By BERIT THORSON East Oregonian

Republican candidates running for Oregon Senate District 29 in the May 21 primary worked to show their differences during a forum Thursday night, April 4, while often standing on common ground.

The Hermiston Chamber of Commerce hosted the event from about 6-8 p.m. at Hermiston City Hall, giving a forum also for Hermiston mayoral candidates.

The four state Senate hopefuls each gave an opening and closing statement as well as answering seven questions from Angela Pursel with KOHU-KQFM radio, who served as moderator. Around 60 people attended in person, with an option to stream the forum online.

Each of the four candidates — Todd Nash, Jim Doherty, Dave Drotzmann and Andy Huwe — is a Republican man who lives in Northeast Oregon. Nash and Doherty are ranchers who have served in county public office.

The candidates Nash has been a Wallowa County commissioner since 2016. He grew up in Enterprise and owns a cow-calf ranch. He is also the immediate past president of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association.

Doherty is a former Morrow County commissioner who served six years before losing his seat in a recall in late 2022. He was raised in the county and owns a cattle ranch there. He is a past president of the Association of Oregon Counties.

Drotzmann is the mayor of Hermiston and is an optometrist who owns a private practice in Hermiston. He moved to the city about 25 years ago and has served as mayor since 2012. He’s also held positions on the Hermiston School District Board of Directors and with the League of Oregon Cities Board of Directors.

Huwe is an Eastern Oregon University student whose family moved to Wallowa County in 2018, when he was a teenager. His experience comes from working as an in-district liaison for Rep. Bobby Levy, R-Echo, and serving as a precinct committeeperson in Enterprise, as well as his experience with the Young Republicans of Oregon and EOU’s student government.

Generally, the candidates seemed to agree with one another; many of their answers overlapped significantly in terms of their basic beliefs and positions. But on a few occasions, they diverged.

Top priorities The format gave each candidate two minutes to answer questions but they could not debate one another, nor could the audience ask questions. Pursel started by asking each candidate to explain what they believe should be the Oregon Senate’s top three priorities. Major themes were public safety, cost of living and housing or homelessness.

Drotzmann said he believes the top priorities should be bringing down the cost of living, addressing homelessness and the challenges that come with drug and alcohol addiction, and supporting businesses.

“Our population has been declining because people can’t afford to stay here, and young families can’t afford to raise kids here, and so our young kids aren’t having kids,” he said. “And we need them to support us and fill in the jobs of the future. And we need to make it optimistic and hopeful for them, and right now the message we’re sending them is not very optimistic.”

Huwe listed education, being business-friendly and increasing numbers of public safety officers as the top three priorities.

“We just got rid of, once again, graduation requirements for high schoolers,” he said. “If you don’t need to be able to read and do simple math to graduate high school, that’s going to be a problem and you’re not setting up the future to be able to be successful.”

Nash focused his answer on Oregon’s corporate activity tax, which took effect in 2019, and its effect on agriculture.

“Having a tax on monies that aren’t necessarily profitable long-term is just an absurd tax to begin with,” he said. “I think we need to have an exemption for agriculture. … It just is an unfair playing field for a lot of people.”

He also mentioned funding sheriffs and transportation as top priorities.

Doherty’s priorities are housing, homelessness and child care. He said the underlying problems that lead to homelessness need to be addressed, and part of that is a lack of affordable housing and high-paying jobs in the region.

“I think nobody raises a kid better than a parent, certainly,” he said, “but it used to be in the day and age when one earner could go earn enough to buy the house, buy the groceries and then one of the parents could stay home and raise the kid. I think we’ve got to look into this, and it looks like for one dollar spent you get about five dollars return, so I think we need to do this.”

Give industry a break? Regarding the use of taxpayer dollars to encourage companies to establish themselves or expand in Oregon, Doherty spoke out against the breaks, Drotzmann was in the middle and Huwe and Nash offered support for the incentives.

Doherty mentioned looking at ways to support small businesses in Oregon rather than continuing to give tax breaks to industries or data centers. He talked about a local businessman he knows who can’t afford to match the salary tax-incentive-based industries offers.

Drotzmann discussed what he called the “brain drain” of young people leaving the area because of the lack of high-paying jobs or affordable housing. He said bringing in industry and offering incentives can be an important part of getting people to return to the area.

“We need to make sure in these agreements, that (local tax districts are) also being made whole and taken care of because we need those public safety services,” he said. “We need good schools, and we need the resources in order to do that.”

Huwe said Oregon doesn’t seem to want businesses to stay in the state and the state has become increasingly unfriendly to business. He added that decisions about tax incentives should be made at the local level.

“We need to continue to fight for our businesses, support our businesses, and bring them in and continue to have those jobs for the future,” Huwe said.

Nash agreed with Huwe, saying decisions about incentives should be made at the county or city level. But, he said, it’s important to get some incentive available to encourage industries to return. Nash talked about how timber in the area isn’t worth the price of harvesting it, so maybe there’s a balance of deferring taxes until a business is established to incentivize the businesses to return.

Supporting mental health Pursel asked the candidates about the lack of mental health services in Eastern Oregon and what needs to be done. While all candidates agreed there is work to do, each focused on a different aspect of the issue.

Nash focused on people who work with natural resources, citing a statistic from the National Rural Health Association that farmers are 3.5 times more likely to commit suicide than the nationwide average. He helped establish the AgriStress Helpline through Senate Bill 955, which the Legislature passed in 2023 to offer mental health support to farmers and forestry workers.

“It’s a little unknown, but in the natural resource arena in Oregon, we have the highest suicide rate in the nation, and it’s already elevated across the nation,” Nash said. “We have a large portion of our community that is underserved by health care and mental health care.”

Doherty said mental health is closely tied to homelessness and addiction. He discussed the defunding of state mental hospitals and how, when the support was decentralized, it really meant no one was in charge. He said the Oregon Health Authority needs to work better that way.

“They also need to intersect with public safety folks a little better and law enforcement so we can get out there and get to these folks,” he said, “and then get them channeled in the right direction and get them the services they need.”

Huwe also discussed public safety officers but from an emergency medical technician perspective. He said there is a deficit of services the state offers and there need to be more support not only for people in crisis, but their loved ones and the people who are supporting them.

“The state has a failure of adequate care, especially in vulnerable communities,” Huwe said. “My sister tried to kill herself 13 times within a three-month period, and the school did nothing to help, and we were struggling as a family to keep our head above water. We’re not doing enough. We need to continue to build up these services.”

Huwe cited Adi’s Act, or Senate Bill 52, which Oregon implemented in 2020 and requires schools to have a suicide prevention plan in place for students. He said the bill needs to be stronger.

The history of policy decisions that dismantled the mental health system was Drotzmann’s focus. He said decades ago, the state thought mental health support was best handled locally, but there actually needs to be more state support and investment in resources. Rebuilding a system to support Oregonians’ mental health is not going to happen overnight, he said, but there are efforts in progress.

“(Measure 110) created extremely bad challenges in the mental health industry as well, and so now we’re trying to dig out from underneath this system,” Drotzmann said. “I think the state recognizes it, finally, that this mental health problem is a challenge not only in downtown Portland, but it’s happening here in Hermiston and other parts of Eastern Oregon, (and) that we need to invest in those resources.”

Throughout the forum, the candidates focused on their own beliefs and perspectives, and only mentioned other candidates when agreeing with what they had said and then adding to it. Each offered closing remarks that mentioned some of their positions or qualifications for the role of state senator and asked people to vote for them.

The primary election is May 21 with the general election coming in November. No Democrats filed for the District 29 Senate seat.