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County Candidates Define Positions

July 20, 2008

By Michael Andersen, The Columbian, Vancouver, Wash.

Jul. 19–How to summarize a two-hour debate between seven candidates with three party affiliations running for one county commissioner’s seat, all in 1,100 words?

Why not start by giving them two words each?

Craig Williams: green economics. Matt Swindell: hard work. Bridget Schwarz: lively neighborhoods. Robert Nichols: no rail. Tom Mielke: business deregulation. Brad Lothspeich: administrative competence. Pam Brokaw: slower growth.

It’s the grossest of simplifications — except maybe for Nichols, whose overriding passion is blocking light rail across the Columbia River.

But in a complicated race with four Republicans (Williams, Swindell, Mielke and Lothspeich), one independent from each end of the political spectrum (Nichols the conservative, Schwarz the liberal) and a Democrat (Brokaw), candidates needed any help they could get to stand out at a forum held Thursday night by the Fort Vancouver Regional Library District.

The north-county primary to replace retiring Commissioner Betty Sue Morris is Aug. 19.

Thursday’s debate will be replayed on cable channel 23 at 9 p.m. Sunday and replayed through the next few weeks. It’s also available on cvtv.org.

Different lives shape race

Describing themselves at Thursday’s event, most candidates leaned on their life stories.

Swindell, the youngest candidate and a Ridgefield city councilman, spoke of making $1 million by age 30, then losing it all on a failed business venture at 32.

“I have had many successes in my life, but it’s through my failures that I’ve become a person of compassion,” said Swindell, 38. “I know better than anyone else running what it’s like to be out there right now. … I will work harder, longer and sacrifice more than any other commissioner before me.”

Brokaw cited her experience as a reporter for The Columbian and The Oregonian and on county commissioners’ staff.

“I’ve reported on the activities of the board and I’ve also worked with the board,” she said.

Lothspeich, a longtime firefighter and volunteer on local government committees, said he’s primarily interested in maintaining the county’s virtues.

“We have safe neighborhoods, adequate streets, comfortable roads,” Lothspeich said. “We need to do a better job of supporting our existing businesses and attracting new businesses.”

Lothspeich said government agencies could do a better job communicating with each other.

Mielke, a former state legislator and business owner, spoke as a conservative rural Republican.

“We can no longer accept the unfriendliness and overregulation that has been strangling Clark County businesses,” he said. “The overtaxation and flawed permitting process is still there and has held us from jobs that we so desperately need.”

Schwarz, who led her neighborhood association in a lawsuit in an attempt to block construction of a Wal-Mart in Salmon Creek, had a different take on small-business development.

“We have doubled the retail square footage in our county,” she said. “Have we doubled our ability to buy products? I don’t think so.”

“Big headlines when they hire 200 people at part-time, minimum-wage jobs,” Schwarz said. “No headlines for the jobs that will go away from the other businesses.”

Williams, who holds master’s degrees in business administration and engineering, stressed his “international and national business experience.”

Williams finished his personal statement in Spanish: “Trabajamos juntos.” Let’s work together.

Issue: Growth

Slowing what some called the “paving of Clark County” was a primary issue for three candidates: Brokaw; Schwarz and Williams.

“Clark County is worth saving,” Brokaw said. “The decisions that this board makes in the next few years are going to set the stage for what this county looks like.”

Clark County is in the midst of defending its 2007 urban growth plan, which a state board decapitated in May by blocking industrial development on more than 1,000 acres of farmland. Brokaw said Thursday that the county should be prepared to lose its legal appeal, and should get ready for a new update to the plan “as quickly as possible” to let cities expand.

“Growth is a good thing,” she said, but called for “a timeout on business as usual.”

Williams called himself a “convert to growth management.”

“I’ve seen two places where I live turn from paradise to paradise lost,” he said. “Travel up to Seattle, where many areas have turned from beautiful to congested.”

Schwarz said the commissioners’ 2007 plan “appeased the sprawl industry” without creating enough nonretail jobs.

Mielke, Lothspeich, Swindell and Nichols said they supported the 2007 plan as a way to make housing and jobs plentiful.

Mielke said more expansion would have been better.

“We need to go back and add more industrial-base jobs,” he said. “Bigger parcels of land.”

To a question about how to fund new infrastructure, Mielke said growth pays for itself.

“Everyone is always trying to annex more into cities,” he said. “Why would they want to annex into debt?”

Issue: Casino

Only two candidates didn’t speak out against a proposed tribal casino at the La Center junction: Brokaw and Nichols.

Both of them said the federal government is likely to approve the casino, and called for the county to sign a deal with the tribe to lessen a casino’s impact.

Other candidates said the land should be developed in other ways.

“We can find projects that would better benefit the Cowlitz Tribe, as opposed to the leaders that are doing reservation shopping,” Schwarz said.

“I’d like to see that area brought into the La Center urban growth boundary,” Swindell said.

Anti-casino candidates didn’t say Thursday whether they’d support new tribal deals. Only Williams suggested how to stop the casino.

“The solution is the repeal of the corrupt 1988 Indian Gaming Reform Act,” Williams said.

Issue: Bridge

On the issue of a new Interstate 5 bridge, several candidates found the same punching bag: Oregon.

“The problem is on the Oregon side,” Schwarz said. “As soon as you get to the Washington side, there’s no problem.”

Mielke agreed. He said a light-rail connection would help Portland but not Clark County and suggested that a new bridge isn’t necessary. “At some point, we need to break off,” he said.

Lothspeich said he’s happy with the current express buses that start in Hazel Dell.

“Twenty to 25 minutes to downtown Portland,” he said. “The express bus service is working. We own it. It’s cost-effective.”

Nichols singled out tolls as “a very expensive way to finance things.”

“If we have to finance most of this thing out of tolls, it’s going to be closer to $10, $12 for a round trip,” he said.

Brokaw and Williams spoke for rail, with Williams singling out the need for a new bridge.

“If we don’t build that bridge, we will be paying nearly $1 billion in congestion costs every single year,” he said. “When the medicine costs more than the cure, it’s time to build the cure.”

“Light rail is only a piece of the options we need,” Brokaw said. “We can’t forget about the thousands and thousands of Clark County residents who need relief from high fuel costs.”

MICHAEL ANDERSEN covers Clark County: 360-735-4508 or michael.andersen@columbian.com.

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