Rep. Paul Evans plays a campaign commercial on his phone in his Capitol office. Evans made the commercial in response to attack ads from his opponent, Selma Pierce. The commercial is from the perspective of his dog, Beau, to set the record straight. (Aubrey Wieber/Salem Reporter)

State Rep. Paul Evans, D-Monmouth, hopes that one of his central goals will get traction in next year’s legislative session.

Evans, chair of the House Interim Committee on Veterans and Emergency Preparedness, wants to reorganize the state’s emergency response system.

His proposal didn’t get much traction last session. But following historic wildfires and a resurgent pandemic, lawmakers could be more receptive to his ideas when they meet in January.

That’s if Evans can keep his seat. He’s facing a well-funded challenge from Republican Selma Pierce, a retired dentist who’s making her second attempt for the seat.

RELATED COVERAGE: In her second run for state rep, Selma Pierce hopes to get both sides talking in a divided Legislature

While Evans won with 53% of the vote in 2018, Republicans have identified the race as a chance to peel back the commanding majorities held by legislative Democrats.

A retired U.S. Air Force major who served as mayor of Monmouth, Evans has the support of the state’s influential labor unions. Mike Powers, a member of SEIU 503’s political action committee, described Evans as a “common sense candidate” and a “100% supporter for working people.”

Evan Sorce, chair of the Marion County Democrats Executive Committee, said that pandemic has complicated the campaign. He said that Pierce can buy ads and mailers. But the party’s typical door-to-door strategy to reach voters in-person has largely been scuttled by the pandemic, he said.

But he pointed to factors favoring Evans. When Evans, 50, was elected in 2014, the district was nearly evenly split between registered Democrats and Republicans.

Since then, Democrats have expanded their registration over Republicans. Sorce (whose day job is staff assistant to Evans) said it’s still a swing suburban district but voters in these areas have been souring on President Donald Trump.

“We think that Evans having a ‘D’ next to his name and Pierce having an ‘R’ will help,” he said.

But he said the party isn’t taking anything for granted.

Pandemic response

When it comes to schools reopening for in-person instruction, Evans said he favors deferring to local school authorities because they better understand how much room they have at their facilities to socially distance students.

Gov. Kate Brown has issued specific benchmarks communities must meet with Covid transmission before schools can open classrooms. He said there’s community pressure to reopen schools and the economy. But he supports the current data-based approach to making sure they don’t fully reopen until the virus’ spread has dropped below a certain level.

He said that had the governor waited another month to get the infection rate down “we'd have a different environment than we do right now.”

He added that he understands the pressure to reopen from working families but he’s concerned about how the virus will spread as people congregate indoors during cold weather.

Legislative priorities

If reelected, Evans said he’ll work again on reshaping the state’s emergency response framework. His detailed proposal calls for reorganizing the Oregon Homeland Security Council to coordinate disaster responses.

“There is still too much confusion and too much competition among different players over who's in charge,” he said.

He’d also develop plans for rally points for emergency survivors, facilities for emergency responders and others. His proposal also calls for stockpiles of personal protective equipment, in short supply early in the pandemic.

“The simple fact is we were caught flat-footed because nobody cares about emergencies until there's an emergency and then we throw money at it and call ourselves smart for having survived,” he said. “I'm done with that.”

He proposes that the Oregon state fire marshal be made independent of the Oregon State Police and that the Office of Emergency Management be taken out of the state Military Department so the agencies can focus on their respective missions. His proposal would base staffing levels on a formula and not previous budget allocations as they are currently. He would also increase the number of state troopers and firefighters as part of beefing up Oregon’s ability to respond to major emergencies.

Economy

While Oregon’s economy is adding back jobs and the state saw an upbeat revenue forecast, Evans is concerned.

“I don't believe that the (economic) recovery is actually sustained right now,” said Evans. “I think that we're in a pause.”

He said he’s worried that the construction industry is slowing, which he said will ripple through the economy.

He proposes that the state to negotiate with the SAIF Corp., Oregon’s largest workers’ compensation provider, for a 10-year $2 billion loan. The funds would be drawn from publicly owned insurers to invest into infrastructure work that would create private jobs. He also said the state should also use targeted grants to help areas of the state struggling to recover.

Homelessness

The governor has issued a moratorium on evictions through the end of the year to avoid boosting the number of Oregonians without a place to live. But Evans said that will leave some landlords unable to pay their mortgages so the state needs to respond to both sides.

Evans said the National Guard could build hangar spaces with heat and showers to people who’ve lost housing. He said these spaces could later be used as low-barrier shelters in the winter or to store more emergency equipment.

Evans also said he will at some point propose legislation to require new houses under 3,000 square feet to include renewable energy features or builders to invest in renewable energy elsewhere. He said this will encourage builders to make smaller and more affordable homes.

Police reform

In June, legislators approved reforms to limit police chokeholds and the use of tear gas.

Evans said that many police agencies already no longer use chokeholds. While the measure was symbolic “sometimes symbols matter.”

He said there was a move to completely outlaw the use of tear gas. But Evans helped negotiate a compromise with police groups that it could be used in riots. He said that police should have that option in volatile situations because otherwise police would only have more forceful means of suppressing a riot.

“It was critical that we don't take it off the table completely,” he said, “But there has to be a more formal process. And quite frankly, cops were fine with that. They don't like to do tear gas any more than anybody else.”

Evans, who has the backing of several law enforcement groups, said the state has a chronic shortage of police officers. Having more officers, he said, would allow them to engage in community policing. That approach would help officers understand the individual situations of community members (for instance, if someone had a mental health issue) and could respond more appropriately.

Campaign cash

Total contributions: $349,203.23

Total spent: $307,709.81

Top five contributors:

Future PAC, House Builders (Democratic Party-backed political action committee), $673,705.50

Democratic Party of Oregon, $237,556.26

Citizen Action for Political Education, $162,875.90

Miscellaneous cash contributions $100 and under, $95,633.07

Oregon Trial Lawyers Association PAC, $94,827.80

 Contact reporter Jake Thomas at 503-575-1251 or [email protected] or @jakethomas2009.

SUPPORT SALEM REPORTER'S JOURNALISM - A monthly subscription starts at $5. Go HERE. Or contribute to keep our reporters and photographers on duty. Go HERE. Checks can be sent: Salem Reporter, 2925 River Rd S #280 Salem OR 97302. Your support matters.