Election 2018: Poulson, Wagner unopposed in Senate District 19 primaries
For the first time in 16 years, former State Sen. Richard Devlin's name won't be on the ballot for Senate District 19. In November, voters will have a choice between Democrat Rob Wagner — who was appointed to the seat after Devlin's mid-term departure last year — and Republican challenger David Poulson.
Poulson and Wagner are both running unopposed in their respective party primaries. Four other Democratic candidates dropped out once Wagner secured the appointment; another Republican candidate initially filed for the GOP primary, but he also later dropped out, leaving Poulson in an uncontested race as well.
Both candidates are longtime Lake Oswego residents who are active in local government. Wagner serves on the Lake Oswego School Board, while Poulson chairs the City's Development Review Commission.
The lack of primary opponents has left both candidates already looking toward the November general election, although neither one has begun prominently campaigning against the other yet — in fact, the two met for coffee last week to discuss the race.
As a civil engineer, Poulson, 60, says he's spent his career working with government agencies and review boards, typically as a development applicant.
He's seeking more direct involvement in government because of concerns about Oregon's direction, he says, and hopes that his engineering background will enable him to provide a unique perspective on the challenges facing the state.
"There aren't a lot of engineers in politics," he says. "I think it may be time to bring an engineering perspective to things."
Poulson grew up in Southern California, where he says his career focus on civil engineering emerged after he spent several years working for a construction company. He received a bachelor's in Civil Engineering from California Polytechnic State University, followed later by a master's in Business Administration from Portland State University. He currently works as a senior principal engineer at PACE Engineers and manages the company's Lake Oswego office.
He and his wife moved to Oregon in 1990 because of rising home prices and the high cost of living in California, he says, and because he saw the Portland area as a place with a lot of potential growth. However, he says, Lake Oswego is now contending with some of the same problems in terms of affordability.
It's a problem that's affecting all of Oregon, Poulson says, and it's one of the main concerns that prompted him to run for elected office. Technological advancements and productivity gains are no longer benefiting the middle class, he says, and there's a widening gap between income growth and the cost of living.
"A lot of people talk about how great the economy is," he says, " but I think most people are one paycheck away from serious trouble."
Poulson also cites infrastructure maintenance as one of his primary goals. He says he wants to make sure he can provide an engineering voice at the table, particularly when trying to anticipate and plan for how infrastructure will be used in the future. The issue is a pressing concern for SD19, he says, particularly when it comes to the roads in Lake Oswego and West Linn.
"We have some real issues with allowing those roadways to get to the point of decay," he says.
Poulson says he also wants to advocate for changes to public education, where he says the existing system is inflexible and contributes to Oregon's low graduation rates. Instead, he says, he wants to empower teachers to use their own expertise to adapt to the needs of each individual student.
Wagner has had a busy couple of months since securing the appointment to serve out the remainder of Devlin's term. He was sworn in on Jan. 31, just a few days before the start of the 2018 legislative session, and jumped straight back into the election race after the session ended, with an official campaign kickoff event last weekend.
Wagner, 45, received a bachelor's from Portland State University in Political Science and a master's in Public Policy at The George Washington University. He worked for 10 years as the director of political and legislative affairs for the American Federation of Teachers (Oregon), and was then hired by Portland Community College in 2012 to serve as its government relations director.
He was promoted in 2014 to become the school's associate vice president for college advancement, where he remained until he decided to seek the Senate appointment in late 2017. Wagner also serves on the Lake Oswego School Board, to which he was elected last May.
Democrats' plan for the 2018 short session was headlined by the Clean Energy Jobs bill, Oregon's proposed version of cap-and-trade legislation that would create a carbon emissions market. The bill didn't make it through the Legislature, but Wagner has expressed confidence that a version of it will pass in 2019.
"I truly think corporate tax fairness needs to come up," he told The Review this week, "and making good on our promise on clean energy jobs."
He says he also came away from the session with a stronger focus on taking action to address gun violence, and said he was particularly inspired by students from Lake Oswego schools who visited Salem to advocate for gun reform.
Looking toward the 2019 session and beyond, Wagner says that if he is elected to a full term, he wants to focus on advancing two of the core issues from his campaign: health care and education. Upcoming work on the state's budget will be an opportunity to make the case for additional resources for education, he says.
"Targeted investments in certain educational programs make a huge difference," he says.
Education has always been at the heart of Wagner's career, and he made it the centerpiece of his campaign for the SD19 appointment. He says he intends to continue serving on the Schoo Board in addition to his new role in the Legislature, with the expectation that the two positions can inform one another.