Selma Pierce, candidate for House District 20. (Courtesy of Selma Pierce).

Selma Pierce said that her preparation for politics came from working as a dentist.

“Being a dentist, you talk to a lot of people, whether you know them or you don't know them,” said Pierce, Republican candidate for state representative. “For a person to feel comfortable and happy to come to you, you have to create a dialogue.”

Pierce, 66, is making her second run against state Rep. Paul Evans, a Democrat elected to House District 20 in 2014. The seat includes west and south Salem as well as Monmouth. In 2018, Evans won the seat with 53% of the vote and just 2,000 more votes than Pierce.

RELATED COVERAGE: Paul Evans wants to change how Oregon responds to emergencies. But first, he must beat a well-heeled challenger.

The wife of 2016 GOP gubernatorial candidate Bud Pierce, Selma Pierce previously worked as a legislative aide for the late state Sen. Jackie Winters. She’s also a retired dentist and has been involved with Oregon Mission of Mercy, a free dental clinic for underserved populations.

In 2018, Democrats had a 33% voter registration advantage to the 29% held by Republicans in the district. Republicans now make up 28% of voters in the district with unaffiliated voters making up 33%.

In the primary, Pierce beat Kevin Chambers, who ran to her right. The Republicans see the race as an opportunity to chip away at Democrats’ 38-22 House majority.

Jim Moore, director of the Tom McCall Center for Policy Innovation at Pacific University, said during a Salem City Club forum last month that the seat is in play.

“Party identification is going to become a crucial thing, as well as incumbency for Paul Evans,” he said.

Ask how her race could tilt the state’s political balance, Pierce pointed to 2011 when the Oregon House was evenly split between both parties. She said she doesn't think this election will produce that result but will hopefully get both sides talking to each other more.

Pierce and the local GOP

Pierce has been endorsed by the Salem Area Chamber of Commerce, the Oregon Small Business Association, the Marion County Farm Bureau and other business-oriented groups.

However, she does not have the endorsement of the Marion County Republican Party’s Central Committee.

Jeff Heyen, chair of the Marion County Republicans, said Pierce didn’t submit to the county party’s endorsement process, which requires a candidate to appear before a candidate assessment committee. From there, the committee recommends to the county central committee whether to endorse.

“Selma never reached out to the party for help at all,” said Heyen, who noted that it was unusual for a local Republican candidate to not have the local GOP’s backing.

Pierce said that she went through that process when she was sought appointment to the Senate seat left vacant after Winters died last year.

“And they were not very pleased with my positions,” she said.

In particular, Pierce said her pro-choice position didn’t sit well with the local GOP. She said that she supports requiring parental notification of minors seeking the procedure and is against late-term abortions.

She said she decided not to seek the local GOP’s endorsement.

Heyen said the race is tough and it’s unclear how the lack of the party’s endorsement will affect voters.

Priorities

While serving as a high school math tutor, Pierce said she was struck by how engaged kids were in a home construction class as they applied geometry to building a door frame.

If elected, Pierce said she’ll seek to expand career and technical education, which she said will help boost graduation rates. She said more public-private partnerships to expand career and technical education should be encouraged. But she didn’t have specifics on how she’d foster more career and technical education.

Pierce said local police tell her that from third to half of their work involves people with mental health issues. She said police have begun incorporating mental health specialists in their work. She called for refocusing training in trauma-informed de-escalation techniques.

She said she’d like to see an expansion of CAHOOTS, a mobile crisis intervention team pioneered in Lane County that’s been held up as a possible model for the rest of the state. But she didn’t have specifics on how to do that.

Pierce would also like to see the state set up “enterprise zones” that offer tax incentives to grow startups and retain small businesses. But she didn't have specifics.

“Small businesses are such a large part of our local economy,” she said. “If they can thrive, workers will thrive, where workers can thrive, their communities thrive.”

Pandemic response

When it comes to schools, Pierce is concerned about the effects of distance learning on kids and working families.

Some schools have begun allowing in-person instruction for small cohorts of students with special needs or those learning English, which she said is appropriate. If those cohorts are successful, she said she’d like to see them gradually expanded through a hybrid of in-person and online learning.

Pierce said she’d like to see some easing of state pandemic orders.

“I'd like to see a little bit of opening up of the restrictions so that people have a little more discretion at their own place of business of how things should be done,” she said, noting that Oregon has fared relatively well during the pandemic.

Pierce couldn’t cite any particular restriction she would change. While she didn’t have specifics, she said she’d like to see a little more leeway with food and beverage businesses that have struggled with indoor seating. Pierce pointed to one restaurant that was using plexiglass to create mini-dining rooms.

But didn’t have specific legislation she’d propose to address pandemic restrictions.

Budget

One job for the Legislature when it convenes in January is to approve a new two-year budget for state government. It’ll do so amid uncertainty created by the pandemic.

Pierce was reluctant to offer specifics on what she’d prioritize given that the economy remains in flux. She said that while the most recent state revenue forecast was rosier than expected, the state could see a second wave of the virus. She said it’s time for the state to tap its rainy day funds.

“I can't predict the future,” she said. “So I don't know what will come up.”

Police accountability

In June, lawmakers reform Oregon laws governing police conduct in response to national outrage over police brutality. They restricted the use of tear gas and chokeholds while making police disciplinary records more accessible. Pierce described the reforms as “reasonable.”

“I think there's still a lot of work to be done really with law enforcement,” she said. “Without community support, law enforcement is not very effective.”

She said that there is still distrust of law enforcement in some communities, particularly among Black Oregonians. Pierce said that communities skeptical of law enforcement should get together with police to work through these issues.

She said that these conversations have already begun with the NAACP, local law enforcement and the faith-based community development organization Salem Leadership Foundation. In a follow-up email, she said this work needs to be a “community effort.”

Republican walkout

This year’s legislative session was marked by Republican lawmakers walking out over a controversial climate change bill.

“It's a political tool that's used by both sides,” said Pierce, who pointed to how legislative Democrats also walked out in 2001 over a redistricting plan.

She said that the walkout is evidence that “communication has broken down terribly.” But Pierce wouldn’t say whether she would have walked out with other Republicans because she wasn’t a legislator at the time.

Climate change

Pierce said that climate change is real. She said Oregon should take a leadership role as it has on other environmental issues, such as the landmark bottle bill.

“The question is, are our research universities working on this?” she said.

She said that Oregon’s universities could come up with a solution that could be used in places like India and China.

 "I think we need to set a goal, but we need to be using attainable methods that people will generally go along with," she said.

Campaign cash

Total contributions: $578,275.87

Total spent: $519,624.22

Top five contributors: 

William Pierce (Selma Pierce's husband), $380,990.53

Selma Pierce, $377,161.6

Miscellaneous cash contributions $100 and under, $45,172.99

Promote Oregon Leadership PAC (a Republican-backed political action committee), $40,124.38

Mountain West Investment Corp., $40,000

Disclosure: Salem Reporter co-founder Larry Tokarski is president of Mountain West Investment Corp.

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

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