Endorsement: Witt the safe, moderate choice in HD 31
Editor's note: This endorsement is part of a series of editorials in advance of the Nov. 6, 2018, general election. Also in this Oct. 17, 2018, issue, our editorial board endorses Ron Noble for House District 24, Rich Vial for House District 26, Susan McLain for House District 29, Janeen Sollman for House District 30, Tiffiny Mitchell for House District 32, Alexander Flores for Senate District 15, Betsy Johnson for Senate District 16 and Knute Buehler for governor.
Our endorsement editorials in the previous issue on Oct. 10, 2018, recommended voters elect Tom Johnston, Malynda Wenzl and Devon Downeysmith for Forest Grove City Council; Luis Hernandez and John Colgan for Cornelius City Council; and Beach Pace, Kyle Allen and Olivia Alcaire for Hillsboro City Council.
Our Oct. 3, 2018, endorsement editorials recommended voters elect Kathryn Harrington as Washington County Board of Commissioners chairwoman and approve Ballot Measure 26-199.
Our Sept. 26, 2018, endorsement editorial recommended voters reject Ballot Measures 103 and 104. Our Sept. 19, 2018, endorsement editorial recommended voters reject Ballot Measure 105. Our Sept. 12, 2018, endorsement editorial recommended voters approve Ballot Measure 102.
There are legislative races this fall in which both major-party candidates impressed our editorial board.
House District 31 — which covers all of Columbia County, parts of northwestern Multnomah County and much of northern Washington County, including parts of the Rock Creek, North Plains and Banks areas — is not one of them.
Rep. Brad Witt, D-Clatskanie, has represented HD 31 since 2005. In that time, he hasn't done much to leave his mark, preferring to take a supporting role to powerhouse state Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose.
Witt co-chairs a Ways & Means subcommittee and serves on two other committees, but he has no other committee chairmanships or co-chairmanships of his own. His closest thing to a signature law is probably his successful 2011 legislation to ban the possession and sale of shark fins, considered a delicacy in some cuisines.
Witt's opponent, Brian G. Stout of Bethany, is a first-time candidate who was nominated by Republican voters and cross-nominated by the Independent Party. If you live or spend much time north of Highway 26, you've almost certainly seen his dark-blue campaign signs, which bear more than a passing resemblance to President Donald Trump's in the 2016 election — an appropriate summary, in one look, of Stout's political platform.Witt is in the awkward position of representing a district that is ancestrally Democratic but swung hard toward Trump at the federal level two years ago. Despite that, he is a reasonably good fit for HD 31, politically — he usually votes with Democrats but tends to be one of the "nays" when the vote is particularly close, especially on issues of gun control and business regulations, and he is most passionate about economic and labor issues, coming from a union background and representing a district dominated by relatively poor Columbia County. In 2016, he crossed party lines to endorse Dennis Richardson for secretary of state.
To some extent, Witt exists in the shadow of Johnson, who already ensures that rural northwestern Oregon has an outsized voice on the Capitol Mall. But Witt himself simply isn't a strong communicator. He is clearly excited about several legislative proposals he is working on for the 2019 session, if he is re-elected, but he has difficulty articulating exactly what they would accomplish. He's scant on ideas for big issues like PERS reform and improving public education, suggesting that lawmakers need "executive direction" — namely, being shut in a room together until they somehow hammer out a bipartisan solution to all of Oregon's problems.Stout, on the other hand, is plain-spoken almost to the point of folksiness. He is clear in laying out his positions on the issues and his ideas for fixing them. Although early on in his interview with our editorial board, he paid lip service to the idea of identifying more with values than party labels, he consistently comes down on the conservative Republican side of all of the major issues, from taxes and regulations (he's against them) to Measure 105 (for it) to abortion (against it). We didn't get much of a sense that Stout, who complained at several points about "the liberal wacko agenda," as he put it, will be open to compromise on many of these issues.
HD 31 is an increasingly conservative-leaning district, and if district voters want their state representative simply to give a loud "nay" on major legislation brought forward by the Democratic majority, they could do worse than Stout.
We're endorsing Witt for re-election, though. He knows the district — the whole district — in a way that Stout, who begged off specific knowledge of Columbia County politics, local issues and power players, does not. He knows the way Salem works in a way that Stout, a business-owner and first-time candidate, does not. And despite Stout's talk about serving constituents over party, Witt comes off as the more moderate of the two, and the more likely to put the interests of his district above the state or national party agenda.