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James Crary

Democrats vying for U.S. House square off

Six of seven Democrats hoping to unseat Republican powerhouse Greg Walden in the congressional District 2 race were questioned before an audience of about 300 in Ashland Wednesday on everything from health care to the proposed LNG pipeline through Oregon.

Eric Burnette, Michael Byrne, Jim Crary, Jamie McLeod-Skinner, Jenni Neahring and Tim White spoke during the Jackson County Democratic Party forum at Southern Oregon University; a second forum is planned from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday at the North Medford High School Auditorium, 1900 N. Keene Way Drive, Medford.

Many had similar views, such as support for a path to citizenship for so-called "Dreamers," disdain for the recently passed Republican tax plan, criticism of a Republican forest-management plan championed by Walden, and support for state's rights when it comes to the legalization of medical and recreational marijuana. A seventh candidate, Steven Reynolds, did not attend.

All of the candidates present said they would support the person who wins the Democratic primary in May.

"Everybody here is better than Greg Walden," said Neahring, a recently retired physician out of Bend.

McLeod-Skinner, who lives in Southern Oregon, said teamwork among the prospective candidates and an inviting approach would be needed to "build bridges" to independents and Republicans who make up the majority of the district, particularly in Eastern Oregon. She called Walden's position on net neutrality among the "three things" threatening his seat.

"The three things that are the reason why Walden's going to lose are because of health care, because of taxes and because of net neutrality," McLeod-Skinner said. "It's a huge issue throughout our district, it's a huge economic development issue, it's one of the No. 1 issues in John Day, for example."

Co-moderator Art Baden with the Jackson County Democratic Party referenced a bumper sticker he saw recently that said, "Are you an American or are you a Democrat?" Then he asked the candidates why they were Democrats.

Burnette of Hood River said Democrats look at the population "as a society," while Republicans see the country "as an economy."

Neahring said it's unfair to keep pretending Republicans have a lock on patriotism, saying that for her the Democratic Party represents "personal responsibility" by helping others in need.

Byrne, a stonemason from Parkdale, said, "We are so divided." Byrne said he favored a requirement that everyone serve others for two years in services such as AmeriCorps or Teach for America.

"This is something we actually need," Byrne said.

Nuanced debate surrounded the candidates' stances on health care, with Crary, who lives in the Greensprings, and Byrne advocating for Medicare for all, while Neahring and White touched on health care costs.

"The first thing we need to do is go after the pharmaceuticals, go after the health insurance," White said, later adding that he believes Medicare's minimum age should be 55 years old. "We've gotta get it down, because ... whether you pay for it or the government pays for it, it's not sustainable."

Burnette said the people need to make their voices heard so support will coalesce for Medicare for all.

"If this is what we want, we need to let our party know that," Burnette said.

Baden asked the candidates how they explain their opposition to the Pacific Connector Pipeline to people in economically disadvantaged communities such as Coos Bay, who may see it as "an economic lifeline."

White, from Bend, said he opposes it on grounds that it risked tremendous fire "that could be set off with something as innocuous as a cigarette, a cellphone, a transmission line, you name it. It would turn Southern Oregon into the largest fire you've ever seen. Do you really want to take that chance?"

Pipeline backers have said multiple safeguards would be in place to prevent such a scenario, including routine inspections and X-rays with devices that monitor the pipeline and surrounding ground.

Neahring said she's skeptical of the projected 30- to 40-year lifespan of the project, saying that the "energy market is changing rapidly." Instead, she would look at other ways to bring jobs.

Crary said there's plenty of work needed repairing and refurbishing roads, bridges and sewers, adding that he backs a proposal to phase out fossil fuels by 2035.

"It's absolutely doable," Crary said. "We went to the moon in less than 10 years. We could be off fossil fuels if we had the national will to do so."

Burnette, executive director of the Board of Maritime Pilots, said his agency would be responsible for setting ship pilot standards.

"I've gotta tell you, as spooky as the pipeline and the chiller-compressor plants may be, getting those ships in and out of that (Coos Bay) harbor is one heck of a task, and I am not comfortable with it yet," Burnette said.

— Reach reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @MTCrimeBeat.

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