MEDFORD, Ore. — Gov. Kate Brown and GOP gubernatorial candidate Bud Pierce courted Southern Oregon Thursday in their fourth debate.
The debate, hosted by KOBI-TV/NBC5, challenged the candidates for solutions to the region’s most critical problems, such as inadequate police protection in Josephine County, painkiller abuse and sex trafficking in the Interstate 5 corridor.
Panelists also probed candidates about how they would address Southern Oregon’s longstanding sense of disconnection from state leadership. The complaint dates back to at least 1941 when residents of several counties in Southern Oregon and Northern California plotted to start their own state, the State of Jefferson, now the namesake for Southern Oregon’s public radio station.
“We hear from our viewers that they see their federally elected officials far more than they see their state public officials,” said panelist Patsy Smullin, owner of KOBI-TV.
U.S. senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley each hold a town hall in every county of Oregon every year, while governors typically have not.
“If elected, would commit to doing an annual town hall meeting in each county of Oregon?”
Pierce, who has visited Medford eight times during his campaign promised that he “absolutely” would.
“I’m committed to staying three months out of every year in the rural communities and actually living probably a week at a time,” Pierce said. “That’s key so you can be governor of all of Oregon.”
Brown said she would continue to “reach out and be in all of the communities throughout the state of Oregon.”
“I will continue to work to fight to make sure that we make Oregon a place where everyone can thrive, and I will do that by being out in the communities on a regular basis,” she said.
Pressed by Smullin to answer the question, Brown said that she would love to make that commitment,” but she knows from her experience as governor that crises come up. For example, she said she had to focus her energy on responding to the Umpqua Community College shooting and recovery effort a year ago in Roseburg.
Brown’s experience in state government and knowledge of the realities of the office dominate her arguments for rejecting Pierce, who has never held elected office.
She brought up her longer experience in answer to question about how the candidates would combat human trafficking along Interstate 5, which passes through Medford.
Brown worked on policy that the Legislature passed in 2007 to tackle the problem and created a task force to lay the groundwork for solutions. She said she would treat the problem similarly to domestic violence and sexual assault by increasing access to services and funding adequate shelters for victims.
“It is absolutely critical that this state play a role,” she said. “I am the one who has leadership experience on this issue over the last 20 years.”
Pierce said he supports prevention programs to identify vulnerable individuals and providing an easy way for victims to reach out for help.
“Obviously, we need to have aggressive law enforcement getting involved in mitigating and identifying the people who are being abused,” Pierce added.
Inadequate law enforcement protection remains a concern for Southern Oregon’s Josephine County, where voters have rejected tax increases to pay for sheriff’s services. Oregon State Police has had to step in to cover cases.
Asked what the candidates would do to keep Josephine County safe, Pierce said he would look for ways for counties to boost their revenue from state forests.
“We need a massive stimulation of the economy by that and other measures such as tax credits and enterprise zones,” Pierce said. “Once people make enough money they tend to be willing to pay for those services.” He said he would commit to making sure basic law enforcement services are maintained in counties.
Brown said the state has an increasing population and decreasing federal money.
She said she also would like to boost the number of Oregon State Police troopers.
“As governor I will fight to make sure we have additional troopers on the front lines to make sure communities around Oregon remain safe,” she said.
The candidates also sparred Thursday over issues they’ve covered in past debates, such as Measure 97’s corporate sales tax on the November ballot and the $22 billion unfunded liability in the Public Employees Retirement System.
Pierce, a Salem oncologist, is trying to unseat Kate Brown Nov. 8 to complete the last two years of Gov. John Kitzhaber’s four-year term. As former secretary of state, Brown became governor when Kitzhaber stepped down in February 2015 amid an influence-peddling scandal over contracts awarded to his fiancée, Cylvia Hayes.
Cliff Thomason, Independent Party of Oregon candidate for governor who lives in Grants Pass, was not invited to participate in the debate.
NBC5 required candidates to poll at 10 percent of the electorate to participate in the televised debate, according to a letter by Bob Wise, the TV station’s vice president. Thomason did not meet the minimum percentage. Thomason did participate in a debate with Pierce and Brown in Eugene last week.
Brown holds a strong lead over Pierce in polls so far and has raised about $3.3 million for her campaign. Pierce has self-funded nearly half of his campaign, which has raised about $2.5 million.
Viewers can watch a recording of the debate at www.kobi5.com. The footage also will air on CSPAN.