Southwest Oregon is Trump Country. As the Democratic nominee for the Oregon State Senate, District 1, Shannon Souza hopes to buck the trend and join the “Blue Wave.”
In one of the most conservative areas of Oregon, Souza will face incumbent Republican Dallas Heard in the general election on Nov. 6.
While we have been focused on the important national mid-term races throughout the country, let’s not forget the equally important state and local contests. District One – which encompasses all of Curry County, plus southern Coos County, southern Douglas County, western Josephine County and all the northwestern-most portion of Jackson county – is a microcosm of rural America. The area is heavily Republican and went for Donald Trump in large numbers in the 2016 presidential election. The demographics largely are representative of a huge swath of voters the Democratic Party has failed to reach out to in recent elections.
Souza told me she knows the challenge she faces, as she hopes not only to join the so-called “blue wave,” but also to capitalize on the fact that we have a record number of women running for elected office this year.
If this really is the “year of the woman,” Souza, a resident of Allegany, said she is determined to answer the call.
Souza, 46, is a 23-year resident of the cities of Bandon and Allegany. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering from Santa Clara University in 1993. Currently, she is the owner and principal engineer of Sol Coast Companies LLC, a full service sustainability consulting and contracting firm she founded in 2003.
She also is a member of several boards and committees, including the Professional Engineers of Oregon, the Workforce Development Committee for Solar Energy, and the Construction Trades Workforce Development Task force for Southwest Oregon. She also is a certified water rights examiner, solar thermal and electric state tax credit examiner, and a member of the National American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners.
I conducted an hourlong phone interview last week with Souza, and we covered a variety of issues, from campaign finance to poverty.
Some of Shannon’s answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Q There are rumors out there that the Koch Brothers may contribute close to a million dollars to your opponent. Do you have any knowledge of this?
A I have no actual knowledge of this. A lot of this information is available at the Oregon Secretary of State website (the Koch brothers have contributed $1,000 so far to Mr. Heard), but I really haven’t been very focused on my opponent and what he’s doing in this area. What I will tell you, though, is that it wouldn’t surprise me at all if it were happening. In fact, if you go back a few years ago, Senator Arnie Roblan, who ran for State Senate just north of where I’m from, he had a $250,000 race. And in his last campaign he had to raise over a million dollars. And this is for a State Senate seat!
Q That’s an awful lot of money for these types of races. How can someone like yourself, who’s new to this, compete with that kind of money?
A This really makes it difficult for someone like myself because some of the more top-dollar donors are having to play defense for incumbent Democrats due to the mark on their backs the Republicans have placed on them. Right now, my campaign is spending lots of time with some of the affluential donors who are more in line with the types of policies I would like to pursue, answering questions that they may have. By the end of August, if I can demonstrate that I have a good grass-roots base of support … that I’m running a solid campaign … that I’ve established a relationship with some of the more influential members in my district … then the hope is that they will start to recognize our campaign and start to contribute so that I can amplify the message and see that the word gets out.
Q It’s quite the challenge. And the Citizens United decision (the 2010 Supreme Court ruling that opened the door to unlimited corporate donations) certainly has made running for office even more daunting, especially for newer candidates. Do you agree?
A Most of the money I have received up to now are from individuals from the district. Many of these donors are really stepping up to the plate, with donations of up to $1,000. As you know, many retirees are moving into the district. They see the meddling going on from corporations and are willing to become politically engaged … and with these donations they are doing just that.
Q You mention the fact of retirees moving to the area. Let’s be clear: This area of Southwest Oregon is Trump country. In fact, it’s pretty much a microcosm for the rest of rural America. Trump won this area by huge margins in 2016. It’s overwhelmingly white. Democrats have failed to reach these types of voters in the past, and the headwinds for you are incredibly challenging. One thing I’ve noticed, however, is that while registration for the district favors Republicans by a margin of 31,000 to 21,000, non-affiliated and Independent voters have combined to equal roughly 20,000. How are you planning to reach these voters? What can you do to win them over?
