Election 2020: 18th District state senate race still compelling

Republican Ann Rivers and Democrat Rick Bell have been joined by write-in candidate Tom Mielke

The 18th Legislative District race for the state senate has been one of the most interesting during the current election season. Incumbent Sen. Ann Rivers and Democrat challenger Rick Bell recently participated in a League of Women Voters Clark County candidate forum. 

Rivers and Bell advanced to the general election by finishing top two in the August primary election when Bell finished first over two Republican candidates, Rivers and Camas resident John Ley. Since the primary, former state representative and county commissioner Tom Mielke announced his candidacy for the position as a write-in candidate. 

Mielke, a self-proclaimed conservative Republican, didn’t participate in the recent candidate forum but he did provide answers to Clark County Today to the same questions asked of the candidates at the forum. 

Here are the responses of all three candidates to several of the key questions asked at the recent candidate forum: (Responses of Rivers and Bell in same order as followed in the forum; Mielke’s responses to Clark County Today listed third)

Opening statements

Rick Bell
Rick Bell

Bell: “I grew up in a small fishing town in rural Alaska and over the course of my life. I’ve become friends with people from many walks of life. My wife is a Bernie (Sanders) supporter, while my best friend is a (Donald) Trump supporter, last time I checked. I really hope we can heal our divisions and get back to solving problems as a state (and) as a nation. Our system works when all sides of the political spectrum can debate and exchange ideas honestly. I hope we can bring that to Olympia. I am a successful small business owner with a deep background in healthcare. I work around the country and internationally. I hold a master’s in Business Administration from OSU and I obtained a deep understanding of healthcare policy and healthcare economics. My personal passion is making healthcare more affordable, and more patient-centered through technology. But now, I’m seeking to be your state senator to accomplish those goals through legislation, and that means taking on big drug companies and insurance companies who make a lot of money keeping healthcare just the way it is.’’

Sen. Ann Rivers
Sen. Ann Rivers

Rivers: “I’m a former small business owner, so I know what it’s like to sign both sides of the paycheck. I’m a former middle school Math and Science teacher and I’ve been married to my husband, Fred, for 31 years. We have two terrific kids. So I’m very, very proud to have the endorsement of law enforcement, fire safety, the Washington State Medical Association, the Farm Bureau, and a host of others. Thank you so much for allowing us this opportunity to address our constituency tonight.’’

Tom Mielke
Tom Mielke

Mielke: “When I retired three years ago I thought I was being represented with my district’s elected officials. As it turns out, I was wrong. Imagine my disappointment when the conservative candidate I believed I voted for reverted back to her democratic ways on steroids. Because of that, I threw my support behind John Ley, who was running for about the same reason.  Shortly after the primary, I was approached to run against her because I had retired on good terms and felt I was still liked in the 18th District. I knew she chose to vote with Democratic groups immediately upon the start of the session in 2015 when she started on transportation and reopened the I-5 Bridge replacement for “light rail” that we had worked on killing for 15 years. When I then looked at many of her other votes I was shocked at what she was doing.  It wasn’t close to representing the views of this district and I had to come out of retirement and do what I could to a senator so beholden to the special interests instead of the people she is supposed to represent so badly that she failed to get the endorsement of the local Republican party.’’

Question: What are your two top priorities for the 18th Legislative District that should be addressed in the legislature in the next two-year session? How would you promote these priorities? 

Rivers: “My first priority is sort of dual. It’s budgetary, the state budget and also the economy. They go hand-in-hand really. In terms of the budget, we have to hold on to the gains that we made in public education. We also have to protect our most vulnerable and disabled, and also our seniors who are in some pretty tough straits right now. The primary thing that we have to do is we have to decide what our wants and what our needs are. Wants can wait, needs we have to fulfill right away. The second priority that I have is sort of dual, it’s getting kids safely back in the classroom. And then and as importantly, and more long term, we have to close the learning gap that has already started to form. And unless we do that, we’re going to be in tough straits. So, on the first part, I’m on the senate Ways and Means Committee and integral to the budgeting process, and helping to take the votes to make sure that money gets where it needs to go and working with my colleagues to make sure that happens. And then, on the second part with education, I think that that’s going to be just keeping it high profile in the legislature this year and working with my colleagues across the partisan aisle to make sure that it does. That’s something that doesn’t fall through the cracks.’’

