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Eugene Weekly : Cover Story : 10.21.2010

 

Pat vs. Sid

Job-maker takes on jobless conservative in nonpartisan county race 

story by Alan Pittman • photos by Todd Cooper

Pat Riggs-Henson goes door to door
Sid Leiken
Pat Riggs-Henson

A woman who’s spent the last three decades helping thousands of people find jobs is running door to door for county commissioner against the unemployed Republican mayor of Springfield and the timber, gravel and development barons who back him.

Pat Riggs-Henson, a Democrat in this nonpartisan race, says she’s knocked on more than 11,000 doors in the district that includes Springfield and northeast Eugene. “If the doorsteps are any indication, I think its going to be close,” she said of the thousands of people she’s talked to. Riggs-Henson retired after 29 years with the Lane Workforce Partnership helping thousands of people find jobs and said she often counsels the many unemployed people she meets while canvassing. “I’ve helped people get jobs while I’m walking. I’m having a ball.”

Her opponent Sid Leiken, a college drop-out, was twice elected mayor of Springfield after running unopposed for the unpaid, largely ceremonial job. Leiken told The Register-Guard in March he was unemployed after dropping out of a race for Congress. Leiken abandoned his race against Peter DeFazio for a run at the $73,000 commissioner job after the state found that he was guilty of taking campaign cash for his own personal use. Leiken did not return calls requesting comment.

Riggs-Henson has raised $114,000 for her campaign, with large contributions from a variety of local labor unions and the Oregon League of Conservation Voters. She served for 25 years as the chief financial officer for the Lane County Central Labor Council and 14 years on the Lane Community College Board.

Leiken has raised $68,000 with large contributions from timber barons, freeway construction companies, gravel pit companies, developers and land speculators. The County Commission influences federal timber policy and votes on new freeways, gravel pits and plans to rezone areas — decisions that can dramatically increase land values for developers and speculators.

Riggs-Henson said she would seek to balance the need for jobs with the need to protect the environment in making land use decisions that affect gravel pits, developers and speculators. “I want to be able to walk in the woods and fish in the rivers. It has to be in balance,” she said.

Leiken has said he has worked as a consultant for developers in the past with his firm SWL Consulting. But many developers are struggling to stay afloat now in the housing collapse, and SWL now appears officially defunct. 

According to state records, SWL was dissolved last year after Leiken failed to pay a $100 business name renewal fee for the consulting firm that lists his home address. The state requires people doing business in Oregon to register their business names. According to the state, doing business and entering into contracts and opening bank accounts without a registered name can be difficult. 

Leiken’s wife, who worked as a manager with Liberty Bank (which went insolvent this year, got a federal bailout and was taken over by another bank), wrote a $2,000 check to compensate Leiken’s campaign for campaign cash that state regulators found Leiken had illegally taken for his own personal use. 

The state fined Leiken $2,250 for a violation of state ethics law in the case. Without the state law, campaign contributions could become simple personal bribes for elected officials.

State ethics law would prohibit an elected official from involvement in issues involving their consulting clients. A computer search of Springfield City Council minutes found instances where Leiken had recused himself for conflicts of interest involving his wife’s bank business, but none for SWL consulting.

In an earlier Voter’s Pamphlet, Leiken claimed he had a college degree. But when confronted about the claim at a recent commissioner candidate debate, Leiken admitted, “No, I do not.” 

Riggs-Henson partnered with businesses for three decades to help local workers find jobs for the Lane Workforce Partnership before retiring two years ago. She said she had up to 100 people in her caseload at a time, helping many of the displaced workers retrain. “I helped thousands go back to work.”

Leiken has claimed success “creating jobs” in Springfield. “I’m proud to have attended the dozens of ribbon cuttings,” Leiken said in a campaign flyer. But since Mayor Leiken was reelected unopposed in 2006, Springfield has lost 15,000 jobs and seen its unemployment rate double, according to regional employment data from the state.

