The oldest and youngest candidates square off over the constitution and economic growth in Clark County’s third-largest city
BATTLE GROUND — One is a 59-year-old retired Army veteran with over 25 years of service, a former mayor, and two-term city council member. The other is 25, a newcomer to both politics and public life, and an idealist driven to action by the recent fury over gun control measure I-1639.
The race for Battle Ground City Council’s 7th seat pits the often acerbic incumbent, Philip Johnson, against Josh VanGelder, who is trying to make good on a pledge to unseat Johnson after he stood against a sanctuary city ordinance demanded by 2nd Amendment groups including Patriot Prayer and the group’s leader Joey Gibson.
“All government serves the people and protects their rights,” said VanGelder during a recent League of Women Voters candidate forum in Dollars Corner. “I don’t see that from the majority of the council currently.”
VanGelder says he grew up just outside Battle Ground as one of 13 children, “so I have experience with managing large groups.”
Johnson spent time as mayor in Battle Ground, where the council elects the mayor, and is seeking a third term.
“I spent 25 years, two months and 11 days in the army,” says Johnson. “But I’m not counting. And I own a small, one employee business, with that one employee being me.”
Johnson is a notary public and loan signing agent, working out of Battle Ground.
During the debate over a sanctuary city ordinance in response to I-1639, Johnson told Gibson and his supporters he was not into “voter nullification,” and that he would not stand against something approved by a majority of voters in the state. That prompted VanGelder to respond at the time that “you’re literally bringing a war to the door of your constituents, and the blood will be on your hands.”
Despite that acrimony, Johnson has spent more time focused on VanGelder’s fellow 2nd Amendment supporter, Shauna Walters, who is running against Neil Butler for the open Position 3 seat. Johnson filed a campaign finance complaint against Walters, alleging she was taking larger donations than allowed under state law. That complaint was ultimately overturned after Walters sent money back to some donors and implemented better controls over her fundraising process.
During the August primary election, Johnson pulled in just over 45 percent of the vote, with VanGelder coming in second at 35 percent. Another political newcomer, Katrina Negrov, pulled in over 19 percent, despite running a fairly quiet campaign.
At the Clark County League of Women Voters candidate forum at the Clark County Fire & Rescue station in Dollars Corner, both candidates outlined their views on the city’s community visioning plan, immigrant rights, climate change, and affordable housing.
On the Battle Ground Roadmap Project, the candidates were asked to pick their top priority from a list that emerged from a community survey.
In that case, both candidates agreed that prosperity needed to be the first domino to fall.
“As a business leader locally for a successful business,” VanGelder said, referencing the landscaping company where he works as a project lead, “I can see the effect that prosperity can have on all aspects of life.”
Johnson agreed, saying that all the goals of the visioning project flow out of people feeling prosperous.
“If the people have the means to support themselves and support their community, then the well-being of themselves, and their identity will come as well,” said Johnson.
On the issue of whether the city should focus on building new homes, or rehabbing existing buildings, the candidates also found an area of agreement.
“We need to balance both,” said VanGelder. “As a manager of landscape business, I have firsthand experiencing the positive effects of both rehabilitating old properties and also installing and building new ones.”
Johnson said the city has issued roughly 250 building permits so far this year, “and so at some point we will have to make a decision whether enough is enough, but at this point we haven’t made that decision,” he said, adding that the city wants to preserve the small businesses in Old Town, while encouraging new commercial development in order to avoid stagnation which would be “bad for all of us.”
Where the candidates seemed to diverge somewhat was on the issue of immigration, and city policies on how to be welcoming to all residents.
“I fully support all legal immigration,” said VanGelder. “I believe that all citizens are welcome. And it’s important to balance welcoming with enforcing of current laws.”
Johnson noted that he arrived in Battle Ground from North Carolina almost 15 years ago, and “my neighbors met me with open arms, so today I do the same.”
The incumbent didn’t touch on issues of legal or illegal immigration in his answer, but has noted in the past that it is his view the city council doesn’t play an active part in determining someone’s immigration status, only whether they have access to services they need when they call Battle Ground home.
VanGelder also diverged somewhat when answering a question about climate change and the city’s role in preparing for the effects.
“I am a believer that we are in a series of climate cycles,” said VanGelder, adding that, “it’s not necessarily human caused, though I do think we have an effect on it.”
VanGelder said he does believe that humans have a role in caring for the planet, and he would support moves such as LED lighting that lead to both financial and environmental benefits, but that it must “make financial sense for both the city and the citizens.”
Johnson didn’t touch on the climate change issue, but did note that Battle Ground is the only major city in Clark County not co-located near a river, making it difficult to supply water to the residents. A multi-million dollar plan is in place to eventually bring water into the city from the Lewis River at Paradise Point State Park, but that is a number of years away.
“We think with the plan we have currently that we will have enough water to last us into the 2030s, with the projected growth we have and also the use of water that we have,” Johnson said, adding that the city is looking into using reclaimed water for irrigation or firefighting purposes.
On the most pressing issue facing Battle Ground over the next 10-15 years, VanGelder said traffic congestion is one that’s top of mind for many residents, along with rising taxes.
Johnson went to his grab-bag of folksy sayings in his answer, noting his father’s colloquialism that “there’s always too much month at the end of the money. The five-year and 15-year pressures on us are, first, financial pressures, mostly from Olympia and Uncle Sam, who decide that we need to do certain things, but neglect to give us the money to do it, so that leaves it to our citizens to pay for it. And, also, we face expanding growth.”
Johnson finished up by noting that he prefers to be referred to as the most “seasoned” candidate in the race, then proceeded to forget his closing line, drawing a chuckle from the room.
“I’m proud to be from Battle Ground. I’m proud of my city council service. I can say with no hesitation that I’ve done my very best to serve my neighbors and my community,” Johnson concluded.
“It’s my belief that the current council seems to attempt to keep a lot of their activities out of the public eye,” VanGelder summed up. “ I do not believe that I am above those that I serve. I am no politician, and I believe that’s what qualifies me the most. I’m an average citizen, and I will do my best to change the council to one that listens and cares about the people of the community.”