A Well, around last September, some of my friends and myself were looking to try to make a difference politically, and we came up with something a bit non-traditional. We started what we called a “drinking civilly” campaign at a local brewery in my area. Once a month, we started inviting people from both sides of the political aisle for some frank discussions on a variety of topics. The first hour is a moderated discussion on topics such as gun safety, the opioids crisis, housing etc. … The topics are decided on before hand and are strictly a listening session. The locals do all of the talking, and they come up with problems and solutions that they think might work. I write down everything they say. The second hour is a mix and mingle where the participants are able to use dots to mark the previous comments and solutions as to which ones were the best or most important to them. At the end, we tally up the results and it really gives us an idea as to how to prioritize what is important to individuals in this district. It’s been a wonderful tool to reach out to people, regardless of political ideology …
So we’re taking this on the road throughout the district over the next few weeks. We’ll be talking about wildfires and forestry management. This is one of the ways we’ll be reaching out to those non-affiliated and independent voters you mentioned. It’s like, would these voters come out to a League of Women Voters event? Probably not. But they sure might come out to have a beer with one another.
The other non-traditional thing I’ve been doing evolves around the fact that I play (guitar) in a band. It’s called Che’s Lounge. We’ve been around for 10-12 years, and I write most of our songs. I find that when I’m out playing with the band, it’s a great way to engage people. I find that during breaks and whatnot, people are often talking about local issues. So I’ll be doing this over the next few weeks as well. People come out for the music and a good time so it’s a great way to talk civilly to people in a sort of unconventional way.
Q So as far as the numbers crunching goes, what kind of participation is it going to take to carry you to victory?
A My path to victory is to get all of those registered Democrats, progressives and indivisible groups to show up to vote. As I’m out in the district, I’m meeting with the organized portions of these groups and accepting all of their invitations … a way to solidify that base of support, if you will. And the other thing I will need is to get about 60 percent of those non-affiliated voters to vote for me as well. In addition, I’m also targeting about 20 percent of registered Republicans in the district. I’m going to do this because for one thing, I’m a small business person who is fiscally conservative, and I will not propose anything that I think cannot be adequately funded … I’m really focused on economic development in our district and the Republican business owners I talk to know that we don’t have a jobs problem — we have a workforce development problem. My background in this area, my participation in various task forces related to housing and workforce development, has begun to turn heads within this community of Republicans. Bottom line: We need to ensure that rural counties have a powerful workforce that is trained, supported and connected to 21st century jobs.
Poverty and health care
Q Moving on to some specific issues facing the district, how do you plan on addressing the troubling topic of poverty? Clearly the trend lines have not been heading in the right direction.
A A recent housing study conducted in Coos County, one of five counties that exist in the district, showed that even in the most affluent city, the poverty rate was 20 percent. And that rate increased to upwards of almost 48 percent in other areas. We are in a state of imminent danger here and we have to work together, across the political divide, to address it. We’re talking generational poverty that’s been on an upward swing since the 1980s. We have chronic substance-abuse issues. We’re talking about some of the highest suicide rates in the country. We have to focus on integrated mental-health solutions as a way to disrupt this endless cycle of poverty.
Q Speaking of mental health issues, maybe you can touch on how the Affordable Care Act has been implemented in Oregon and how mental health in particular is being addressed through the Act?
A We see a couple of positive things happening here. Many insurance companies and health-care providers are realizing that when we defer maintenance on societies’ mental health, we pay for it dearly in the long run. So they’re beginning to implement an integrated approach using their own funding, that basically begins to address mental health as early as the first well-baby exam. In fact, once a person has entered the Medicaid system, we have psychologists popping into exam rooms just to see if there might be something the individual might be dealing with that they otherwise may not seek treatment for. This person-to-person contact is already having a positive result. It’s preventing some real issues from occurring later on down the line.
The other thing we see happening in the State Legislature is a comprehensive educational initiative that will include an integrated mental health and nutritional component. Diabetes and mental health are such huge social issues that we end up paying for, and if we can address this through retooling our educational system and finding adequate funding, we will be much better off in the long run …
Q Another issue currently affecting much of Oregon, and the rest of the world for that matter, is climate change. In your career, you’ve kind of been at ground zero as far as seeing how the climate is affecting our state. What are some of your ideas concerning climate change and how it’s affecting Oregon specifically?