Bell: “So, I think that next year in the legislative session, we’ll actually be in the middle of navigating a second wave of COVID outbreaks. So we’ll have to return our focus back to making sure that we have adequate PPE (and) ventilators for hospitals, that the mission of the healthcare providers have the resources they need and that they are managing them efficiently to serve the patients. Hopefully at that point, we’ll have further advances in testing and monitoring. But from a legislature, we’ll have to support that implementation of proper legislation as needed. We can make our healthcare system better while at the same time lowering costs by implementing value-based care and fighting drug company profiteering. And, lowering the cost of healthcare will allow businesses to grow and that will both increase our state revenues and reduce one of our major, major expenses. Fixing health care is one of the strongest ways to address our remaining budget shortfall. The other thing that I would focus on is fighting the negative influence of corporate money in politics. Over the course of this campaign, I’ve seen that we can do the hard things that require tough solutions that we need to put in place when they run against the interests of the very companies that we have funded our campaigns. So, I would propose 50 percent PACs on campaign contributions to fund fact-based political journalism and impose stricter transparency requirements on legislators. Either that task will greatly reduce the big corporate money and politics or it will provide a business model for fact-based media that will make us all well-informed voters and the well-informed voter is required for our democracy to function.’’

Mielke: “Quality of life begins with a family wage job. To address the needs of jobs we need to improve economic development by being more business friendly through reducing regulations and judicious use of tax breaks on building development for both new and existing businesses. Serious consideration must be given to reducing the tax and regulatory burdens on business as they struggle back from the COVID lockdowns. Next, we need to get the kids back to school.  I believe that adequate precautions can be taken for the safety of both children and staff and this must be a priority. Also, I believe many of the decisions made by Gov. Inslee concerning COVID have been unfair and short sighted.  For example, allowing government construction to continue while blocking private construction.

Question: Cities, towns and the state are all struggling with the loss of revenue due to the pandemic, coupled with larger than normal needs in many areas. How should we cope with this?

Bell: “So part of the good news is that revenues at the state and city levels are rebounding. Some latest projections suggest that we’re going to be in better shape than were the worst-case scenarios that we’ve learned about earlier. I think that it’s important for us to continue to expect ongoing support from the federal government. We have to pressure from every angle Democrats, Republicans to come together and provide assistance to cities and states so that we can support our activities. And beyond that, when times are tough, everything is on the table. And we have to work like a small business to find ways to do more with less. I do that every day as a small business owner, and I can bring that experience to the State Senate. But my priorities are to protect services for people. And I will focus on taking a sharp pencil to closing tax loopholes, and re-examining sweetheart deals that were made for big corporations. I can do this because I only work for the people. I don’t have to filter my work through campaign contributors. There’s a website called goodjobsfirst.org that lists out the subsidies and tax breaks their giving to big corporations. If you cross check this against my opponent’s donor list on the PDC, you may find some interesting matches.’’

Rivers: “I think the first thing that we have to do is recognize that not every city is the same of the many cities that I have in my district. What’s really interesting to me is they’re all in very different places, some took a very conservative approach and recognized what was coming with the COVID shutdown. And they started to make cuts right away and sort of implement some austerity measures, while others never did or did very late in the game. So everyone’s in a very different spot. But the fact of the matter is that Clark County really took it in the shorts. We were a little bit shy on our population, our population model, and so the governor shorted us about $16 million. That could have been dispersed among those cities that had the greatest need, and that were unable to implement the austerity measures that others did implement. And so I think that we have to appeal to the governor’s sense of fairness, to get him to share some of that money with us down here. We have to work with our colleagues, because they’re all in the same boat, right? So, they’re wanting the money too. But I think that, really, it’s about bringing home our fair share to Clark County. And, and that’s what I do every day in the legislature. And that’s what I’ll continue to do.’’

Mielke: “At first, I believe we reacted properly to the unknown virus and for all we knew it could’ve been a deadly chemical meant to kill all of us. As we continued on, we learned from the scientists how to react, but as we come to know more about the questionable protection of the masks, it seemed they became more a political symbol instead of a safety device. It’s time to go back to work and remove the shutdown mandates from our democratic governor who is playing the game. Locally elected officials must encourage the citizens to go back to work. The stimulus cannot continue to be larger than paychecks. Local government made some bad choices and now must roll back some of their projects and take care of the budget on a priority basis.’’

Question: What do you see as the area’s transportation needs in the next 15 years? What new ideas should we be thinking about today to meet future needs? 

