District 53 candidates square off

State House seat represents most of Deschutes County

By Rachael Scarborough King / The Bulletin
Published: October 13. 2006 5:00AM PST

The Republican and Democratic candidates who would represent most of Deschutes County in the state House of Representatives squared off in a heated and sometimes personal forum in Bend Thursday afternoon.

Gene Whisnant, R-Sunriver, the incumbent, and Bill A. Smith, his Democratic challenger and a member of the Bend-La Pine School Board, answered almost 20 questions each during the hourlong forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Deschutes County. Whisnant and Smith spoke before a crowd of about 20.

The questions, which were submitted by the League and audience members, covered everything from the candidates’ philosophies of government to low-cost housing to civil rights.

But both candidates continued to return to the issue of bipartisanship, each claiming he would be the best to represent District 53 in the House.

House District 53 covers most of Deschutes County outside Bend, including Redmond, Sisters, Sunriver and La Pine.

“One candidate has not demonstrated the ability to think for himself and has let his party leaders do his thinking for him,” said Smith, a longtime teacher and track coach in Bend. “I have demonstrated during the 40 years of service to this community to keep an open mind, and I have put a face to my decisions.”

Whisnant, who was appointed to office in 2003 and re-elected in 2004, said he is proud of his votinng record in Salem, in particular his “hard work and bipartisan efforts.”

“I’m trying to run a clean campaign but my opponent says … I’m trying to work behind closed doors,” Whisnant said. “I’m not like that, my mother wouldn’t (approve of) that if she were alive.”

Whisnant pointed several times to the more than 900 bills and the budget passed by the Legislature in the last session as evidence of his bipartisan efforts.

“My priorities will always be to help you with your problems,” he said.

Smith was not convinced.

“Nine hundred bills and what do we have to show for it?” he said, raising his voice. He added, “I’ll get a little emotional about things I feel strongly about.”

Whisnant is a retired U.S. Air Force colonel who lives in Sunriver. Smith lives north of Bend.

When asked about specific ballot measures and legislative actions, the candidates agreed in many respects.

They both said they would oppose instituting a sales tax and support a “rainy-day fund” for education and clarification of Measure 37’s property rights provisions. They also said they would vote against Measure 41, which would change how state income taxes are calculated, and Measure 48, which would limit state spending based on population and inflation rates, in the upcoming election.

They disagreed sharply over Measure 46, which would amend the Oregon Constitution to allow limits on campaign contributions.

“I think that any restriction on freedom of speech is bad,” Whisnant said. “You can go online and see where I got money, how I spent money, and it’s open to you.”

Smith said he is in favor of contribution caps.

“I support limiting campaign funds because my opponent gets all the money because he’s an incumbent,” he said. “Not that I would take any money. I have not taken one penny from the lobbyists.”

Andrea Blum, president of the League of Women Voters of Des-chutes County, said that one of the main goals of the nonpartisan group is to provide voter education.

“We’re one of the (groups) who actually do have the candidates in the room at the same time,” Blum said. “We think it’s important to have each candidate answer the same question right after the last and so people can compare.”

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