Secretary of state candidates outline differing priorities at Eugene forum

Register Guard, September 26, 2016

Oregon secretary of state candidates Dennis Richardson and Brad Avakian disagreed on nearly every question asked Friday (Sept. 23) at a forum at the City Club of Eugene.

Republican Richardson said he would support a new system for redistricting — the often highly partisan redrawing of legislative district boundaries that occurs every 10 years. He floated the idea of having a panel of retired judges draw the new boundaries. Under the current system, legislators themselves are charged with redistricting, but if they can’t agree, the task falls to the secretary of state, a partisan position.

“That would take the politics out of it,” Richardson said of his proposal. And “it wouldn’t stack the deck in favor of one party or another.”

But Avakian backed the current system, saying he prefers having elected officials who are “answerable to the people” in charge of redistricting, rather than political appointees.

“I’m always more comfortable having the people make decisions,” he said.

Conversely, when asked about potentially selling the Elliott State Forest, Avakian was adamantly opposed.

State-owned public forests “are part of our DNA,” he said. “They need to be preserved.”

But Richardson said the state should consider such a sale, if it can balance recreation with sustainable logging in the forest.

“It’s easy for a candidate to say absolutely not,” he said. But “the state of Oregon is not good at managing forests. ... We need a rational approach for now and generations to come.”

The secretary of state is one of three votes on the state Land Board, which oversees state-owned forests.

The two major party candidates were joined on stage at the City Club by Alan Zundel of Eugene, the Pacific Green Party candidate.

Zundel is running primarily on a platform of “fundamental” election reform. The two-party system “was not handed down by God, and it’s not inevitable,” he said.

If elected, Zundel said he would advocate for a ranked choice, or instant runoff, voting system in which voters rank candidates in order of preference rather than casting a single ballot. The system would embolden more minor party candidates to run because they wouldn’t fear acting as “spoilers” to major parties, and it would give voters “more choice,” he said.

Richardson and Avakian, meanwhile, used the forum to trade barbs.

Avakian said voters should consider Richardson’s conservative stance on abortion and his 2007 vote, as a state lawmaker, against a bill prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation. Those stances are important because the secretary of state is first in line to governorship, Avakian said.

“You should think about that,” he said.

Richardson responded that social issues “are resolved” in Oregon, adding that Avakian’s efforts to talk about them, as well as climate change and gun rights, are out of place in a race for a “limited, administrative” position such as secretary of state.

“He sounds like he’s running for governor right now,” Richardson said.

Richardson said the position’s “most important” function is to conduct audits in state government. Pointing to the recent scandals in the state’s foster care system, Richardson said: “There’s always excuses, but no accountability and no change.”

“I would bring accountability and integrity” to the office, he said.

Avakian, meanwhile, stressed his policy goal of instituting civics classes in all Oregon’s public schools and creating a “youth vote,” which would allow teenagers to fill out mock ballots every election.

While the votes would not count, he said, “we’ll show Oregonians what young people thought.”