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Gov. Brown, challenger Buehler spar in final debate


In their third and final scheduled televised debate Tuesday night, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and Republican challenger Knute Buehler addressed a wide range of issues, generally sticking close to their campaign platform positions while doing all they could to challenge each other’s record.

The debate, hosted at the KGW studios in Portland and sponsored by KGW Media Group and OregonLive/Oregonian, also was aired on NewsChannel 21 and livestreamed on KTVZ.COM. It was the last chance for the two front-runners in Oregon’s gubernatorial race to face off before ballots get mailed to voters later this month.

Brown, a Democrat seeking her first full term after being elected in 2016 to serve the remainder of former Governor John Kitzhaber’s term, pressed to continue what she called “steady incremental progress” and advocated more attention to affordable housing, education spending and health care security for Oregonians in need.

Brown said her administration wants to spend $370 million relating to building more affordable housing units and she pointed to the upcoming Portland-area housing bond measure as key to funding at least 12,000 more units in the area.

Buehler, a Bend area lawmaker and physician, pressed the incumbent on several points, including the growing homeless population, not just in the Portland metro area but around the state.

“The results show that homelessness has grown much worse under Governor Brown,” he said, offering support for programs that offer “compassion and tough love.”

From the start, Brown claimed candidate Buehler was at odds with his record as a legislator.

On the always controversial issue of abortion — referred to as “reproductive rights” — Buehler insisted he’s pro-choice, despite Brown’s claim he sought Right to Life’s endorsement.

“As governor, I will not be changing any reproductive rights laws that currently exist in Oregon,” Buehler said.

The two also are at odds over Measure 105, the proposal to repeal Oregon’s sanctuary state status in regards to illegal immigrants. Buehler said he wants the state to “add clarity to the confusion over immigration policies,” but also said that if the measure were to pass and he were elected governor, “racial profiling won’t be tolerated.”

Brown said the sanctuary law was passed in 1987 “because police were targeting the Latino population,” and she worries that could return if the measure passes and “our communities will be less safe.”

Oregon’s challenges with its high school graduation rate, which ranks as one of the worst in the nation, were also a focal point of the debate.

Brown, who lives in Portland and was previously Oregon’s Secretary of State, noted that her goal is to raise Oregon’s rate to 85 percent by 2022, which would be a sharp increase from the current level of 77 percent and bring the state to slightly above the current national average.

Education is shaping up as one of the key issues that both candidates are focusing on, noted KGW political analyst Len Bergstein.

Tuesday’s debate was the first time that Brown has noted a specific benchmark goal for the state’s graduation rate, said Bergstein.

“That is a vulnerable spot for her, and Buehler knows it,” Bergstein said.

Buehler stood by his campaign platform of leading Oregon from the bottom five nationwide in graduation rate to the top five in five years.

Other issues included building a new Columbia River Crossing (“Scotch tape” was Brown’s sarcastic quip as to what Buehler would use to pay for a new bridge), foster care (“Our 8,000 foster kids deserve so much better,” said Buehler, in reference to ongoing scandals involving state child welfare services), and PERS, the state retirement system for public employees.

On PERS, Buehler said he would stop large payouts to retirees, which has been the focus of several TV- ad campaigns by outside advocacy groups, while Brown countered that “hard-working Oregonians” would face cuts if Buehler were successful.

“I think it’s easier for a millionaire to say he’s going to cut the retirements of hard-working Oregonians,” she said. “I’m not willing to do that.”

But Buehler said if the current situation and big shortfall isn’t resolved, “their pension could be worth pennies on the dollar.”

“What I would do is elevate this bill to the top of my political agenda,” he said, vowing “”to not sign a single spending bill until I have a PERS reform bill on my desk,” transitioning it to a more typical 401K style plan and “more stable footing.”

The death penalty, and Brown and her predecessor’s moratorium on executions, was another split.

“I will follow the desires of the people of Oregon who voted on this issue, and I will enforce the death penalty,” he said, adding that he would deal with them on a case-by-case basis and could commute the death penalty if he believes an “injustice” was committed.

As for schools, Brown said she understands Buehler’s proposals “would cut teacher retirement (pay) by 40 percent. I don’t think you can cut your way to a better education system.”

On the affordable housing topic, Buehler said, “I don’t think we should build a whole lot more public housing,” and instead said he’d commit $50 million to rental assistance. But he also said, “We need to create 20,000 affordable workforce housing units every year,” and work to cut the cost of building homes by added zoning requirements and other government costs.

Brown said Buehler opposed a bill requirement developers to include more affordable units and supported measures that would “kick people out of homes.”

“Can I rebut that?” Buehler said. “Those are outlandish claims.” And he said the issue of homelessness has gotten worse in Brown’s tenure.

The touchy topic of parental rights to not have children vaccinated was one of many citizen questions presented on video.

Brown said while there’s a law that protects that right, “we have a number of communicable diseases coming back because parents haven’t been having their children vaccinated.”

“We probably give some parents too much leeway” in that regard, she said. “If we want to protect public health, we want to make sure children have the vaccinations they need.”

Buehler said as a physician, he’s aware of the benefits of vaccinations, “but I also think parents have the right to opt out, for personal beliefs, religious beliefs” and alternative medicine beliefs.

A question about serious issues with the state’s foster care system put Brown on the defensive, noting Oregon has 1.5 times the national average of children in the system and that issues of drug abuse and housing play a role as well.

“This is a tough nut to crack,” she said. “Oregon has struggled with this issue for many years.”

Buehler said, “I’d ask the governor, how long do we take to fix the problem?” and noted she’s been in Salem for 20 years.” He said the governor rebuffed his proposal for a “rapid improvement team” in the last legislative session and “said the status quo is fine” until she was pressure to support changes to improve the system.

Oregonian columnist Steve Duin, one of the panel of questioners, said Buehler was a “milquetoast” on climate issues, “anti-coal but pro-fracking” and calling the proposed carbon tax a “slush fund for energy profiteers.”

Buehler said he rejected the premises of the question and noted he was “one of the few Republicans speaking out frequently against Trump administration policies” on the issue, such as the withdrawal from the global climate accords.

But he also said the governor’s proposed “cap and trade” on carbon is “better called a $1.4 billion sales tax on energy that’s going to hit hard-working Oregonians.” Rather than funds for schools or health care, he said, the money would go to a “tax credit scheme for green energy companies,” an area in which “some have gone to jail for corruption. I don’t want to repeat that.”

Pressed to comment on President Donald Trump, neither candidate expressed support, focusing instead on the impact of federal policies on Oregonians.

“Certainly, President Trump doesn’t provide a model of leadership to me,” Buehler said. “I think leaders bring people together, to unite around a common goal. They build bridges, not walls. I spoke out against many of his policies, on immigration, the cutting of Medicaid.”

Gov. Brown said, “I think it’s important that the governor speak out when President Trump stomps on Oregonians.”

“Buehler took almost every opportunity to separate himself from Trump,” said Bergstein, citing the responses on health care, climate change and leadership style.

The governor’s race appears to be a close contest, with a new poll showing Brown has a slight lead over Buehler, 49 to 45 percent, with other candidates dividing up the remainder. The poll was conducted between Sept. 24 and Oct. 7 by Riley Research Associates for KGW and The Oregonian/OregonLive.

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