Riggs-Henson said that in knocking on thousands of doors, she’s seen the suffering that high unemployment has caused up close. “The pain is right now,” she said. “Jobs is number one” in priorities, she said. “That financial security is so important.”

Leiken has offered few details of how he would create jobs if elected. 

Riggs-Henson said the state could create up to 50,000 jobs by encouraging government workers in Oregon to retire a few years earlier by offering affordable health insurance. The health insurance would be paid for by the state retirees but cheaper than individuals could obtain because the state could create a large group coverage pool, according to Riggs-Henson. “This should not cost the state or anyone else money,” she said. 

The high cost of individual insurance before Medicare kicks in at 65 is a major deterrent for early retirement, Riggs-Henson said of the proposal. “Even if it opened up 10,000 to 20,000 jobs statewide, wow!” 

Besides jobs, another big challenge for the county is its budget. The county is facing the threat of a steep drop in revenue from federal timber payments.

Both Leiken and Riggs-Henson say they won’t raise taxes to close the budget gap, and both call for increased public safety services but offer few specifics about how they’d pay for it or what they might cut to balance the budget. 

“You can’t go back to the people right now for any taxes. They’re just reeling,” Riggs-Henson said. 

As for what to cut, “you have to put it all on the table,” she said, and figure out “what are the things that are absolutely essential.”

Riggs-Henson said she doesn’t aspire to run for Congress as Leiken did. She said she is not a career politician angling for a higher office, so she is not afraid to make tough decisions on the budget. “You have to be strong enough and not worried about political opportunities in the future,” she said.

Riggs-Henson said she’d use her expertise of serving 10 years on the state PERS retirement board, four as board chair in the 1990s, to tackle the complex problem of the increasing employee retirement costs required in government contracts. “You have to understand that system to come up with a creative solution,” she said.

While Leiken’s Republican campaign for Congress butted heads with the Oregon Democratic Congressional delegation that’s key to securing federal payments to the county, Riggs-Henson said she’s worked closely with DeFazio and Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley for years. 

Riggs-Henson’s campaign website lists endorsements from most local city, county, state Legislature and Congressional elected officials including DeFazio and former Springfield mayors Bill Morrisette and John Lively. Leiken’s website does not list any endorsements.

Riggs-Henson said she would take a moderate, balanced approach to development, while Leiken supported a developer bill to push for more sprawl by splitting the Eugene-Springfield growth boundary. Leiken has complained that Lane County commissioners have questioned the Springfield growth boundary expansion plan he favors. Leiken has also supported reducing developer fees that were designed to reduce taxpayer subsidies of development.

Riggs-Henson said she appreciates Eugene’s efforts to first examine if it can accommodate growth without sprawl. She said it’s important to consider the increased taxpayer cost of extending police, fire, school and other services to pay for sprawl.  But, she said, “I don’t want to stop all growth.”

She said she appreciates the jobs that gravel pits provide but, because of neighborhood and environmental concerns, “there’s some places you’re just not going to put a gravel pit.” She said she would study pit proposals on a case by case basis, and listen to experts and read all the material before deciding. “I’m a readaholic,” she said.

Leiken has touted decisions by PeaceHealth and companies like Sony to locate in Springfield. 

But, Riggs-Henson said, “you can’t count the jobs you’re just taking from one city and moving into the other.” With PeaceHealth’s move from downtown Eugene to the edge of Springfield, “people in Eugene just have to travel farther.”

Riggs-Henson said she helped find jobs for some of the Sony workers displaced when the compact disc maker closed after collecting millions in tax breaks. She said it’s important for tax breaks to be linked to promises to hire locally and to tax break clawback provisions if the corporations end up laying off workers. “There has to be something there that’s for the people.”

Riggs-Henson said, if elected, she wants to continue to reach out and listen to thousands of people on their doorsteps. “There really is an anger and distrust” in government, she said. “We have to start rebuilding that credibility one house at a time,” Riggs-Henson said. “I’m doing it up close and personal because that’s how you serve.”