings. And, I would love to see us expand. I think in Clark County, of course, I want to save ag (agriculture) property. I think that saving agricultural property is best. But, I also think that there’s some owners here who don’t necessarily want to change the zoning on it. And so it’s not the most economically efficient for the county, whether it’s taxed. And so I would like to see the GMA expanded myself.

Would you change our state laws regarding abortion? If so, what changes would you seek? If not why?

Waters: First off, I’m a pro-life candidate. It’s definitely a distinction between the two of us. But secondly, I also honored the vote of the people and the vote of the people have said, through initiative, that they want to have abortion rights for women, which leads to a choice. And so through the initiative process, I believe that everyone should have that choice. Now, if it were up to me, obviously, I’m Roman Catholic. I don’t hide my Catholic values and my Catholic faith, but Republicans don’t reverse initiatives. And so I would stay on track with that and honor the vote of the people.

Niles: I understand that the candidate is trying to roll back what he said. It was very clearly asked to him in his interview that he would ban abortion in Washington. He was asked twice, and he answered twice in the positive. So this is an issue. I’ve been watching, knocking on doors and talking to folks in Skamania. County, and in Clark County. And these issues that they bring up, these freedoms that they heard Kevin Waters say that he’d like to take away from them … Folks are worried about big government, which I get. I get the flyers from Kevin saying he’s against big government. And this has seemed to me like the biggest big government thing that you could possibly do is to interfere with people’s reproductive health care freedoms. I will work every day and only move to protect privacy and reproductive health care freedoms and to keep government out of decisions that should be yours and yours alone.

The process used recently to redraw voting districts was controversial. As a legislator, you would write the rules for redistricting. Would you seek to make changes in Washington’s process? If so what would those changes be? If not, what is the strength of our current process?

Niles: The redistricting process at the state level are you talking about Clark County? I was quite involved in the Clark County redistricting process. But at the state level, I think there was a genuine lack of transparency that happened on both sides of the aisle when they were making those decisions. So what I would do is I would increase transparency in the process and make sure that voters and constituents are more informed about what’s happening, and when it’s happening. Having our redistricting go to the Supreme Court was not good. And I would never want to see that again. So there needs to be more transparency and have it managed better.

Waters: I favor a redistricting process. They tried to make it as unbiased as possible. It tends to go one on one, one Republican, one Democrat, to make those rules so I wouldn’t interfere with the process at all in the state.

The incoming legislature will adopt a budget for 2023 through 2025. What philosophy guides you as a lawmaker as you approach this task? What should be done with our budget surplus? If you were to increase the funding for the coming period, what areas would be your top two priorities for these dollars?

Waters: With the state budget, the state is going to have a $15-16 billion surplus. And, you know, my two top priorities are, funding by the police is done on the local level, so the counties are the ones that decide the level of funding for police. You keep hearing we need to fund the police, fund the police? Well, you know, at some point, I feel that the state should get involved because, there’s particular areas where police are getting paid $60,000 a year, but neighboring areas are getting paid $100,000 a year, so we’re losing police to the next place. And it’s making us lose our police and lose our stronghold. So definitely, give the police the tools they need. The second thing is I come from a school district where the average school is over 60 years old. And I think that as a state it is our responsibility to take care of schools. We need to make sure that all schools kind of have a baseline, whether it’s heating, air conditioning, energy efficiency. I would love to see that in our schools, mainly because I went to a school with no heating and air conditioning and old windows. And so you know, those would be my two top priorities. I’m a pretty simple person. I just want to see our kids thrive. I want to see our police have the proper tools they need. 

Niles: I think we should use that money to invest in our community so those spare funds should be put into investment in the community. Given our inflationary environment, it would seem that having a cushion can keep the cost of public services as close to current or even for citizens at least while we go through this pandemic economic recovery. I along with thousands of others and our neighbors left home every day to head to Portland for work/ We can create and keep jobs right here with key investments and creating jobs supporting capital investments in infrastructure, transportation, schools, affordable housing, sewers, broadband. Anyone that says that broadband sounds like a nice idea for all but it’s not attainable. I 100 percent disagree. And this would be a great place to put some of the extra funds, to get broadband for rural communities. I am committed to strengthening our workforce, encouraging prosperity for working families, and supporting local businesses and small businesses. Issues like affordable housing and childcare, fully funded schools are all issues that we can invest in and affect local businesses and the workers that employ them.

As a citizen, how have you participated in local projects that make our area healthier and safer?

Niles: As a critical care nurse, I’ve done a lot of work with the homeless and I’ve been quite engaged in my community. I ran for Charter Review Commission, because I saw a need for some changes in Clark County. I believe I have a lifetime of public service. And so I believe in that public service. As the outreach chair for the Clark County Democrats, I worked with our marginalized communities, NAACP, LULAC, One America to try to reach out to them and listen to their issues, and how we could serve them better.

Waters: My entire life being, like I said, fourth generation from Southwest Washington, I’ve always volunteered at my church. I was an altar boy. I’m on the Church Council. I am on the Stevenson Downtown Association, where I am involved with our yearly cleanup downtown. I’m also on the Economic Vitality Committee, where we give grants to small businesses in downtown Stevenson so that we can help them boost their business, especially after COVID. In my work as EDC director, I’ve given over a million dollars worth of COVID relief grants or loans, and I’m really proud of that work. And then on the Stevenson School Foundation, I’ve also raised over $100,000, to go to teacher grant programs and in aid for students and kids. So that’s part of my community service. 

Closing statements

Waters: The first thing are is, sometimes Republicans get a bad name. And I you know, I’m here to tell you tonight, I’m not a social justice warrior. The reasons why I’m running is because I’m worried about our schools. I’m worried about our police. I’m worried about mental health and worried about infrastructure. Terry talked about broadband. I’ve been working on broadband for a long time in our county, and you know, it’s $65 million. But I’m, very, very involved, and hopefully we get that project done. So, for me, it’s about community. It’s about service. It’s about having an open door policy if I’m elected. And, I want to be someone that you’re all proud, whether Republican or Democrat, that goes up to Olympia, and I do have great relationships with both sides of the aisle.

Niles: I’m not a social justice warrior. When people elect people to represent them in the legislature, they elect them to deal with social issues, homelessness, mental health issues, those are social issues. So the statement is kind of confusing for me. We are seeing a lot of out-of-district corporate money flowing into this race. I have made a pledge not to accept corporate PAC money or special interest money that does not support working families. I am running to represent the people that live and work here in Southwest Washington. Not big money interests from Seattle. My support comes from people right in the district. I am wanting to be a voice of working families in this district. My campaign is endorsed and supported by nurses, teachers, health care workers, first responders, firefighters, millworkers, longshoreman, working people in this district. As our district grows, we have an opportunity for some great prosperity. I’m running to ensure that everyone shares in that prosperity. Nurses, year after year, are the most trusted occupations by everyone. I hope to earn your trust and your vote.

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