By Pat Caldwell – The Enterprise
VALE – Cliff Bentz believes he can make a difference in national politics.
That optimistic sentiment is a trademark of sorts for the 67-year-old lawmaker who spent a good share of his childhood in the high desert sagebrush and juniper trees that dot Malheur County.
Since his appointment to the Oregon House more than 10 years ago, Bentz collected accolades from fellow lawmakers and constituents and became something of a political fixture in Salem. He is now a state senator representing a big chunk of eastern Oregon.
Now, though, he is setting his sight on a bigger goal – the seat in Congress held by Rep. Greg Walden (R-Hood River).
Walden announced last week he won’t run for reelection, triggering a series of political moves, including Bentz’s own.
And with Bentz now seeking federal office, state Rep. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, has declared he wants to succeed Bentz in the Senate.
With the country – not to mention his state – bitterly divided along political partisan lines, why would Bentz step into the political dogfight that is the modern-day political arena in Washington?
“The real question is, why wouldn’t you?” said Bentz last week.
Bentz said his decision is more about the logical next step for a politician of his experience rather than a surprise.
He said he intends to parlay his experience into results.
“I will be in a position to defend our way of life out here and what is important to us. I think that is where I need to go if I am going to have the chance to use all the stuff I’ve learned in Salem,” said Bentz.
The 2nd Congressional District includes most of eastern and central Oregon and is considered a Republican stronghold. With the exception of Bend, the district is distinctive for its rural nature and sparse population.
Bentz, an Ontario attorney raised in Drewsey, started his political career as a school board member of the Ontario School District and the St. Peter Catholic School in Ontario. In 2008, he was appointed by the county commissioners in the House, replacing the retiring Tom Butler.
It was in the House where Bentz came into his own as a politician. He evolved into a savvy Republican lawmaker with crucial knowledge of water and tax policy and helped spearhead and craft a $5.3 billion transportation plan that the Legislature passed in 2017.
Bentz remained in the House until 2018, when he stepped into the Senate to replace Sen. Ted Ferrioli.
In the Senate, Bentz became an expert on carbon policy and was a key GOP critic of the plan fashioned by Democrats during the last session to pass a sweeping bill to limit greenhouse gas emissions in the state.
The carbon emission bill dominated the 2019 Legislative session and Bentz was one of 11 Republican senators who walked out of the Capitol to prevent a vote. The legislation later died.
Bentz said one reason he is ready for Washington is that he has grown weary of fighting battles in the minority party in the Legislature.
“I’ve learned in the years I’ve been in Salem we Republicans, we seem to be becoming more of a minority. That makes it extremely frustrating to get anything done,” said Bentz.
If he wins, he said, he won’t be faced with a dwindling base of Republican support.
“We do have a president who is Republican and that is good and we have a Senate that is Republican and that is good. That means in the House it is still better because at least you have leverage. We don’t have leverage in the Oregon Senate,” said Bentz.
Bentz realizes some may perceive that he would be powerless because of a lack of federal lawmaking experience. He doesn’t agree.
“Sure, you could say you are brand new and you are just there. But I’ve learned that over the years if you put your nose to the grindstone, you can get stuff done. We have a wonderful platform to build on because of Greg Walden. So, whomever goes back there will have a huge advantage,” said Bentz.
Bentz said his campaign is in full swing and he isn’t sure if he will stay in Senate.
“In the short term, I am busy trying to find out exactly what the rules are, what I can and can’t do. My hope is that I could be able to serve in the short session and that is what I am going to try to do,” said Bentz.
Bentz said if he wins the primary in May, he would resign his Senate seat.
“The reason for that is you want to give whomever will take my place as much time as possible to get a head start,” said Bentz.
Bentz said he reached out to Walden after he announced he would not be running again.
“I simply texted him to thank him for all of his years of hard work and he called me to encourage me to run,” said Bentz.
Bentz hasn’t asked for Walden’s endorsement.
“I would be crazy not to and at some point, I will ask for it,” said Bentz.
The question of who could replace Bentz was partly answered last week when Findley declared his intentions.
“I think it is critical that far eastern Oregon be represented. After spending two years in the House, I am pretty-well suited for the job,” said Findley.
Findley said he is certain he will have a challenger for the Senate seat.
“I am going to be all out. I think this is a good opportunity and I think I bring a lot to the table,” he said.
Findley said he has no intention of resigning from his seat in the House.
“I can still be in the House and still run,” said Findley.
Findley worked in the fire service for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and then served as Vale city manager before he retired.
Monday, Harney County Commissioner Mark Owens, a Republican, announced he will run for election to the House seat now held by Findley.
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