Bell: “We are going to witness the transition to self-driving, autonomous cars and trucks over the next several decades. I think it’s inevitable. I hope that we’re giving the truckers a good heads up on that future. So if you’re a trucker, and you’re not clear on how that future plays out for you, then you need me in Olympia. I will certainly make sure that transition will be done responsibly. If automation is going to take away a class of jobs, people need 10 to 15 years of warning so that they can decide for themselves whether to finish up their careers in that same role because they’re close to retirement, or find a new career to transition towards. And then, we need to help people make those transitions. It makes sense to me to have an East County bridge without tolls. Paying tolls is a hassle and they’re given away to people that are well connected. I think we should also think about the intersection between housing and transportation. A better approach to deliver affordable housing is to build dense housing near transportation hubs. That way, you can live in that area, and you don’t have to have a car. And you don’t have to create the parking spaces for cars to park in. That can reduce the overall living costs per person, and also allow us to provide more housing units. And that overall increases the path to housing affordability, which everybody needs.’’

Rivers: “I think that now that we’ve seen how long it actually takes to build a bridge. I think that we have to start planning not only for our third, our fourth, but our fifth bridge. And I’ve asked Washington to begin those discussions with ODOT to identify some areas that would be landing areas between the two states, whether we have autonomous vehicles, or whether we have, you know, driver vehicles. Whatever kinds of vehicles, they’re still going to need roads. We kind of dropped the ball, you know, maybe 20 years ago now, because we allowed for homes to be built on land that could have an infrastructure on it. And so we can’t make that mistake again, now is the time to plan. I also sit on the autonomous vehicle workgroup. And I’m blown away by the kinds of things that I’m seeing. I also sit on the career technical education workgroup. And it is front of mind that we are looking at what people will do as they transition away from the types of jobs that are being taken over … The future is happening so rapidly. And you know, even four or five years ago, if we had said, we were going to have this discussion, people would have said, you’re crazy. But it’s really here. It’s really happening. And we have yet to see how these advances, or if you want to call them advances, will impact our infrastructure. And so we’re going to have to be nimble, and we’re going to have to understand that there are things on the horizon and plan for those things as much as possible.’’

Mielke: “Unlike my opponent, when I tell you I will oppose increases in gas taxes and tab fees, I mean it. We have wasted a huge amount of money on mass transit and light rail and have experienced no relief at all. I believe it’s about time we look at what the citizens of this district want, which does not include an I-5 Bridge/Light Rail component. Before we replace the I-5 Bridge with its tolls, we must keep in mind Oregon’s plans to also toll. Over 75,000 people in this area commute to Oregon for their jobs. The costs of tolling will hurt those who can least afford it the most.  The I-5 Bridge is perfectly functional and paid for.  I want to give people the ability to choose to be tolled for new bridges in other locations or stay with the paid-for bridges we have now, using them without tolls. Additional bridges are needed but only if they improve freight mobility and decrease congestion.  While my opponent doesn’t care about congestion, my commuting district certainly does. Moving 1 percent of the population should never take up 50 percent of our transportation budget.’’

Closing statements

Rivers: “I have nothing but respect for my Democrat opponent. He seemed like a very decent human being. Now, however, is a time for experience, relationships and balanced thinking. From law enforcement to the Farm Bureau to the Medical Association, I’m endorsed by a diversity of groups and interests, who trust that I will watch over my district and make sure it is well represented in Olympia.’’

Bell: “If I win, the truth is a real conservative is going to come back and kick my butt in four years. But wouldn’t it be interesting, an interesting four years, to see and hear from a politician who was only backed by the voters, not by the state party, not by big corporations. Just one nurses’ union and some really passionate voters. I’ll be able to tell you the unvarnished truth from the inside. And I’ll only work on your priorities because I only have to work for you. And that’s because I’m only here because of you. Wouldn’t that be something?’’

Mielke: “The state Republican party needs to get back on track and show the people there is more than just one party to choose from and until we start voting like conservatives we will never see the majority again.  We have too many Republicans voting like Democrats and I want to be represented by a conservative. I have come out of my retirement to represent the 18th District as a conservative. In my nearly 20 years in government, I’ve refused to vote for tax increases and have done all I can to rein in bloated government, first in the legislature and then as your county commissioner.  With your vote we can do this< so write-in Tom Mielke for 18th District state senator.’’