Democrat Ashley Carson Cottingham is running for Marion County commissioner. (Courtesy/ Ashley Carson Cottingham)

Name: Ashley Carson Cottingham

Age: 41

Home: Salem

Employer/position: state Office of the Long-Term Care Ombudsman, deputy agency director.

Years at current job: Six

Ashley Carson Cottingham says people are at the center of every decision she makes.

She points to her experience running a state agency and her ability to seek creative solutions as assets she would bring to the Marion County Board of Commissioners, which has been a Republican stronghold for more than 40 years.

As director of the state Office of Aging and People with Disabilities, Cottingham said she managed to reduce the $3.4 billion biennial budget in a way that didn’t strand senior citizens who counted on government help.

The Legislature tasked Cottingham with reducing the expenditures over time. She said she could have taken the traditional path of reducing payments to the providers, reducing services or cutting staff.

I didn’t want to do any of those things,” she said.

Cottingham said she convened people in town hall meetings and came up with a plan. She ultimately got a federal agency to assume the cost for people who otherwise would have lost service.

She uses that example to show how she would find solutions to Marion County’s challenges.

She is facing off against Republican challenger Danielle Bethell of Keizer to fill a seat being vacated by Sam Brentano. Libertarian William H. Johnson Jr. is also on the ballot for the seat.

Republicans have held the three commissioner seats since 1979.

But political ideology isn’t the only thing that defines the two candidates vying for office. Cottingham’s background lies in the public sector while Bethell’s experience is in the private sector in her role as executive director of the Keizer Chamber of Commerce.

Asked what should changes she would seek as a commissioner, Cottingham noted investments in homeless services, bringing back reproductive services to the county Health Department and investing in rebuilding communities damaged by the Labor Day wildfires with an emphasis on the county’s responsibility to assist with infrastructure.

“The county can be the glue that holds all of these partners together and keeps everything moving forward,” she said.

One of Ashley’s largest campaign contributors was Jacque Heavey, a licensed social worker, who said she knows Cottingham as a neighbor but believes she’s a strong advocate for causes about justice and equality.

She appreciates the level of transparency Cottingham wants to bring to the office and is excited that someone with national experience in Washington, D.C., is running locally.

Cottingham worked for two U.S. Senate committees related to aging from 2010 to 2012.

Homelessness

Cottingham said the county hasn’t spent enough on services for people experiencing homelessness. She sees the commission’s role as prioritizing the issue in the county budget and leveraging state and federal dollars to invest locally in mental and behavioral health support.

She said the county needs to come up with a strategy that involves low barrier shelters, resource navigators and mental health treatment.

She also said she’d like to replicate a program in Eugene called CAHOOTS, which pairs a crisis worker and medic to respond to mental health calls. She said the county could be a strong advocate or jointly fund something similar with Salem.

Marion County provides significantly less funding for homeless services than Salem as the city has taken a more active role in combating the crisis in recent years. Each year the county gives $45,000 to the Mid-Willamette Valley Homeless Alliance.

Economic recovery

Cottingham said Marion County can’t recover economically until it addresses the public health crisis and reduces Covid case counts.

“We can’t have workers back at full capacity until we curb the numbers,” Cottingham said.

She said county employees needs to demonstrate good public health behavior by masking and social distancing.

Then, to get businesses back on their feet Cottingham said there needs to be an equitable process for getting financial support to businesses by prioritizing those who kept employees on payroll during the economic downturn caused by the pandemic.

Cottingham said the county needs to modernize its approach to marketing itself across Oregon and out of state on social media, to boost sales of its agricultural products, like hops, wine and hazelnuts.  

Wildfire recovery

Cottingham said the county will have to take a lead on critical infrastructure decisions in the Santiam Canyon. She said the county should take a major role in advocating that homes are rebuilt the right way to prevent future loss. How much the county invests, she said, is too soon to tell.

“I’m not going to have a good answer for me. Right now, we have very preliminary info. We don’t know how many of these homes have been insured,” she said.

Cottingham said as the community rebuilds it’s important for homeowners to use the right materials, which she said the county or state can require when handing out relief money.

“We can certainly advocate that dollars flowing to those communities have agreements attached with them. If state Legislature has money to rebuild, they must follow these types of guidelines to rebuild these structures,” she said.

Racism

Cottingham said systemic racism is built into all government structures and to address it, she said “I think first you have to acknowledge bias and racism are real.”

She said as a county commissioner she would identify where bias exists in county government and try to rectify it. Cottingham said such bias can be addressed through contracting and hiring decisions.

She said communities of color don’t trust government because of failed promises.

“Why engage in government if you feel like you’ve been let down so many times?” she asked.  

Working with others

Cottingham said she has experience working with people of all political affiliations and had to work with both political parties to get legislation passed, such as a house bill passed in 2017 related to facilities regulated by the agency she worked for.

 “At the end of the day we’re all human,” she said. “You have to find common ground on that human level.”

Cottingham said she believes people share values even if they don’t share political stances.

“Talking about how we can best help people across the county and being an advocate is how you convince people that something is needed. Even if your ideology doesn’t meet up,” she said.

CAMPAIGN MONEY: (Updated Saturday, Oct. 17)

Total raised: $65,443

Total spent: $29,741

Top donors: Citizen Action for Political Education, public employee union SEIU $5,500; United Food and Commercial Workers $2,500; Jacqueline Heavey, a licensed social worker $2,000; Local 48 Electricians PAC $1,500; International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 280 PAC $1,500

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Help Salem Reporter fact-check local candidates for office

Correction: Republicans have been in control of the commission since 1979. An earlier version misstated the date.

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