BATTLE GROUND — Adrian Cortes, a candidate in a special election for Clark County Council, has ideas about taxation, land use and infrastructure. But throughout a recent interview, Cortes had a recurring refrain: Clark County needs a vision.
Over the last year, Cortes and the rest of the Battle Ground City Council have been involved in a visioning process. The process involved gathering extensive public input from the city’s 20,000 residents with the aim of developing a set of long-term objectives around land use, infrastructure and other concerns.
“Every one of our goals can be backed up by visioning,” Cortes said over a decaf latte with almond milk and no sugar in a Battle Ground Starbucks. He also wore a T-shirt for the Battle Ground Roadmap, the name of the city’s vision process, to an interview with The Columbian.
“So when a citizen says, ‘Why did you do this or that?’ We can point back to the vision,” continued Cortes. “So the county really needs to do that. It never really has had an in-depth outreach to the public.”
Cortes is challenging Republican Councilor Gary Medvigy, a retired U.S. Army general and California Superior Court judge who was appointed to fill a council vacancy in January. A special education teacher in the Camas School District, Cortes has stressed his deep roots in Clark County compared with his opponent, who moved to the area in 2016.
In addition to calling for a vision, Cortes, a Republican turned Democrat, has staked out fiscally conservative positions while seeking to represent District 4, a sprawling rural district in east Clark County that stretches from the Columbia River in the south to Yale Lake in the north.
During the race, Cortes has opposed moving forward with a public-private partnership to develop a large area around 179th Street north of Vancouver until the county has developed a vision. Unlike his opponent, he’s opposed industrializing Brush Prairie. He’s balked at replacing the county jail over its cost.
“I’m not in favor of increasing property taxes whatsoever,” said Cortes.
He also took issue with how Medvigy voted against approving a new half-million-dollar case management system for the prosecutor’s office that Prosecutor Tony Golik said is required by state law. Medvigy said that the case management system had significant ongoing maintenance costs and that the request deserved more scrutiny.
Medvigy said he’s skeptical that the county needs a visioning process as proposed by Cortes, saying citizen input is already built into many processes.
He also criticized Cortes for making an issue of his short residency in the county, calling it “insulting” to veterans. He added that Cortes’ roots in Clark County make him a good constituent but not necessarily a good councilor.
Medvigy also said he’s concerned about someone who “flip-flopped” between parties.
“When someone gives a no-tax pledge as a Democrat, I would be very skeptical,” he said.
Cortes, who turns 43 later this month, said his family moved to Clark County when he was 5. He described growing up in a “conservative Hispanic family,” watching Ronald Reagan on TV and recalling the former president’s values sticking with him.
He attended private Christian schools in Brush Prairie and Hockinson before graduating from Prairie High School. After graduating, he attended Clark College and got a job in banking. In 1994, he moved to Battle Ground. After the Great Recession, Cortes said, he wanted to do something more meaningful and went back to school to become an educator. He is now a Certified Autism Specialist.
Married for 16 years with two kids, Cortes said he’s stuck around Clark County because of its “overall quality of life.”
“People really care about each other,” he said. “It’s just a really great place to raise a family and work.”
While raising a family, Cortes has also waded into public life. He served on the Vancouver-Clark Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission, where he voted to recommend a new five-field baseball complex in east Hazel Dell over the objections of some neighbors, according to The Columbian’s archives.
In 2011, Cortes successfully ran for a seat on the Battle Ground City Council. On the council, Cortes and Councilor Mike Ciraulo accused their colleagues of what they characterized as a lack of transparency in drafting an ordinance to change how the city’s mayor would be selected, according to The Columbian’s archives. Cortes was the only councilor to vote against it (Ciraulo was absent) during a heated city council meeting. An investigation later found no evidence members of the city council violated the Open Public Meetings Act.
Battle Ground is one of two cities that allow recreational cannabis businesses in Clark County. The issue has divided the city council, and Cortes had previously voted to discuss the issue. The Clark County Council voted July 2 to lift its ban on recreational cannabis businesses in unincorporated areas starting in January 2020. Cortes said that while he didn’t vote to legalize pot, he supported lifting the county’s ban.
While on the city council, Cortes voted to limit the days fireworks could be sold and discharged in Battle Ground. He told The Columbian that he was proud of the city council’s fiscal restraint, trying to keep property taxes low and housing affordable.
“We strive to keep costs low and also provide good service,” he said.
Cortes said he’s been endorsed by Washougal Mayor Molly Coston, former Camas Mayor Nan Henriksen and Battle Ground Mayor Mike Dalesandro.
Dalesandro said that Cortes has the right temperament for local government, putting service first and making well-thought-out decisions. He said that in 2014, he played a large role in contract negotiations with Fire District 3 that saved the city money.
“He is a fair-minded and moderate person when it comes to policy,” he said.
Dalesandro also said that with Battle Ground growing so quickly, the visioning process has been a useful compass. While the city of Battle Ground didn’t immediately have figures for how much the visioning process cost, Dalesandro said it involved contracting with consulting firm Barney & Worth Inc. and was in the six-figure range.
Joining the party
In 2016, Republican Eileen Quiring won the race for District 4 with 62 percent of the vote. Cortes said that county races should be nonpartisan and that he realizes he’s fighting an uphill battle with a “D” behind his name. But he said that he hopes to overcome that by talking to voters about his values and background.
Last week, Cortes set out armed with campaign literature to the Camas First Friday event to chat up potential voters. One of his stops was Camas Gallery, where former Republican state Rep. Liz Pike was in the middle of painting a sunflower. The two greeted each other cordially.
“Aren’t you a busy boy these days?” said Pike.
In 2012, Cortes ran as a Republican for state representative in the 18th Legislative District, which overlaps with county council District 4, before dropping out. When asked about switching parties, Cortes said that during the race, a Republican legislative leader (he wouldn’t say who) called him and questioned if anyone would vote for someone with dark skin and his last name.
“Frankly, I was speechless,” recalled Cortes.
Now a Democrat, Cortes said he doesn’t agree with everything his new party stands for and that he still has conservative values, such as fiscal responsibility and respect for property rights. But he said the Democratic Party is a more inclusive “big tent” party.
The local Democratic Party seems happy to have him. Current and former party leaders have donated to his campaign. State Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, spoke at his campaign kickoff and noted his community involvement and work as an educator.
“I always appreciate when our elected officials have a lifestyle that’s more representative of the communities we represent,” Stonier said.
She said that Cortes has asked her tough questions when he disagreed with a position she’s taken in the Legislature. She said she hopes he’ll bring the same approach to the county.
Former Democratic county Treasurer Doug Lasher, who retired last year after serving over 30 years, said Cortes would bring a fresh viewpoint to the county.
Lasher questioned if the county has a coherent vision, which he said Cortes would help address. He said that too often, councilors communicate mostly to their bases and the county should have a more strategic way of talking to the public about roads, the jail and other priorities.
“You can’t have vagueness,” said Lasher. “You have to have clarity in your mission and values.”
Cortes likened public service to a single chapter in a longer book. He pointed out that whoever wins the special election this year will have an even shorter chapter. Because the election is to fill a vacancy, whoever wins will have to run again in 2020 for a full four-year term.
“If I don’t follow through on my promises, you don’t have to stick with me,” he said. “You can fire me in one year.”