A Currently, the State is looking at a couple of funding components that will address this issue. One is a cap- and trade-style funding system, which is currently being implemented in California. The other is a carbon tax system … Transportation is one of the industries that will most likely be affected, as well as other greenhouse-gas emitting businesses. The question is, once the funding becomes available, how are the funds going to be used? Since much of these funds will be coming from transportation entities, Oregon’s constitution requires that half of the money must go back into the roads. The other half will in most cases go toward earmarks. In fact, I’m on the board of Oregon’s Solar Energy Industry Association as well as the Professional Engineers of Oregon, and I work on policy for both. One of the first objectives is to invest in those communities hardest hit by climate change. We look at both mitigation as well as adaptation … For example, we’re experiencing many more wildfires … how do we interject and adapt to this?
Q Obviously our coastal communities are very susceptible to climate change are they not?
A Yes, our coastal communities are some of the hardest hit as it pertains to climate change. Recently I sat in at the Coastal Caucus, a group consisting of members of the Oregon legislature, federal and state, whose districts reside on or near the coast. Professionals, business owners and scientists were also present. What we’re looking at is a comprehensive approach to forestry management, which will make our forests more fire resilient, as well as being more effective at sequestering carbon. These are just a few of the areas we’re looking at as to how to use future funds as it relates to climate change.
Natural disaster preparedness
Q Are you concerned that with the rural nature of our area, we are woefully unprepared to deal with a major natural disaster such as an earthquake, a very probable occurrence, according to experts?
A As you know, we import all of our energy here on the coast. We get most of our electricity generation from up north via the hydro dam on the Columbia River. Or it’s trucked in via sketchy roads through the Coastal Mountain Range. In other words, we here on the coast are literally at the end of the line as far as electricity is concerned. We know that these supply lines are susceptible to failure at any time, via a strong storm, for example, so a massive earthquake would be devastating. So why don’t we look at some solutions such as a community based micro-grid? In other words, instead of having to import all of our energy, let’s see if we can produce it right here. Wouldn’t it be great if in the event of a natural disaster, we could still keep our lines of communication open and working? Or have the ability to still have clean water?
To be clear, as it is now, it could be over a year and a half before we would be receiving any meaningful assistance in such a catastrophic seismic event. Most of our bridges and culverts will fail. Many people will lose their lives. So this particular issue is extremely important to me, and it’s why I would use those earmarks I talked about earlier towards preparing this area for the inevitable natural disaster that surely will be hitting us at some point. And we should also make sure our schools are preparing students for such an event. Things such as first aid, learning how to communicate … all of these things will help in the long run.
Q As you know, the timber/logging industries still play an important role in the economic development of our area. What are your views on these industries as far as the role they play, not only as far as the economy, but also as it pertains to the environment?
A I’m absolutely for a balanced approach when it comes to this industry. I’ve been doing environmental project management for 23 years. We’ve seen the pendulum swing wildly in different directions going back to the 1970s when we totally over-logged, to not long after with the Endangered Species Act, which basically put a halt to any logging whatsoever. We can’t have these extremes on both sides of the issue. We will need everyone at the table … the logging industry … ecotourism … salmon industries … environmentalists … and of course the federal and state governments. With the massive wildfires we’ve been experiencing, the current policies simply are not working. Currently, Governor Brown has established a task force that’s looking at such a balanced approach in the Elliott State Forest. I’m very optimistic that we can achieve success but it’s going to take cooperation, not the hardened positions many of the special interests have taken in the past.
Q Finally, we haven’t discussed your opponent, Dallas Heard, very much. Anything you’d like to say regarding him?
A Well, what I will say is that I recently met him, and I informed him that I had responded favorably to all requests for a public forum so that both of us could debate the issues. As of right now, he has not responded to any of these requests. He wanted to let me know that he wasn’t aware of any such invitation. So, I will get in touch with the League of Women Voters again and remind them to make sure he gets one. I’ll keep trying!
Note: There is a forum scheduled on September 22 in Brookings, Oregon. Shannon Souza has accepted this invitation. As of the release of this post, Dallas Heard had not yet accepted. If that changes, I will update accordingly.
Interview originally posted at onthefencevoters.com