Surrounded by tangles of burned metal and charred trees on a recent afternoon, Cliff Bentz surveyed the destruction of the Almeda Drive Fire at the Royal Oaks Mobile Manor in Phoenix, Oregon.
“This is one of the saddest things that I’ve ever seen,” he said.
Thousands of people were displaced in the September fire that destroyed 2,357 residential structures and resulted in three deaths. Bentz said he’s seen similar damage in Northern California where friends lost homes in recent years.
“Sadly, I’m familiar with this, but never this graphic,” he said.
Bentz is the Republican nominee for Oregon’s 2nd Congressional District. As a former state representative and then senator in the Oregon Legislature, he said he’s learning about federal disaster response for issues like this if he wins in November.
“I’m anxious to go into that space and try to help address forest policy issues and help address water-related issues and help address housing issues. I mean look at this,” he said, as he gestured at what was left of the mobile park. “Of course we’re going to have to address housing issues.”
Bentz is a lawyer and rancher in Eastern Oregon’s Malheur County. His values are in line with many Republicans. He’s pro-life, he believes the Affordable Care Act should be replaced, and he sides with President Trump on immigration reform.
Locally, he’s focused on natural resources. He said there are many challenges with access to water in Eastern Oregon. And in 2019 Bentz helped lead the Republican walkout at the state Capitol to boycott HB 2020, a cap-and-trade bill to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Oregon.
Now, standing in the ashes of a community that burned down during the hottest September on record, Bentz said climate change should be addressed through innovation and adaptation.
“It’s getting drier. Summers are longer. We need to store more water. We need to work on our water delivery systems. We better take down some of this fuel that’s building up around our cities,” he said.
Bentz’s campaign has raised over $500,000, according to federal election filings. His opponent, Democrat Alex Spenser, shows no fundraising according to federal records. While her campaign has less money, Spenser argues, it’s more inclusive.
“The major difference between Mr. Walden [the retiring incumbent] and myself, and between Mr. Bentz and myself, is that when I hold a town hall everyone will be invited,” she said.
In early September, Spenser spoke to a small crowd of union supporters standing along Main Street in Klamath Falls, where she lived for the past decade.
“This day before Labor Day, I’m asking for a job. I’m on a very long, very expensive, very fun job interview,” she announced.
Spenser is a writer, poet and performance coach. Her political experience includes working on other campaigns including those of past Congressional District 2 candidates, Democrats Jamie McLeod-Skinner and Raz Mason.
Her policies are progressive. She supports universal health care and universal basic income. Like Bentz, she agrees that water is the most important issue locally for Oregon’s 2nd Congressional District.
“We need to make sure that everyone is cared for. We need to make sure that our crops are cared for. We need to make sure our wildlife is cared for. And we need to make sure that everyone has cold, clean, healthy water,” she said.
Before attending the Labor Day rally, Spencer had driven from her new home in The Dalles on the Washington border to Klamath Falls near the California border. Both cities are in the 2nd Congressional District. As a region, it’s bigger than every state east of the Mississippi, according to Jim Moore, a political science professor at Pacific University.
“It’s a fascinating mix that people look at it and say ‘Oh, it’s the Wild West because it’s so big,’” he said. “But it’s actually people concentrated in the cities.”
Cities like Bend, Medford, Pendleton and Klamath Falls. Since the last census a decade ago, Moore said the population of the 2nd Congressional District has grown larger than any of the other districts.
“There’s kind of a misnomer about it because it’s so big. They think ‘Oh, nobody lives there.’ No, it actually has more [people] than any other district,” he said.
How that population growth could change the outcome of the election is anyone’s guess.
With Bentz’s background in the Legislature and Eastern Oregon’s conservative history, the race will be an uphill battle for Spenser. But Moore points out, Bentz is 68 years old. That will make it unlikely for him to build up the seniority and influence of his predecessor, Greg Walden, who held the seat for more than two decades.