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5th District foes trade political jabs

Partisanship, Pacific trade pact split Democrat Schrader and Republican challenger at forum.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: PETER WONG - Democratic incumbent U.S. Rep. Kurt Schrader, center, and Republican challenger Colm Willis at a business-sponsored forum Monday, Sept. 19, at the Monarch Hotel in Clackamas. At left is the moderator, Mark Meek, who read written questions from the audience.Democratic incumbent Kurt Schrader and Republican challenger Colm Willis disagreed about partisanship and the Pacific trade agreement, among other things, during spirited exchanges at a business-sponsored breakfast Monday, Sept. 19.

The forum, sponsored by the Canby and North Clackamas chambers and the Clackamas County Business Alliance, was the first face-to-face encounter by the major-party candidates in the 5th District congressional race.

Clackamas County accounts for the district’s largest share of registered voters at 41 percent. A sliver of Multnomah County also is in the district.

The candidates responded to written questions from the audience at the Monarch Hotel in Clackamas.

Schrader, who is seeking a fifth term, responded to a question about how he could be effective if Republicans retain the majority in the U.S. House they have had since 2010.

He said he has been effective because he has shown he can work with Republicans — and that his opponent, if elected, would line up with a small bloc that has thwarted past and current Republican House speakers.

“You cannot be an extreme partisan and get stuff done, even if you are in the majority,” Schrader said after Willis — a first-time candidate for public office — noted that his election to the seat would put him in a position with the majority party "and the majority makes the rules."

“The House Freedom Caucus is destroying the Republican Party, and the ideas Colm and others like him talk about are not where Oregon and this country are.

“You need people like me who are willing to work across the aisle and be bipartisan again and again, because that is how you get stuff done.”

Among the examples Schrader cited are earmarking federal funds for the Woodburn interchange on Interstate 5, designating Interstate 205 through Clackamas County and Portland as a corridor of national significance, retaining a Coast Guard rescue helicopter in Newport, and attracting the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fleet from Seattle to a new homeport in Newport.

“He is trying to distract you from what matters to you,” Willis said in mentioning Schrader’s support of — and his own opposition to — the 2010 national health-care overhaul, 2015 agreement on Iran and nuclear weapons, and the pending trade pact known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Willis criticized Schrader's 2010 vote for what is known popularly as "Obamacare," although Schrader has been re-elected three times since — and Willis has not specified what should replace the law.

Later, Schrader asked Willis directly why he feels he is ready for Congress after less than a decade of work experience — including a year's stint as a congressional committee staffer, political director of Oregon Right to Life, and after he earned his law degree in 2015, a year in his own law firm.

“I know that when people say they have been left behind by their congressman, I know what they mean,” Willis replied.

“They do not have an advocate. I just think you have lost touch with regular people.”

Willis questioned whether families and businesses are better off economically than they were when Schrader was elected in 2008, offering an echo of Ronald Reagan’s famous 1980 campaign question.

Schrader conceded that not all people in the district, which extends from Portland through the Mid-Willamette Valley and the central coast, has shared in Oregon’s economic resurgence. But he said he has worked hard on a variety of issues, including the economy and public works.

Willis is 30; Schrader, a farmer, veterinarian and state lawmaker when he was first elected in 2008, turns 65 in October.

Trading views on trade

They also clashed on the 12-nation Asian-Pacific trade agreement, which President Barack Obama favors but both major-party presidential nominees oppose — as do many Democrats.

But Willis also counts himself as an opponent, saying that “the biggest problem is that our government has been picking (economic) winners and losers” through such international pacts and federal regulation.

Willis argued that under its terms, Canada can continue to severely restrict milk imports.

“One hundred percent wrong,” Schrader replied. “We actually get better access to Canada, contrary to what my opponent says,” because the pact breaks down measures intended to restrict markets.

Schrader said the agreement also offers protection for intellectual property, such as copyrights and patents, and reduces tariff barriers.

He also said that the agreement is good for Oregon as a state dependent on exports.

“There is a rising middle class in the world outside this country,” he said. “I want our businesses to sell stuff to them. I want our workers to make this stuff for them. They desperately want top-quality American goods made by top-quality American workers.

“I want us to be in charge of setting the table — not China.”

At the end, Willis criticized Schrader for Schrader’s early support of Hillary Clinton as the Democratic presidential nominee. Schrader was unable to respond directly, because Schrader gave his closing statement first.

But Willis supports Donald Trump, the Republican presidential nominee who appears equally unpopular with Oregonians — and Schrader said Willis will align himself with the bloc of Republicans who resist their own leaders in the House.

“If you want to double down on that, elect my opponent,” Schrader said.

The Pacific Green Party nominee, Marvin Sandnes of Salem, was not invited to the Clackamas forum.

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