Each of the candidates vying for the Clark County Council District 3 seat basically agree that systemic racism exists in the county and disagree with calls to “defund the police” — but they define the issues differently.
Karen Bowerman, a Republican; Jesse James, a Democrat; and John Blom, the incumbent running without party affiliation, spoke on several timely issues during a virtual meeting Tuesday afternoon with The Columbian’s Editorial Board.
Conversations about systemic racism in the county have been ongoing since June 24, when Council Chair Eileen Quiring, a Republican, said she does not believe it exists.
When asked if she believes systemic racism exists in Clark County, Bowerman said it “depends on how one defines that” but that it “exists, to an extent, everywhere.”
Bowerman called resolutions to condemn systemic racism, such as the one passed by the county and rejected by the Yacolt Town Council, “basically posturing.”
“It’s not about some public statement that we give out that is worded the exact way that we want it to,” Bowerman said. “It’s how we behave in our relationships with other groups and our relationships with individuals, and how we defuse situations.”
Blom said issues such as housing discrimination over decades have caused problems for Black residents today.
“It’s not about the actions of individual people today,” Blom said. “There are generational impacts, and that’s what systemic racism is. And if we can’t say, ‘Yes, it’s an issue and we need to deal with things that happened with the past because they create an injustice today,’ we’re never going to be able to take those actions needed to address the problems.”
James referenced the fact that Quiring, about a week before her comment, signed a resolution “relating to eliminating systemic racism and injustice in Clark County.”
“Absolutely systemic racism exists, and it’s an absolute problem,” James said. “Foremost, I think our council needs to be honest with the people they represent. Something there was not honest.”
Along with conversations about systemic racism, there have been nationwide protests calling to “defund the police.”
Bowerman said she supports the county’s law and justice budget, which includes $65 million — about 12 percent of the total county budget — for the Clark County Sheriff’s Office.
“It’s a bargain because when you need them, you want them to be there, available for your call,” Bowerman said.
Blom and James each said they disagree with the idea of defunding police departments altogether. Both mentioned a decades-old mobile crisis intervention program in Eugene, Ore., that employs unarmed responders.
Blom said he thinks the number of deputies employed by the sheriff’s office is adequate. But he said a program for mental health crises could reduce the office’s overtime costs, which represent the largest overtime chunk among county departments.
“There are better people to respond to those, in some situations, than the police,” Blom said.
His mention of the Eugene program came after James broached the topic in response to questions about the overall county budget and in his opening statement during the meeting.
“We would not only be saving money, but we would be helping people at the same time,” James said.
On the budget
The candidates’ political ideologies range from a self-described Bernie Sanders-style liberal in James to a moderate in Blom to a staunch conservative in Bowerman.
Bowerman disagrees with approving annual 1 percent increases in property tax collections, the largest allowed under state law, for the county’s general and road funds.
In five of the eight previous years, county leaders decided against taking the increase. They also rejected the road fund tax increase in eight of the previous 10 years.
Blom voted for the increase.
The incumbent said it’s crucial to adjust for inflation and offset the county’s structural deficit. The deficit comes from millions of dollars in lost revenue annually due to Oregon not having a sales tax.
“Taking the 1 percent every year as we’ve done is what allows us to keep things going,” Blom said. “I think it’s the prudent and responsible thing to keep up with rate of inflation and keep service levels where they are.”
Bowerman said she would have voted against the increase, adding that economic hardships for residents due to COVID-19 have solidified her stance.
She said the county should instead look to cut programs that “feel good now.” When pressed repeatedly on which programs she would aim to cut, Bowerman declined to specify.
“It’s not that I can’t (name them). It’s that I don’t think it’s appropriate that I do so because programs and people can be affected by comments that are made,” Bowerman said. “They should not be made just in an off-the-cuff remark in an interview at this time.”
James said he would have supported the tax increase.
“I don’t see, right now, anywhere where there is an enormous amount of waste in the county and county services,” he said.
The full conversation, including more on the county’s COVID-19 response, the upcoming Charter Review Committee and the Interstate 5 Bridge, is available at youtube.com/user/columbiannewspaper.
The candidates will appear on the primary ballot on Aug. 4, with the top two advancing to the Nov. 3 general election. The vote is limited to those who live in District 3, which is roughly east of Interstate 205, west of Camas and south of Orchards.